The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart: A review

The Hollow Hills (The Arthurian Saga Book 2)The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have set myself the goal of reading Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga series this summer. This is the second book in that series.

Once again we see events through the eyes of Merlin the Enchanter, as he narrates the story for us. We begin with Merlin traveling through the Mediterranean area after having safely delivered the baby Arthur into the keeping of those who will protect and raise him over the next several years.

When Arthur is six years old, Merlin feels the call to return to England and to take up his own task of teaching and protecting the child. He finds Arthur strong and healthy and growing into the kind of human being that he had hoped to see; the kind of man who can be a brave, just, and benevolent king.

The story of Arthur is so well-known, so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, that it seems pointless to spend space here on exposition. Stewart has taken those well-known facts, both historical and legendary, and has woven them into a tale of prophecy, magic, and valor.

It's also a tale of jealousy, spite, hatred, and death. These latter characteristics are often traceable to the female characters in the story, who seldom come off as having a positive impact on events. Indeed, even the mention of one of the female characters often seems to portend shadows and disaster in the visions that Merlin has of the future.

In relating the saga of Arthur and Merlin, Stewart does manage to reveal to us the diversity of people who made up the population of Britain in the days of - what was it? - the fifth century C.E.? If Arthur ever existed, and Stewart argues that there must at least have been a prototype, then that is probably the time period in which he lived.

Of course, Arthur and his story have strong Welsh roots, but there were many other cultures that contributed to the lore. From the "Old Ones," the people of the forest, to the Picts, the Saxons, the descendants of Roman soldiers, and others, this was a very diverse group of people. Moreover, they worshiped many different gods and Merlin pays proper homage to them all. It was particularly interesting to me to see the way that the author integrated all of them into the story.

Stewart tells the story in a relatively straightforward way, without trying to manufacture suspense. After all, we know what's going to happen before it happens, so why should she bother to try to fool us?

Throughout the body of the work, the author gives ample foreshadowings of the conflicts and betrayals that are to come. Although Merlin is able to see into the future, there are things which he simply cannot change.

Stewart was a very good writer and her creation of the settings of the story and the atmosphere were particular strong points both in The Hollow Hills and, previously, in The Crystal Cave. I would expect that to continue throughout the series.

Near the end of The Hollow Hills comes the death of Uther Pendragon and the anointing of Arthur as the High King. Now, on to the glory days of the establishment of Camelot and to everything that came after.

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  1. I'm eager to find out how Stewart depicts Guinevere; I have never been her fan, mostly because she couldn't keep it together and in the process destroyed Camelot.

    1. Yes, that will be interesting. So far, Arthur's mother and his sister and half-sister have not come off well, but then they didn't in the original legend either. Some of the humbler women in the story are depicted more positively, but this is obviously a very male-centric tale.

  2. I like your summer goal! Mine is to get fully caught up on Sara Paretsky. But I am a fool for any Arthur story and have long wanted to read this trilogy. Mary Stewart is indeed a good writer and a good researcher. Isn't it interesting how many ways the Arthur legend can be told?

    1. It seems that we never get tired of it and there are so many versions, but they all have certain points in common. I do envy you having a summer of Paretsky ahead of you.


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