RogerBW's Blog

The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart 18 August 2023

1973 Arthurian fantasy, second of its series. Merlin watches over Arthur, from his birth to his coronation.

As in the first book, Merlin here is more pushed around by prophecy and feelings of what needs to be done than he is an active character. At the same time, since nobody else has the prophetic gift, they come over to him as ignorant and blundering. It makes the whole business feels oddly directionless at times, and the ongoing sense of inevitable doom can be a bit much, even as it all makes sense.

There's a traditional Christian approach to morality that anything good you do is God working in you so you don't get the credit, and anything bad you do is your own failure so you do get the blame. I was reminded of that here, because the one thing that goes substantially wrong here – Merlin refusing to teach the young Morgause magic and fobbing her off with obvious partial excuses rather than explaining why he can't, thus leading to various bad things later – is clearly depicted as his own fault. (And in a series that's mostly managed nuanced characters, she comes over as pettily evil for the sake of it.)

The descriptive language is lovely, as always, with the sense of love for wild and open places that one finds in Buchan and Sutcliff. (Indeed, I got a strong sense of Sutcliff's Roman Britain here, fallen to decay.) Perhaps more important to the true feeling of fantasy is the sense that magic and wonder could be found behind every tree (and not necessarily in a good way). The historical attitude in which religious and supernatural thinking permeated every aspect of someone's life is one that it's hard to capture as a modern writer, and Stewart does an excellent job of it even while omitting the large and blatantly miraculous events like a sword being handed up from a lake.

Of course, she changes around the elements of the legends, as everyone does; here Excalibur is the Sword in the Stone, as well as the sword of Magnus Maximus who went off to conquer Rome. Everything gets altered, but the core of the story remains.

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Previous in series: Crystal Cave, The | Series: Arthurian Saga

  1. Posted by David Pulver at 08:10am on 19 August 2023

    I remember reading and quite enjoying the Hollow Hills and Crystal Cave when I was 11 or 12. I don't have copies now, so I think I must have got them from a school or public library.

    I read Dune and Dune Messiah a few months after finishing The Hollow Hills, which must have fulfilled my quota for prophecy-doomed heroes for a few years...

    The Last Enchantment wasn't available at the time and I recall waiting impatiently for its release, and buying it when it hit paperback c. 1980-ish. (I still have it.)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:31am on 19 August 2023

    I think one of the tricks Stewart pulls very effectively here is to make her Merlin not a hero in many respects – he's got this job to do, and he does it, but he doesn't get much pleasure from it, and nobody would read this account and think "gosh, I wish I could be him".

  3. Posted by David Pulver at 09:33pm on 23 August 2023


    I think this was the first time Merlin was the protagonist in an Arthurian tale, something that has since become common.

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