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Literature / The Merlin Trilogy

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Mary Stewart's influential 1970s series, The Merlin Trilogy, consists of:

  1. The Crystal Cave
  2. The Hollow Hills
  3. The Last Enchantment
  4. The Wicked Day (Part of the same continuity but from Mordred's viewpoint)
  5. The Prince and the Pilgrim (The story of Alexander the Fatherless and Alice the Pretty Pilgrim)

The series, as you might guess from the collective title, tells Arthurian Legend from Merlin's (and later Mordred's) point of view, from Merlin's early childhood to the Battle of Camlann. It takes a Demythification approach (except for Merlin's visions and ability to light fires without a flint, which appear to be real).

The Merlin Trilogy provides examples of:

  • The Ace: Merlin, in a rare protagonist example. Arthur, too.
  • Accidental Public Confession: Merlin's servant, Cadal, accidentally lets slip a remark that leads the boy to realize he is Ambrosius' son.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Mordred is wise and loyal, far more than his brothers, and there is mutual trust and love between him and Arthur. He never turns into a traitor. This, however doesn't prevent the battle of Camlann.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Uther is still a jerk and he still fought an unnecessary war against Gorlois, but at least he did not rape Ygraine, since she reciprocated his feelings and consensually slept with him. In fact, their marriage is quite happy.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Lot was already an antagonist, but in this version he is the one that orders the drowning of the infants, hoping to get rid of the child born from his wife's adultery, thus absolving Arthur and Merlin of their Nice Job Breaking It, Herod moment, though they are still blamed for it.
  • Alliterative Family: A child has parents whose names start with "Al", Alice and Alexander.
  • Alliterative Title: Given the first two books, it seems like that'd be Idiosyncratic Episode Naming for this series, but no.
    • The Crystal Cave
    • The Hollow Hills
    • The Prince and the Pilgrim
  • Arch-Enemy: Morgause considers Merlin hers.
  • Ax-Crazy: Most of the Orkney brothers to a degree, but especially Gaheris.
  • Babies Ever After: Alice and Alexander have one on the way at the end of their tale.
  • The Bard: One of Merlin's occupations when travelling abroad, or in need of a disguise; and he actually is a skilled harpist/singer.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Merlin is captured by some bandits who are discussing in their language what to do with him, thinking he doesn't understand, until he tells them in their own language who he is and what will happen to them if they don't release him.
  • Blood Knight: Gawain, Agravain and Gaheris, who all long for the battlefield and the chance for glory, and find themselves quite restless in and ill-suited for Arthur's peace.
  • Broken Bird: Ulfin, who spent his childhood being abused in every possible way by an evil Druid. It left its mark.
  • Cannot Cross Running Water: Averted but discussed. Merlin frequently gets seasick, and it is completely mundane. However, he considers it embarrassing, so when someone mentions it he tells them that wizards have difficulty crossing water.
  • Composite Character: Lancelot is combined with the older character Bedivere, known as Bedwyr in the series.
  • The Corrupter: Ygraine angrily claims Morgause was this to Morgan as a child, introducing her to witchcraft.
  • Death by Childbirth: Arthur's first wife, Guenever (drawing on a version of the legend where Arthur had two or even three wives by the same name in his life).
  • Death of a Child: Plenty of children die throughout the series, including the drowning of the infants.
  • Died Standing Up: King Uther, already on death's door, after he discovers his sword, which he was going to give to Arthur to declare him his heir, has been broken in the scabbard.
  • Does Not Like Magic: Uther. While he doesn't outright hate it, or even want to forbid it, he clearly doesn't think much of the practice, even when he and Merlin are working together; he is a soldier who likes swords and battles, not spirits and magic, or, as Merlin puts it, a man who has "no truck with gods."
  • Does Not Like Men: Morgan, from her own lips. She bemoans that they have all the power and none of the courage (referring perhaps to their fear of "witchcraft" like hers).
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Alice and her father, Duke Ansirus, get one in The Wicked Day as unnamed pilgrims. They encounter Mordred, who is searching for Merlin's Hill in Wales, and give him directions. Alice, along with her father, would later be one of the protagonists in Stewart's final book of her Arthurian saga, The Prince and the Pilgrim.
  • Evil Sorceress: Morgause and Morgan—although their magic seems to consist mainly of a weaker version of Merlin's Sight, as well as mixing perfumes and potions to entrance (or poison) men.
  • Evil Uncle: Merlin has one as a child. He even tries to poison the boy.
  • Excalibur: Named Caliburn in this series, it is the sword of Maximus that he used during his reign, brought back from Rome by his men after his death. The common legend in this story is that it was forged by the legendary smith Weland, before fading away with the rest of the old gods. Much of The Hollow Hills revolves around Merlin attempting to locate it to secure Arthur's accession, and Arthur's drawing it in the sight of all men.
  • Famous Ancestor: Magnus Maximus, or Macsen Wledig to the British (pronounced Mak-sen Oo-leh-dig), the ancestor of Merlin, Arthur and their kin from a century before and progenitor of their royal line. According to local legend, he was a Roman emperor who one day had a dream of a mysterious island to the west, where he saw a castle full of riches and a beautiful maiden. Upon waking, he immediately decided to find this land, and eventually found his way to Britain, where everything was just as he had dreamed it, including the maiden Elen, who he made his Empress, and he remained there as ruler. When Rome installed a new emperor in his absence, he raised an army of Britons and marched on Rome and conquered it, and ruled there forever after, while his heirs would continue to rule back in Britain. The factual account, according to Merlin, is that Maximus was a Roman commander in Britain who helped defend it from Saxon invaders, ushering in a time of peace. He was beloved by the islandís people, and even declared Emperor by his troops. He would have remained there, but his old generalís murder drove him to march on Rome, where he was defeated, and later executed. With Maximus dead, the brief peace in Britain was over, and there was no one to protect it from the invaders when they returned. It is to bring about a new time of peace and security in the person of Arthur that Merlin spends his life working for.
  • Faux Death: Merlin, poisoned years earlier by Morgause, suffers a particularly severe bout of the illness it left him and falls into a long coma which everyone mistakes for death; Arthur has his beloved mentor entombed in his cave at Bryn Myrddin ("Merlin's Hill"). Except of course, he's not actually dead, and has now been buried alive. If Stilicho had not shown up, though, he no doubt would have.
  • Fiery Redhead: Gawain has red-gold hair and is too hot-headed for his own good (or for everyone else's, given how much damage his attitude ends up doing).
  • Follow the White Rabbit: One day, a young Arthur spots a white deer while on the hunt. Following it leads him to the nearby lake where Merlin is, who tells him the animal fled to the island in the middle of the lake, Caer Bannog, which, popular superstition says, is home to a dwarf king of the Otherworld. Arthur follows it, feeling some touch of destiny in the air, and discovers Caliburn where Merlin placed it for him years earlier.
  • Give Me a Sword: After Merlin brings the teen Arthur to the ailing Uther, he accompanies the king to a battle against the Saxons. At a critical moment, Uther tosses his own sword to Arthur when he's disarmed, and Arthur leads a countercharge that turns the tide of the battle, winning the day. Everyone takes it as Uther unofficially Passing the Torch.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Partially subverted with Morgause, during her tenure as sole monarch of Orkney. While her subjects know the stories of her past deeds and fear her powers, at the same time they feel a certain pride in having a witch for a queen, as they might in being ruled by a strong warlord.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Multiple:
    • Merlin helps Uther and Ygraine lie with each other while she is still married to Gorlois. Although he views the affair as divine providence, a necessity so that Arthur can be conceived, he still regrets it, with an even heavier heart once it leads to Gorlois' death.
    • Portrayed as wholly negative when Morgan has her affair with Accolon, although the concurrent plot to take the throne probably contributes to that.
    • Similarly Melwas' abduction of Guinevere, though he ultimately does not rape her.
    • The triangle between Arthur, Bedwyr (Lancelot is not in this story, so Bedwyr takes his role), and Guinevere is portrayed with complexity. The latter two met before Guinevere had ever seen Arthur, and fell in love. But out of love and loyalty to Arthur, neither of them ever act on their feelings. In The Last Enchantment, Arthur reveals to Merlin, who had had a prophecy years ago that a white shadow (guenhwyvar) would come between the two friends and destroy their relationship, that he knows about their mutual affection. However, he insists on the trust he has in the two of them, and has no wish to raise the issue with them, for fear that the prophecy will come true and he will lose his closest friend; furthermore, he reasons, since Guinevere is barren, and as King he is often away and consumed by more pressing matters, if she ever were to take another man to bed, shouldn't he be grateful it would be a man like Bedwyr? Merlin takes this as the sign that Arthur no longer needs his advice and wisdom.
    • Mordred develops a rather intense desire for Guinevere. Nothing ever comes of it, but he often and to his shame indulges in fantasies about making her his wife, and eventually, rumors start to spread that help contribute to the fatal misunderstandings between him and Arthur.
  • Grave Robbing: Merlin scares the crap out of one unfortunate who tries this by sitting up and talking to him.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Merlin's mother gives out the tale that Merlin's father is a demon. This actually puts them in less danger than were it known who his father really is, and indeed, Niniane concocts this story to dissuade questions over the man's identity.
  • HeelĖFace Turn: Morgan gets one of sorts towards the end of The Wicked Day, as the Battle of Camlann draws near. Partially self-serving, as she knows that if Arthur is killed, she will have nothing, and probably will not be tolerated by whoever rules after. So she joins Nimue and her maidens to use her magic and skill on his behalf.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Arthur and Bedwyr, who have been inseparable friends since childhood.
  • The High Queen: Ygraine. Even before she is made the actual Queen, her bearing and her attitude are decidedly regal (King's daughter that she is). For instance, despite her passionate desire for Uther, she prevents herself from acting upon it while still married to the Duke of Cornwall, knowing that it could plunge Britain back into the darkness of war from which it had just emerged. It is this level headed sense and composure, in fact, that make her the only woman Merlin feels he can talk to as he would another man, rationally and without choosing words.
  • Historical Fantasy: Though it's close to being just Historical Fiction because of the Demythification angle.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Given the first two books, The Crystal Cave, and The Hollow Hills it seems like that'd be Alliterative Title, "The [Adjective] [Location]" for this series, but no, it's just "The [Adjective] [Noun]" for most of them, The Last Enchantment, and the The Wicked Day as the next two books, and the Odd One Out of The Prince and the Pilgrim.
  • Innocent Bystander: Poor Gareth.
  • Kill It with Fire: How Ambrosius defeats Vortigern while besieging his fortress at Doward. A largely wooden fortress.
  • King on His Deathbed: Ambrosius falls ill a few years after retaking Britain, and, lying in bed, sees a vision of Merlin, who is away in Ireland, at the foot of the bed. He dies shortly after.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: King Uther receives a wound in battle that gets infected and festers for a while, and by the time it has healed, it has left him wasting away and impotent.
  • Love at First Sight: Uther and Ygraine have it bad for each other, so much so that the former can barely govern his new kingdom for thoughts of her.
    • Alexander and Alice sure fall for each other fast, as well.
  • Made a Slave: Stilicho was sold by his parents because they had more children than money to feed them. He doesn't actually seem to mind that much, at least when he finds his way into Merlin's service.
  • Magic Is Evil: Mostly averted. Merlin's own art is seen as a divine gift; what he refers to as "women's magic," however (that is, poisons and potions and the like), he eyes with caution. As for everyone else in Britain, they don't necessarily see all magic as evil (this is before Christendom was firmly established there), but most still fear it.
  • Malicious Slander: Morgause and Lot put out that King Arthur, on advice from Merlin his adviser, gave the orders for the drowning of the infants at Dunpeldyr, when it was their own plan through and through.
  • Merlin and Nimue: Merlin and Niniane truly love each other and she innocently mistakes him for being dead when she buries him in the cave.
  • Motor Mouth: Beltane the goldsmith.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Morgause in The Wicked Day. Around age forty, she is still taking sixteen year old lovers to bed. Were this not the sixth century, where males of that age are considered men, she would be an outright Shotacon.
  • Mysterious Parent: Ambrosius for Merlin. Uther for Arthur. Arthur for Mordred.
  • Mysterious Stranger: Galapas, Merlin's mentor. We barely learn anything about him. Later, Merlin himself will become this to Arthur, though Arthur mistakenly believes him to be his father.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child:
    • Ygraine and her first husband, Gorlois, Duke of Conrwall.
    • Morgan and the much older King Urbgen (upon their marriage, he is around 50, she 15).
  • Old Retainer: Ulfin is rescued from effective slavery (and death when his master dies) as a boy by King Uther. He repays this with absolute loyalty and rises to be Uther's most trusted servant, going on to a similar position with King Arthur after Uther dies. He's also the only person who actually seems to mourn Uther's death.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The entire final battle between Arthur and Mordred and their respective armies is the result of a series of misunderstandings. Most egregiously Arthur literally forgets that Mordred isn't actually a traitor once their armies start fighting.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The Merlin and Mordred books retell the Arthurian legend based on many sources, using the version in The History of the Kings of Britain as a loose guide. (The afterword of each book has a segment from that medieval work which covers the events told in it). The Pilgrim novel retells an episode in Le Morte d'Arthur in particular.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Merlin's are. Even Morgause admits it.
  • Prophecy Twist: Merlin's prophesies often turn out this way, most notably the one about Merlin's own "end" (it was much less cruel than anticipated, and did not actually mean his death), and the one about Mordred being Arthur's doom (the inevitable tragedy isn't really Mordred's fault at all; it's largely the result of some terrible misunderstandings and unfortunate accidents).
  • Really Gets Around: Uther, especially in his younger days. It's actually a point of surprise for people that he doesn't leave a trail of children wherever he goes.
    • This trait manifests in his daughters, too, with both Morgause and Morgan taking lovers, usually younger, from the men of their courts.
  • Rebellious Princess: Nimue is a mild example. Born a princess of the River Islands, her father ships her off to the Lake convent in the Summer Country; during her stay there, she often finds ways to sneak out of the cloisters to spend time by herself. One night she uses an incident involving Queen Guinevere to take advantage of everyone's distraction and slip away, thus leading to her first encounter with Merlin. What's more, knowing he won't accept a girl as an apprentice, she cuts her hair and disguises herself as the boy for whom Merlin had initially mistaken her.
  • Red Baron: Gaheris gets a particularly nasty one after he kills Morgause. "Murderer of women."
  • Related in the Adaptation: Taking cues from the evolution of Ambrosius from The History of the Britons to the centuries-later The History of the Kings of Britain, Ambrosius and Merlin are explicitly father and son, and thus Merlin and Arthur are first cousins.
  • Renaissance Man: Merlin, full stop. Educated in multiple languages, medicine, music, engineering, and politics, it's no wonder that the masses, in this country on the brink of the early Middle Ages, confuse this for powerful sorcery (although he does have the Sight).
  • Rightful King Returns: Ambrosius in The Crystal Cave.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Gaheris here is a raging psychopath who, in The Wicked Day, beheads Morgause after catching her in bed with a lover.
  • Sex God: Uther gains this reputation as a young man, and his sexual prowess is admired and envied by his soldiers as a captain and later as king. It becomes such a part of his pride and self-image as a leader that when a battle wound renders him impotent (see above), he takes it hard.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Arthur spends the entirety of The Wicked Day trying to create and maintain a peaceful, unified kingdom. Mordred spends it trying to escape the prophesy that says he will be Arthur's doom. In the end, through a series of unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings, they both fail catastrophically and end up killing each other.
  • Sinister Minister: King Vortigern's chief magician, Maugan. Also, Merlin's tutor in Brittany, Belasius, a Druid high priest who practices human sacrifice.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Thanks to Stewart's more accurate rendering of the original Welsh names, while she does stick to the common English names for major characters, a few others fit this trope, most notably Bedwyr, Cei and the first Guenever. Even Merlin's actual name is Myrddin, only rendered as the former for familiarity's sake.
  • Squishy Wizard: Merlin knows he is no soldier. The few times he does get in a scrape, he just barely wins, and receives some pretty severe injuries himself.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Niniane is the daughter of a petty king loyal to the High King Vortigern. Ambrosius is the brother of the previous High King that Vortigern killed to usurp the throne. It doesn't actually end in disaster, but they never see each other again.
  • Succession Crisis: One looms over King Uther's succession in The Hollow Hills, as far as the rest of the country is concerned: though he grows older and worse in health, he does not declare an heir or bring forth the rumored hidden prince, leaving the kingdom's succession in question as ambitious petty kings like Lot make plans for power. Even after Arthur is finally presented, it is not until he lifts Caliburn that the succession is firmly resolved.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: In The Wicked Day, Nimue appears as such during her meeting with Mordred, starting off cold and seemingly hostile, then relaxing, even joking around with him, and trying to soften the blow of the dark counsel she offers by promising that before the end, both he and Arthur will have fulfilling lives and their share of glory.
  • Surprise Incest: Morgause, Arthur's half-sister, bewitches him into sleeping with her, and he only finds out afterward of their relation to one another. It's also implied later that Morgause's own son has these feelings for her.
  • The Stoic: Ambrosius is probably the best example in the series.
    • Mordred also has a pretty masterful control of his emotions.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Nimue takes advantage of Merlin initially mistaking her for a long-dead boy called Ninian to dress as a boy and become his apprentice. Arthur eventually points out that she's a girl, causing some relief for Merlin.
  • Tongue Trauma: Casso sees more than is good for him in an evil king's castle and has his tongue cut out to stop him reporting it. This backfires when Merlin has him taught to write.
  • Transferable Memory: As he grows older and feels his power waning, Merlin tells Nimue that as his successor, she must become Merlin after he is gone, and use his knowledge and experiences to continue his life's work in Arthur's service. Eventually, when he falls severely ill, mistakenly thinking he is dying, Nimue follows his wishes and magically transfers his memories into her own brain; though this was in accordance with his intentions, she still feels terrible over further weakening him while he was sick. Come The Wicked Day, and she indeed identifies herself as both Nimue and Merlin.
  • Trauma Conga Line: A brutal one for the recently crowned Arthur, who, in The Last Enchantment, suddenly suffers the death of his first wife Guenever in childbirth, followed immediately by Ygraine, and, worst of all, Merlin gone missing and later reported dead as well. It turned out not to be true, but Arthur had assumed it to be so for a time, and it shows in his countenance.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: In The Prince and the Pilgrim, Clodoald is five or six at most... and already knows exactly how to stab a man in self-defense. Having his brothers murdered by their Evil Uncle probably has something to do with it.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Morgan seemed at a younger age to be a happy, spirited girl on good terms with her brother.
  • The Usurper: Vortigern in The Crystal Cave. Twenty years earlier he murdered the High King Constantius to gain the throne, upon which the King's younger brothers, Ambrosius and baby Uther, fled to their cousin King Budec in Brittany to escape the same fate. Worse, Vortigern invited Saxon auxiliaries into Britain to help him secure his power, but afterwards, they began to terrorize the country beyond his control.
    • Ironically, Vortigern's son, Vortimer, later leads his own forces in armed rebellion in an attempt to usurp the throne for himself.
  • Villainous Incest: Morgause, of course, seduces Arthur, well knowing who he is, in order to gain power by bearing the new king's child. In The Wicked Day, she smooches Mordred before he, too, is aware of his parentage.
  • Walking the Earth: Merlin travels the known world in his twenties, going east to Rome, Constantinople, and as far as Syria.
  • Warrior Poet: Bedwyr is simultaneously described as having "a poet's eyes," and also, in The Wicked Day, as "veteran of a thousand combats." It shows.
  • Worthy Opponent: Cerdic, king of the West Saxons, to Arthur.
  • White Stallion: Arthur rides one.
  • Wizard Beard: Subverted. Merlin actually eschews facial hair in general, finding it irritating. The only times he grows a beard are when it is needed for a disguise, or, later in his life, and unintentionally, after wandering the forest as a dazed, poisoned madman for seven months.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Invoked in The Wicked Day by Nimue to Mordred, telling him that despite any effort to the contrary, the will of the gods cannot be changed, and his mere existence will someday bring about Arthur's downfall. She advises him to try to forget about it and 'Live what life brings, die what death comes.'

Alternative Title(s): The Crystal Cave