I first read the Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy (of which this is the first book) during my Arthurian phases back when I was in college (actually, it was right after Hubby and I got married; he came to the marriage with these, of which I had never heard of, but would have discovered eventually, I suppose). I remember being captivated, enthralled, entranced, charmed and totally engrossed by them. I haven’t picked them up in 15 years (now you know how long we’ve been married…) and I was wondering whether or not they stood the test of time.
I’m glad to say, they have. Or at least, this one has (since I haven’t read the other two, yet). Stewart takes the legend — from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain — which, from what her Author’s Note stays, is terrible history, but a really good story. But, she goes above and beyond the standard Arthur fare, to give us Merlin’s story. And that is precisely what I loved about it. The book begins when Merlin is six years old, bastard son of a Welsh princess (Niniane in this book). He doesn’t know whom his father is; his mother isn’t telling anyone. He lives an uncomfortable, if quiet, existence in his grandfather’s house. He discovers, when he’s about 11, a cave and a master, Galapas, and his gift for the Sight — for prophecy, for visions, for Seeing. From there, when his servant accidentally kills the king — and the future king is no friend of Merlin’s — escapes to Brittany and into the hands of Ambrosius and Uther, to learn, to grow, and to help Ambrosius become King of Britain. And then the standard Arthur legend picks up (with a lovely side trip with Merlin raising Stonehenge; I remembered liking that part from the first time, and I still do): Uther desires Ygraine, Merlin helps him, and thus Arthur is conceived.
The thing I really liked (both times) is the humanization of Merlin. He’s too often made mystical, super-human; a wizard, a Druid, a Mage. Here, he’s just a guy with a gift for a god to use as he will and someone with a lot of smarts. He’s a normal person, with wants and desires and hopes and fears (though he doesn’t fear death, because he’s seen his own death), and while he’s not really ambitious, he’s at least willing to support others’ ambitious. He cares for people — his servants, his friends — and he’s genuinely concerned about them, even when it seems he’s not.
The other thing is how very modern Merlin feels himself to be. It’s 500 AD, and yet Merlin’s way ahead of his time. (Which isn’t hard, considering how barbaric it was!) A lot of what is attributed to “magic”, Stewart explains with logic, chance, and good engineering. It’s quite refreshing.
Now, on to read the other two.