The Last Enchantment, by Mary Stewart
The importance and vulnerability of young children stood out to me. In this book, King Lot attempts to kill the child of Arthur and Morgause. To do this, Lot kills all of the newborn children in his kingdom by placing them in a boat and releasing the boat into the ocean. He kills a village of babies in order to ensure the death of a single boy that might threaten his crown and power. Newborn children have an aura of unknown potential. They are incredibly vulnerable and innocent, yet they have seemingly unlimited potential. Any child can mature into a great world-influencer. The slaughter of children seems to be a reoccurring theme. There’s an analogous Biblical story. Beyond the story in which Pharaoh murdered children in order to eliminate Israel’s savior, there is also the story of King Herod and Jesus’s birth. Jesus was prophesized to be the King of the Jews. In an attempt to eliminate the child’s threat, Herod kills all of the newborns in Bethlehem, 2 years old and younger. Similarly, in Arthurian legend, Arthur is hidden in order to prevent any attempts on his life. Then later, King Lot slaughters all of the newborn children in his village in a futile attempt to kill Morgause’s bastard, Mordred. Just as Jesus was not killed during Herod’s massacre, Mordred was not killed during Lot’s massacre. Merlin, during the telling of his story, directly compares Lot’s actions to those of King Herod. To be compared to Herod is not how I want to be remembered.
Overall, I was surprised with the emotional connection that I had with this novel. I felt like I could relate to the characters, like they were personal friends. Most notably, Merlin and Arthur. Both of these men had great power and were kings among kings. What made them leaders?
(1) Physical power. Arthur’s power was a combination of good decision-making, personality, and physical skill. He was a phenomenal warrior and did not shy away from physical fights. He dueled willingly one of his petty kings, Melwas, when the petty king attempted to assault Arthur’s Queen. Arthur demonstrated his swordsmanship and courage in front of all his people by winning the duel. Similarly, Arthur lead his men in battles, defeated many Saxons, and easily slew some petty thieves when they attempted to murder Merlin on the side of the road.
(2) Wise decision-making. Arthur was wise. He made good decisions. He understood war tactics, he knew when to consult his advisors, he knew when to consult Merlin, and he listened to Merlin’s advice. One example where Arthur demonstrated his maturity, was when he refused to confront Lancelot, even though he knew about the Lancelot/Guenevere affair. Arthur preferred to maintain his friendship with his best friend, and so he permitted his wife to receive the love that Arthur himself could not give. Arthur permitted the two to spend time alone together, despite knowing about their affair. He showed logical thinking and an ability to consider the larger universe beyond his personal life. Impressive!
(3) Personality. Arthur possessed people skills. He was witty. At banquets, he would talk briefly with each of his kings and knights. He shared stories, allowed them to ask questions, and mad jokes. He made sure that he listened to each of his subordinates, and he made them all feel appreciated. When he visited inns, he made the inn keeper, cooks, and maids feel honored. He thanked them much for their hospitality and great services. He was always pleasant. When he met a shepherd at the site of the future Camelot, he assured the shepherd that the fields would be protected by the king. Although the shepherd was simple-minded, Arthur respected the man. Arthur showed respect to all people in his kingdom, regardless of their position.
(4) Physical attractiveness. Lastly, the king was good-looking. Good looks always help. It helps to draw attention. People like to look at pretty faces and handsome bodies.
Merlin’s power was different than Arthur’s. Merlin gained his power from knowledge. I think it is difficult to fully understand how knowledge equates to power. That’s why the book attributes Merlin’s power, partly, to God. We know that knowledge holds power. But it is hard to explain how this power manifests itself. Physical power and decision-making skills are easy to identify and associate with power. Knowledge though… it’s not clear how it is related directly to power. How is power manifested through knowledge? I think that the author does a good job of explaining this “power” as magic. And that’s why history describes Merlin’s power as magic. Magic is the term that we use to describe manifested knowledge. For the most part, Merlin is simply wise. He knows about poetry, medicine, and engineering. However, he also has a power to understand when a message comes from God, like a Biblical prophet. A prophet understands God’s will, and he speaks it to the people, good or bad, regardless of self-harm that the words may cause. In the same way, Merlin reports his visions, regardless of their content, good or bad, to the king. When Merlin speaks something as truth, Arthur accepts it without question There was unbreakable trust between these two men - another source of power. Great minds, united, and in full trust of one another, yield a combined brain that is 10x more powerful than any single brain. Having intelligent colleagues cannot be understated. It is important that intelligent men associate with other intelligent men. This yields great power, and is part of the reason for the Merlin/Arthur legacy.
The other aspect that made this book enjoyable was the use of female characters. Females were used primarily for their beauty and sex appeal. Their main purpose in this book is to be a body for raising children. Pretty to look at, a tool for men to satisfy their lusts, and vessels for bearing children. It’s interesting that this book was written by a woman and that as the author, she even claimed that women are impossible to understand. Merlin refers to their sex appeal as “black magic.” He recognizes that women can manipulate and influence men using their sexuality. This is referred to as a dark art and highly detestable. Hence, only women can be witches. But Merlin also recognizes that women satisfy a special place in a man’s life. He recognizes that they offer something extremely pleasurable and desirable that can enhance a man’s life. Arthur and Merlin are also powerful figures, partly because they are capable of resisting “black magic.”
Merlin eventually loses his power to a female, but it is not a negative sequence of events, like I always imagined. I always thought that Merlin lost his powers to some evil queen. However, this novel does an exceptional job of portraying Merlin as a regular person, a mortal, fleshly person. As a mortal human, Merlin must die. And before he dies, he passes on his skills willingly and gladly to his heir, Nimue. It makes sense that Merlin has an heir, so I really like this ending. Yes, Nimue pretends to be Ninian, a male character, and deceives Merlin. However, with time Merlin finds that he is attracted to his apprentice. Then, Arthur reveals Merlin’s blindness, and we learn that Ninian is actually a girl. But at this point Merlin has already began to pass his skills onward. Merlin accepts his feelings for Nimue, and they become lovers. Merlin thoroughly enjoys his time with Nimue. He is happy to love her and teach her his powers. He is happy that his legacy will live on through Nimue. And Nimue in turn serves King Arthur loyally. She is a loyal and trusted advisor, just like Merlin was. There is nothing shameful about Nimue’s acquisition of power. It was for the best of all.
I did not like the ending in this novel. I thought that it was lame. The author was faced with the challenge of writing from Merlin’s perspective, but preserving Merlin’s life after his power is transferred to Nimue. Obviously, Merlin cannot write about this own death. So after Nimue claims the entirely of Merlin’s power, Merlin dies. But not really. He can’t write about his own death. So, Merlin is buried and thought to be dead. However, he was actually only poisoned. Merlin was thus buried alive in his crystal cave. He eventually recovers from the poison and escapes his burial. After arising, Merlin is fully human. No power. The last 100 pages describe Merlin’s rebirth. At first, I thought that it might be an allegory to Christ’s resurrection. It wasn’t. It was simply the author trying to justify the tale. Nothing significant happened after Merlin’s ascension. The magician was simply a frail, old man. Maybe this is actually part of the legend? I don’t know. I doubt it.