The Hollow Hills by Mary StewartThe Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
Series: Arthurian Saga #2
on January 1, 1973
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 475
Source: Purchased: ebook

Keeping watch over the young Arthur Pendragon, the prince and prophet Merlin Ambrosius is haunted by dreams of the magical sword Caliburn, which has been hidden for centuries. When Uther Pendragon is killed in battle, the time of destiny is at hand, and Arthur must claim the fabled sword to become the true High King of Britain.

Both Obsidian Blue and I read this book this week, so we thought we’d do a joint post about our respective thoughts!

Moonlight Reader:

I struggled with this book for about the first 50%. It took me probably close to two weeks to finish that section – I kept setting this one down for other books that were more engaging. The point at which I decided that it was definitely time to finish the book, though, was also the point at which I got past the halfway mark!

Mary Stewart is a very talented writer, and there were many passages in this book that were dreamy and evocative for me. One of my favorites was this one:

It was a hind, white against the winter forest. She scudded through the pines like a ghost, bounded along the top of the hollow where we had lain, stood poised for a moment in view at the edge, then vanished down the steep, boulder-strewn slope, straight into the path of the two outlaws.

This occurs while Merlin is fleeing with the infant king, trying to reach a place of protection. The imagery of the white hind is powerfully mythological, seen over and over again in Arthurian legend and other fairy tales.

The white hind reappears later in the book, to lead young Arthur to the sword of Macsen Wledig, which will come to be known as Excalibur.

The Hollow Hills ends with the crowning of Arthur as king. I had forgotten that these two books really focus on the time before the crowning. I’m not sure that I ever read The Last Enchantment, which deals with his actual kingship. In spite of the fact that the beginning of The Hollow Hills was a bit of a struggle for me, I do plan to move on to that next book in the series. Overall, I would give this book four stars – 3 for the first half, and 5 for the second!

Obsidian Blue:

Oh the struggle. The struggle. I was in the same boat as Moonlight Reader. I kept picking this book up and putting it down all week and was trying very hard to become engaged with the story. I really loved “The Crystal Cave” because for the first time ever we got to see Merlin as a boy and find out about more about his background. I ended up feeling okay about this book, at least okay enough to finish the third and fourth book in this series, but not all fired up about it. I do like books that deal with the legend of King Arthur, but I found this book told solely from Merlin’s point of view to be lacking in development for a lot of the key people in the story.

The narration with Merlin was strong in this book, but honestly I didn’t really get engaged fully until book four ‘The King’. Most of the book until that point was really Merlin riding back and forth to Uther and Ygraine, discussing repeatedly what to do about the unborn Arthur, and then making sure that after was born that he was raised away from the court in order to protect him. When Merlin eventually decides it is time to make himself known to Arthur at least the book pace gets better, but honestly I was still bored. I thought at times how foolish Merlin was about things and how harsh he always seemed to judge the women around him in this story which started to irk me a lot. One thing that does still work though is that we get that how Merlin was raised shapes the man he is now. Technically, Merlin has a claim to the throne as much as Arthur does, but he only wants to be near the boy he has grown to love and serve him well.

One thing that Stewart shows I think is how few options women had in this time period. I pitied Ygraine who we don’t see much of after the first part of the story, and even managed to pity Morgause a little bit though she’s terrible. I really wish we could have spent more time with the women in this story, because honestly Ygraine and Uther’s story and what their great love led to was tragic in so many ways. We find out Uther is still out there bedding women and his fiery love for Ygraine has cooled due to the question of whose baby is Ygraine carrying (her dead first husband or the newly crowned king) and after giving birth to girls cannot give him another son. I always thought this pairing was so similar to King David and Bathsheba that I was surprised that Stewart did not mention them in the final notes on the characters/legend of King Arthur.

Morgause you can a time or two get a sense of the character, but unfortunately most of that was washed away with her being made over to just be a nasty vindictive girl who is angry that her sister is looked on more favorably.  I would have liked it more if Morgause did what she did because she was upset that as a woman with some magic that she was being overlooked to rule and instead was looked onto to just marry. Her final showdown with Merlin (verbally) was really good and I did think it was clever to have Merlin who is supposed to have so much power, overlooked Morgause because I think he really didn’t think too long on most women.

The character of Uther was just straight a jerk for most of this story. Stewart manages to give him some nuance here and there, but I didn’t care for the guy in “The Crystal Cave” and I didn’t really care for him at all in this book until we get to book four in this story. We finally get to see that the decisions he made have caught up to him, and we see a king in recline who regrets that he was too foolish to listen to his nephew Merlin.

We do get more details about the family that fosters Arthur, and unlike with other tales of King Arthur, this family loves him and is not treating him badly as they did in other tales. I liked that part because it never made sense to me that a hidden son of a king and queen would be treated like dirt and no repercussions would ever be paid.

The writing was quite good, but overly descriptive in my opinion. And the flow was stop and start. As I said, I was pretty bored with most of the story until the final act so to speak, so kept plugging along and reading.

The setting of Britain at this time you definitely get a sense of all of the parties at play in the story. Though at times it felt like people were just getting back and forth to each other quite easily for a time before trains, planes, and automobiles.

The ending when Arthur is acknowledged as king was great, but also bittersweet, because Merlin realizes that things are at play now that are going to lead to Arthur’s end, but not before he does great things.

Must I remind you of the prophecy?

It was not my prophecy, it was made before I was born; that the sword should come by water and by land, treasured in darkness and locked in stone, until he should come who is rightwise king born of all Britain, and lift it from its hiding-place.