The Merlin Trilogy Critical Essays

Mary Stewart


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Mary Stewart is well known for the gothic romances that occupied the first half of her writing career, but she changed to the genre of historical fiction when writing the Merlin trilogy. Most writers who have retold the “matter of Britain” (the Arthurian legends) set their stories in a pseudo-medieval England based on the great medieval sources of the legends: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory. Although Stewart also uses these romances as sources for her plots, she opts to set her version of the story in late fifth century Britain, the time of the real though shadowy historical figure on whom the legends are based. This choice of setting profoundly affects the telling of her tale. Approaching the subject as historical fiction rather than romance, she strives for realism and as much historical accuracy as research allows her. Her Merlin claims to tell the “factual” events on which the legends are based.

Stewart deals with the fantasy component of the Merlin Trilogy in a manner in keeping with her vision of the historical period. She borrows the ancient Welsh legend of the Sight as the basis for Merlin’s visionary ability. In a story set when the practices of pagan and Christian religions crisscrossed, Merlin naturally sees his power as coming from the gods. It sets him apart from other men because he experiences a spiritually dynamic universe in which the gods intervene in human affairs. Merlin’s role is like that of a biblical prophet: When he works magic, he is serving as a channel through which the god speaks or acts. The supernatural thus directs the action of the books, although Stewart depicts events as realistically as she can.

By using Merlin as her...

(The entire section is 705 words.)