Aging Enchanters and Sinister Plots – more of why I love sf/f

The cover of The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
I couldn’t find a nice large image of the same cover art as my copy on line, so spent a while trying to scan the gold paperback. The best image I got was this one, even though you can see my hands and iPhone reflected in the cover. (Click to embiggen)
Last week I wrote about the first two books in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy and how they became the standard against which I measure all Arthurian stories. The third and fourth books in the series came along some time later, and consequently influenced me in very different ways.

Before I get into that, I want to remind you that voting for the Hugo Awards ends tomorrow. If you are a Sasquan (WorldCon 2015) member and haven’t completed your ballot online, do it now before the servers get bogged down with the rush. The ballot is here. If you aren’t a member, you can still buy a supporting membership to become a voter, but since processing a membership might take a while as more traffic hits the servers, time is running out!

At the time The Last Enchantment was published, in 1979, it was usually referred to as the last book in the Merlin Trilogy…

As far as I can tell, Mary Stewart didn’t set out to write a trilogy. When The Crystal Cave was published in 1970, it made references to future events, but since Arthurian legends could be expected to be well known to most of the readers, that didn’t necessarily indicate she was certain she wanted to write sequels. Stewart’s intent seemed to be primarily to humanize Merlin and give us the story behind the legend by telling his story from childhood up to Arthur’s birth. The Hollow Hills, published just three years later, covered Arthur’s childhood and rise to being acknowledged at Uther’s son, but again from Merlin’s point of view. Neither books original editions make any mention of it being a series.

The Last Enchantment didn’t come out until 1979, when I was a senior in high school. My particular copy says that it was published in July of 1980, and I’m pretty sure I bought it shortly thereafter. This book deals with Merlin’s later years. It features several incidents where Merlin becomes deathly ill and vanishes for various reasons, spouting rumors of having died. During one of those he did spend months completely out of his mind, living in the wilderness as a sort of feral hermit.

Since this book covers the period of the Arthurian legend during which Arthur is king and leader of the round table, is has an even larger number of contradictory legends and folktales for Stewart to create plausible explanations for. I think she handled them if very clever ways.

Such as the abduction of Queen Guinevere. It happens while Arthur is away on either a diplomatic or military endeavor (I don’t remember which), and the culprit in Stewart’s version is Melwas (the name used in the oldest known version of the abduction of Guinevere). Arthur’s senescal, Cei, brings the news to Merlin, who uses his powers to find Guinevere, but when he sees her playing chess with Melwas in a vision, becomes convinced that she is willingly having an affair with Melwas and is quite reluctant to rescue her. The amazing thing that happens in this book, particularly considering that it was written in the 70s, is that when Arthur returns, he believes Guinevere’s story of being an unwilling captive who did what it took to keep Melwas from raping or killing her. Not only does Arthur believe her, but he actually lectures Merlin for his sexism!

That isn’t the term that’s used, but in a fairly long speech he chastises Merlin for not understanding women. He explains to Merlin the fact that women have almost no power in society, and must use their charm, wit, and diffidence to keep unethical men from harming them. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that Stewart, a woman, would understand this and write about it. And feminism wasn’t exactly a new idea in 1979, but believe me, it did not appear often in the pages of science fiction at the time, and it was even rarer in fantasy, particularly the sword & sorcery kind.

The amazing thing is that Merlin is convinced by Arthur and apologizes to the Queen.

This revelation of Merlin’s lack of understanding sets up another way for Stewart to give more plausible explanations of contradictory legends. She deals with the many conflicting Ninian/Nimue stories first by creating two characters named Ninian: a young boy Merlin wants to take as an apprentice, but who drowns before he can begin, and a second young boy Merlin fancies might be the first Ninian re-incarnated. Merlin trains the young man for some period of time before Arthur, who had been away, meets the apprentice and has to take Merlin aside and inform him the young man is actually a young woman, who disguised herself in order to escape the fate of most young peasant women of the era.

It is more than a bit amusing that the great Merlin, with all his psychic powers, didn’t realize this, but it’s also quite believable, given Merlin’s ego, his complete inexperience with the “fairer sex,” and the absent-minded professor aspect of his personality. Exactly why Merlin and Nimue (the girl’s real name) fall in love is a little unclear, but the mellowing effect she has on Merlin is refreshing.

One of the recurring themes of this last book is the waning of Merlin’s powers. His psychic gifts seem to fail a few times, only to come back. Not unlike the several times Merlin’s health is imperiled. Merlin has one more instance of falling so ill he is believed to be dead, and after being laid to rest in his beloved crystal cave, Nimue becomes Arthur’s advisor in his stead. Merlin’s not quite finished, yet. He revives, assists Arthur and Nimue with another problem, and then retires as a hermit to the cave.

During the time of Merlin’s last near death, events had transpired causing Arthur to bring his half-sister, Queen Morgause, and her sons (one of whom is Mordred, the son Arthur fathered when he didn’t realize Morgause and he were siblings). Merlin has another recurrence of the dark vision from an earlier book of Mordred being Arthur’s undoing; Guinevere displays a similar foreboding about all of Morgause’s children. But Merlin knows this is all out of his hands, now, and retires to the life of a hermit.

The Last Enchantment is a first person narrative by Merlin, so it couldn’t end with his actual death. The final scene finds Arthur visiting the cave, having an evening of good conversation, and then leaving as he always did, bidding Merlin to wait for him until he came back, and Merlin replying as he always did that what else did he have do but wait for Arthur’s next visit. It wasn’t really melancholy, but Merlin’s tone while describing his cleaning up after the visit conveys the idea that this is the last time Merlin will be alive when Arthur comes calling.

I enjoyed this book so much, that once again I dug out the first two books in the series and re-read them. While enthusing about them to a couple of my friends, I learned that neither had ever heard of the earlier books, and I loaned them my copies, which they read rather quickly. One of them liked the first one so much, he bought himself a boxed set of the three books so he could read through them all without us trading one copy each back and forth between us.

We had a lot of very interesting debates about the three books. Looking back, I realize now that some of our disagreements stemmed from the fact that I was being evasive about some of my insights to the book. I read the first book before puberty, and before I had any idea that I was gay. I read the second book after the onset of hormones (and a few instances with some of my classmates) had revealed that secret, but it was a time during which I was emphatically fighting my feelings.

I had spent the next few years after the second continuing that fight, still hopeful that if I just bargained hard enough with god, he’d take the feelings away. But by the time I got to the third book, I’d had enough (very furtive, guilt-ridden) experiences with other guys that I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t straight. I had also rejected all of the fundamentalist aspects of my religious upbringing, though I was still trying to find a way to stay in the faith. Merlin’s struggle with his own faith (he always believed that his magical talents were gifts from god, though sometimes he isn’t sure what form that god actually takes) certainly reflected many of my own thoughts about spiritual matters. It gave me new metaphors for contemplating what my own relationship with the divine, if it existed at all, could be.

The two close friends I was having these talks with were both attending Bible colleges, while I was attending community college. And they expressed varying degrees of discomfort and dismay about some of my speculations about the meaning of The Last Enchantment. Oddly, we had far fewer arguments about the feminist themes in the book, despite one of the friends in question having been a very typical evangelical male chauvinist. I think the fact that he was, at the time, finally falling in love himself may have made him a bit more sympathetic to Guinevere’s tale.

The way Stewart was able to weave together storylines that were plausible—and often not very magickal at all—but that could easily explain many of the contradictory Arthurian and Merlin folklore and legends, gave me another perspective on the stories I had learned in church. They gave me hope that a queer nerd who loved paleontology, astronomy, and cosmology might still carve out a place of my own within the community of faith in which I had been raised. Eventually, I would come realize that I didn’t need to force or contort myself into a community that didn’t want me; that it was okay to recognize that that chapter in my life was over; that the fate of the people who clung to beliefs I felt were inadequate was out of my hands. But until I reached that point, it was enough to know that there is always more than one way to look at any situation.

Note: I thought I could cover both the third and fourth books in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series in this blog entry, but I see I’ve gone on even longer on this one than last week. So, we’ll have to discuss The Wicked Day next time!

4 thoughts on “Aging Enchanters and Sinister Plots – more of why I love sf/f

  1. Huh, that is interesting. I did not think I had read any Mary Stewart books (not because I was avoiding them, but that they were on my “someday I’ll get to them” reading list), but I KNOW I read that Ninian/Nimue story. I remember really liking the way that was handled.

    A bit of searching tells me that, yup, that was her story I read, with Bedevere taking Lancelot’s traditional role and all that. I can see how her version would be a standard against which to measure other adaptations. 🙂

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