[(essay date Spring 1984) In the following essay, Herman argues that Stewart's portrayal of women in her Merlin trilogy is the most sympathetic and groundbreaking in Arthurian legend because of her rejection of feminine stereotypes.]
With the publication of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment Mary Stewart has made a significant contribution to the development of the Arthurian legend, for her trilogy is not merely a retelling but a reworking of earlier Arthurian material. Claiming that, though firmly based in both history and legend, her novels are works of the imagination, she has nonetheless provided explanatory notes for the benefit of those readers who wish to "trace for themselves the seeds of certain ideas and the origins of certain references." Because she has specified some of her sources, one may also examine them to see how she used earlier works to create her trilogy on Merlin. Obviously many of the changes, deletions, and additions were necessitated by her concept of Merlin as basically a human being with the god-given gift of sight.
The focus of this study, however, is not Merlin but Mary Stewart's female characters. A student of the Arthurian legend is struck by her vivid portrayal of women who are not frightened, submissive creatures content to satisfy their men's lustful appetites and blind to everything except bearing and rearing children. Rather than being toys of men, for use or abuse, they themselves often select the men they wish to bed and wed. They frequently dominate the men around them, for they are stronger and cleverer than most men, and they are ambitious, demanding more out of life than marriage and children. It is this concept of women that distinguishes Stewart's trilogy from the earlier Arthurian works she used as her sources.
Stewart's ideal woman is Igerne, Duchess of Cornwall, whose portrayal in two of Stewart's major sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, is here examined. According to Geoffrey, Uther orders all his barons to assemble in London to celebrate his coronation. Among those gathered there is Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, a loyal supporter of Ambrosius and Uther, with his young wife Igerne, the most beautiful woman in the realm. Uther falls in love with Igerne and openly displays his affection for her, whereupon Gorlois, in anger, takes his wife and retires from the court. Enraged, Uther commands Gorlois to return and appear in his court so that he may take lawful satisfaction for the affront. When Gorlois fails to obey the summons, Uther with his army invades Cornwall and besieges Dimilioc, the castle Gorlois occupies after placing Igerne in the invincible castle of Tintagel. A week later, Uther, overcome with the love of Igerne, declares to Ulfin, one of his familiars, that he will die if he cannot possess her. At Ulfin's counsel, Merlin is summoned; and, moved by the sight of Uther's suffering, Merlin declares that to fulfill Uther's wish, he must call upon acts new and unheard...