The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart: A review
"The essence of wisdom is to know when to be doing, and when it's useless even to try." - Mary Stewart in The Last Enchantment
Seldom in Mary Stewart's telling of the Arthurian legend has it been useless for Merlin to try to affect events, and never when he's tried has he failed. But in this third installment of her series, Merlin is winding down. He feels his powers waning and longs to be able to pass off those powers to a worthy successor.
Fortuitously, he finds such a successor - a most surprising successor. Or perhaps the successor was brought to him by his god, even though Merlin had believed that the god had withdrawn his hand from his life.
This story, as in the two previous books, is once again told entirely in Merlin's voice, and after a while that makes for a pretty static narrative even when he is describing very active events. Arthur, in Merlin's telling, is never less than virtuous, honorable, magnanimous, and noble. Most of the men in his immediate circle are equally righteous. Except for the ones who betray him, of course, and they are scurrilous and malicious, without redeeming social value.
And the women. Ah, the women! Mostly they are either weak or entirely evil. I suppose that is one of the things that began to bother me about these legends. To borrow from a previous presidential campaign from several years ago, it's the misogyny, stupid!
So, on the one hand we have noble, upright men, except for a few bounders who are easily disposed of by the sword, and on the other, we have women who are either weak or evil. And that, in a nutshell, sums up the Arthurian saga.
And yet, I loved these stories when I was growing up and one of my favorite movies, which I saw countless times when it was in the theaters, was "Camelot." I didn't see any problems with the tales then. They were just swashbuckling romances and everything about them was good. Since then, you might say life has somewhat changed my perspective.
Careful writer that she was, Mary Stewart rigorously researched all aspects of the Arthur/Merlin saga, and she managed to weave most of the themes and major characters into her retelling of them. She gives us the two Guineveres, Melwas, Nimue/Niniane/Vivien, and, of course, Morgause and Morgan.
Moreover, she gives us the founding of Camelot itself, and the story of the bringing of peace to the land through Arthur's unstoppable force of arms. He never loses a battle and he is always heroic. His people love him for it, and they are in awe of his wizard, Merlin.
The Last Enchantment begins with Arthur established on the throne and takes us through his two marriages to two women named Guinevere. The first one ended in tragedy. The second one, as the story ends, is still in force, even though it has been a lonely one for Guinevere with her husband constantly away from home and on the battlefield.
But having watched "Camelot" to the point of having memorized all the lines all those many years ago, I feel pretty confident in saying that this one, too, will end in tragedy.
My rating: 3 or 5 stars