The Hollow Hills


The Hollow Hills is the middle volume of Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, and like a lot of second volumes it's a bit saggy -- it suffers from being neither at the exciting beginning of the story nor the important ending. The Hollow Hills covers the years between baby Arthur's conception at Tintagel, and his acclamation as the young king of Britain at the age of fourteen. This is the ground covered by TH White's classic (and one of my childhood favourites) The Sword in the Stone, where young Arthur is educated by Merlin, often in funny and surprising ways, to prepare him for his destined kingship. I can understand Stewart wanting to steer clear of this territory, but it's a shame that we see so little detail of their student-teacher relationship. It is however a lovely touch that bastard Arthur believes that Merlin might be his father -- that was very poignant, and plausible, too.

There is much less overt magic in Stewart's version of Merlin. He is brilliantly intelligent, a shrewd reader of men and psychology, educated and wise (though in these books he is not very old). He has 'power' -- mostly prophecy, but he can perform sorcery when necessary, but his powers are not as great as he lets people assume. In The Hollow Hills, the famed sword Caliburn is not plucked out from the stone as happens in the traditional legend, but is discovered by Arthur in a cave (where Merlin has hidden it) and there is a bit of showmanship, orchestrated by Merlin, to win over the doubting warriors. But Arthur has already proved himself on the battlefield, as well as being acknowledged by Uther, so there is less dependence on the magic or trickery to raise him to his throne.

However, a lot of this book is taken up with political jostling and ambushes in forests, neither of which I'm especially interested in, and I felt the story was dragging in the middle somewhat. But I'm looking forward to The Last Enchantment, and toying with the idea of reading some more Arthur versions this year. Does anyone have a favourite to recommend?

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