[(essay date Spring 1987) In the following essay, Watson examines the ways in which Merlin symbolizes the "word of power" in that he is a visionary who is privy to the knowledge and wisdom of the gods.]
The Merlin of Mary Stewart's trilogy--The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment--is a man of many roles: prophet, prince, enchanter, king-maker, teacher, engineer, physician, poet, and singer. But in all of these, he is first and foremost a man of power. Merlin's power is the power of knowledge, knowledge revealed progressively through active preparation and wise waiting. "Power," says Merlin, "is doing and speaking with knowledge; it is bidding without thought, and knowing that one will be obeyed". This kind of knowledge and power is of the spirit, coming from the god, as the god wills, and resulting in the word of prophecy. In addition to embodying this word of power, Merlin also represents a kind of "bidding without thought" that comes from the confidence of acquired knowledge.
Merlin's word of power in the historical and naturalistic realm and the word of power that comes from the god--the nature of the word, its source, limitation, consequences, and progressive revelation--are intrinsic themes in Stewart's books. Each of the progressions toward truth in the trilogy emphasizes a general movement from partiality to wholeness: the unity of one God and one King, the truth of lineage, and the androgynous wholeness of the word of power.
Mary Stewart's trilogy is historical fiction, set, not in the usual, romantic Middle Ages of Malory, but in the historically more accurate Dark Ages of fifth-century Celtic Britain. Characters, place names, and events in the story carefully accord with actual historical facts. Similarly, Stewart's Merlin is not a mysterious magician inhabiting the misty peripheries of action; he is, instead, in this story, a real man, who narrates his own role in the Matter of Britain as he sees the events unfold. Because he is a man, Merlin experiences ordinary human emotions. For instance, as a child, he suffers the taunts and humiliation aimed at a bastard child, and he learns to live by his wits. As an old man, he learns about love in his relationships with Arthur and Nimuë. And Merlin is capable of being mistaken, especially in his interpretations of the actions of women. Morgause's intentions toward Arthur, for example, escape him entirely until it is too late:
I have said men with god's sight are often human-blind: when I exchanged my manhood for power it seemed I had made myself blind to the ways of women. If I had been a simple man instead of a wizard I would have seen the way eye answered eye back there at the hospital, have recognized Arthur's silence later, and known the woman's long assessing look for what it was.
In the course of the trilogy, Merlin tells us his personal history, from the night Ambrosius and Niniane conceive him in the cave at Bryn Myrddin...