The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!

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26 thoughts on “The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart”

    1. I still haven’t read anything by Rosemary Sutcliff, which I know is hard to believe as I read so much historical fiction! I do now have a few of her books on my shelves (though not Sword at Sunset, unfortunately) and am hoping to find time to read them soon.

  1. Thank you for joining in Witch Week! You’ve definitely made me interested in continuing my read through Stewart’s Merlin books, and it’s good to be forewarned about the female characters.

    As for recommendations, I don’t know if you’ve encountered Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books — somewhat peripherally Arthurian. I haven’t read the Sutcliff yet but I would like to. And there’s a great series of interviews with authors here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/thompson-taliesins-successors — some of whom are rather surprising.

    1. And thank you for hosting Witch Week, Lory! I haven’t read the Susan Cooper books but have heard good things about them – although I didn’t know there was an Arthurian connection. I’ll definitely think about reading them. 🙂

  2. Oh, I do love the Dark is Rising books – though I think the ending is so sad.
    This was definitely my least favorite of the three, in part because of the women characters. But I am still interested to read The Wicked Day.

    1. I remember that you said you didn’t like The Last Enchantment as much as the first two. I agree with you about the women characters, but I did still love the book overall. Hopefully you’ll enjoy The Wicked Day more than this one!

    1. This trilogy didn’t really appeal to me initially, but I’m glad I gave it a chance as I’ve loved it every bit as much as her suspense novels. I think you’ll enjoy it. 🙂

  3. I loved these back in my teens and loved them to bits – time for a revisit I feel. And I’d second the recommendation for Diana Wynne Jones – her books are amazing!

    1. I wish I’d known about these books as a teenager as I’m sure I would have loved them then. Luckily they are the sort of books that can be loved by adults too! I’m sure I’ll want to revisit them myself at some point. 🙂

  4. I have read all of these except The Prince and the Pilgrim. I didn’t know it was connected to the others. The thing is, none of the women in the Arthurian legends are likable, which probably has something to do with the times in which the original legends were written. For a totally different interpretation, try The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley sometime.

    1. From what I’ve heard about The Prince and the Pilgrim, it isn’t really part of the same series as it’s about different characters – but still based on Arthurian legend.

  5. Have you read Stephen Lawhead’s version as well?
    I can not pass up an Athurian saga version, from picture books to deep literature.
    I cut my mythical teeth with Mary Stewart back in the days when I had to wait for the next installment. I am surprised my mother even allowed me to read these.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Laura! No, I haven’t read anything by Stephen Lawhead yet. I really haven’t read many Arthurian novels at all, but I do want to now that I’ve enjoyed Mary Stewart’s version so much.

  6. I know what you mean about it being sadder than the first two books. I enjoyed books 4 and 5 but still not as much as the first ones,
    I’ve had Sutcliffe’s Sword at Sunset for a few years now but haven’t got around to reading it. If you ever get a copy of it, maybe we could do a readalong sometime.

    1. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed the other two books, even if not as much as the first three. I’ll let you know if I do get a copy of Sword at Sunset – a readalong would be fun!

  7. I went through a period where I read everything Arthurian I could get my hands on. A lot of it was mediocre, just because that’s the odds.

    I also recommend Sutcliff’s SWORD AT SUNSET. She also did a 3 volume for kids distillation of the Malory version which is worth a look.

    Gillian Bradshaw’s first work was an Arthurian trilogy and Bradshaw can’t write a bad book. although when I revist now, especially the first one, the narrator’s naivete can be painful. Each volume has a different narrator: Gwalchmain/Gawain, Rhys his servant, Gwen.

    MISTS OF AVALON hit a lot of people in the feels, but I’m a dissenter. What I most remember is the amount of yawning it caused me, along with a fair amount of ‘give me a break.’

    GG Kay’s FIonavar Tapestry has an Arthurian thread that starts in volume 2. It does not retell the story, it brings the trio into the world to play and and resolve the story forever. And I love Arthur & Caval, his dog.

    TH White’s ONCE & Future King carries on the story that SWORD IN THE STONE started. Apparently the parts that are printed in O&FK were also stand alones and if you can find the stand alones there are differences, but I never have so I don’t know what they are, except for the SITS parts.

    For something completely different Sander Ann Laubenthal wrote an Arthurian (of sorts) set in contemporary Mobile Alabama, USA. The take on the Morgan sisters is stellar, IMO. And a lesser writer would have made that whole bit a separate novel.

    And there’s always Malory himself.

    1. Thank you, as always, for a great list of recommendations, Elaine!

      I will definitely read Sword at Sunset at some point – although, as I mentioned in my reply to another comment above, I have a couple of other Sutcliff books on my shelf which I should really read first. I actually haven’t read anything by Gillian Bradshaw yet, though she is on my (ever increasing) list of authors to try. I’ll consider reading her Arthurian trilogy.

      I’m relatively new to Guy Gavriel Kay, but I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him so far. I wasn’t aware that there was an Arthurian connection in the Fionavar Tapestry, so I’ll look forward to that.

  8. I realize I forgot to actually put in titles – so:

    Sutcliff Sword & the Circle; Light Beyond the Forest; Road to Camlann (also published as an omnibus under THE KING ARTHUR TRILOGY, apparently).
    I recently reread her SWORD AT SUNSET and it held up wonderfully.

    Bradshaw Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, In Winter’s Shadow

    Laubenthal EXCALIBER You see, Madoc the Welsh prince brought Excalibur over to America back in 1200 and the current Pendragon is looking for it. So are Morgan and Morgause….

    Adding: Elizabaeth Wein THE WINTER PRINCE which is a rather different take on Mordred and very well done. She then wrote sequels which take the story to Africa.

    Jo Walton’s The King’s Name and The King’s Peace, which sure looks like it is an alternate universe Arthurian with a female in the Lancelot role of loyal king’s champion and subject of gossip. The author has never (to my knowledge) agreed about this, but to me it’s unmistakeable.

    Christopher Tolkien brought out his father’s take on Arthur not long ago, IIRC it’s THE DEATH OF ARTHUR. Haven’t read it yet.

    1. Thanks for adding the titles. That’s very helpful!

      The Elizabeth Wein books sound intriguing. I did try to read one of her others a while ago (Code Name Verity) and couldn’t get into it, but I think it was probably just the wrong book at the wrong time. I would like to give The Winter Prince a try.

  9. I am pleased you enjoyed this series and that you think it will be a re-read in the future, that is the mark of really good book for me. Like you I have only read T H White’s Sword in the Stone however I watched and enjoyed many Arthurian films and TV shows. I would like to read more and I would particularly like to start with this series.

  10. One last recommendation that I noticed on my shelf: Parke Godwin’s FIRELORD. It has an energy (to me) lacking in most. It’s another set in the ‘proper’ historical context – dying Roman Empire – not the plate armor context of Malory, but reads very differently from them (Sutcliff, Bradshaw, Bradley, Wooley, etc.). At least IMO and all that. If it similar to anything I’d compare it to GILDENFORD which I was pleased you liked.

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