The second installment in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy picks up just where book one, The Crystal Cave, left off. Young Merlin has assisted High King Uther Pendragon to bed Lady Ygraine, and a child has been conceived. Pendragon declares to Merlin and Ygraine that he will not claim the child as his, but that he also will not harm him (in case Uther has no other sons, the boy must be prepared and safe). Merlin is charged by Pendragon and Ygraine to take their son, Arthur, into hiding and to prepare him for his birthright, without allowing Arthur or anyone else know who he truly is and what might become of him. Emrys is given to a neighboring minor king to be cared for and raised in noble fashion, but with the burden of being labeled a bastard, as Merlin himself was labeled. As the boy grows, Merlin has taken an expedition abroad, following the path that his god has laid for him, in search of an ancient and powerful sword, Caliber (Excalibur). After his journey is completed, Merlin returns to England, where he disguises himself as a caretaker of a small chapel near to Arthur’s home. Eventually, Arthur (known as Emrys) meets the magician Myrrdin one day by “chance.” Merlin teaches the boy what little he can of magic, but also all he knows of history, culture, and legend. The time comes when Uther’s health begins to fail him and, left without a son, he must call the boy to his side.
Characterization in this particular installment of the series is more deeply explored and more effectively delivered than in its predecessor. Two major characters from The Crystal Cave, Merlin and Uther, are afforded interesting growth and development. Uther’s daughter, Morgause, also has a notable presence and, though explored rather briefly, is clearly presented as a character to watch: mysterious, cunning, and dangerous. King Lot, Uther Pendragon’s most powerful rival, and other minor characters, like Bedwyr, Arthur’s trusted friend (fashioned after Lancelot, perhaps?) also add exciting and meaningful levels to the plot, most intriguingly, at times, when they are not directly involved but referenced or alluded to. Arthur himself, as Emrys, is drawn quite well; there is something innately regal about him, though he is growing up as an orphaned boy in a relatively low-royalty home. Comparisons to Merlin and Ambrosius (Merlin’s father / Arthur’s uncle and former High King) do not go unnoticed; even as a child, Stewart writes his character in such a way as to believe that this boy could one day be a powerful and revered leader. The handling of the crux, where Emrys discovers that he is Arthur, son of Uther, is also quite nicely done and gives the reader further appreciation of Arthur’s and Merlin’s characters.
As with The Crystal Cave, I was not entirely enthralled with the story, nor was I truly excited by the magical elements, which I found to be rather lacking for a Merlin story. Still, Stewart is a good writer and a good storyteller, both of which are necessary for the effectiveness of fantasy stories in particular. Because she draws Arthur’s character so well, and because of the many ways she re-imagines the more recognizable elements of the Arthurian legend (such as the sword in the stone), The Hollow Hills remained interesting almost despite itself. Had I not been a fan of the legend already, I may not have appreciated the book as much as I did; however, even readers who are not familiar with Arthurian legend will still appreciate how well the story is written; the pace is conducive to the experience, the language is appropriate and adds fascinating elements in its own right, and the prose is fluid in an enchantingly mystical kind of way (imagine taking a lazy raft down a slow-moving river, but with vividly wonderful views of a vibrant and blooming forest on either side).
It is clear that Stewart does her research. Not only does she know the legend inside-out and back-to-front, but she also takes the time to appreciate the difficulties that readers might have in interpreting the more elusive facts or in keeping track of ancient, extinct locations and kingdoms. She recreates the story in a more linear, accessible way, but with all of the deeper, permanent elements in tact (though changed to fit a modern, skeptical reader). Stewart does away with the majority of the true fantasy elements and reinterprets the magic of Merlin as legend which is based in fact and which grew exponentially over time; the reader witnesses perfectly reasonable, scientific, and creatively man-made events give birth to the well-known stories which have stimulated young minds and imaginations for centuries. In a way, it could almost be compared to an atheist’s reading of the Bible, wherein foundations of fact would be located and re-written to explain the more divine elements. It is a commentary on the human experience, on superstition, and on man’s struggle between his desire for fact and his fascination with the inexplicable.
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
“To remember love after long sleep; to turn again to poetry after a year in the market place, or to youth after resignation to drowsy and stiffening age; to remember what once you thought life could hold, after telling over with muddled and calculating fingers what it has offered; this is music, made after long silence.”
“Every life has a death, and every light a shadow. Be content to stand in the light, and let the shadow fall where it will.”
“I was left kneeling there in the choking cloud of dust, with the shrouded sword held fast in my filthy and bleeding hands. From the apse, the last of the carving had vanished. It was only a curved wall, showing blank, like the wall of a cave.”
“You and I between us, Merlin, we will make such a king as the world has never known.”