Although Mary Stewart's The Last Enchantment fits into a number of categories previously established by other bestsellers, it's rare combination of historicism, fantasy, unorthodox interpretation and expression, make it relatively unique. While the book can attribute much of its success to its position as the third novel in a popular trilogy, this is not the only reason that the book is still in print (paperback) twenty years after it was first published. Perhaps the most important of these is the fact that Stewart uses the classic and accessible storyline as a means of investigating a variety of contemporary and timeless issues that have relevance to a wide audience. Her adherence to well-researched historical aspects and decision to approach the classic story from a new point of view (Merlin's as opposed to King Arthur's) give her the opportunity to further reinterpret many aspects of the Arthurian legend as it has been written in the past. Despite these departures, The Last Enchantment is nearly as predictable as any other Arthurian novel. This predictability provides an accessible platform with which the first-time reader can easily identify and enjoy combined with enough twists and reinterpretations to interest Arthurian experts as well.
While contemporary reviewers were mixed in reviewing "Enchantment", their praise centers almost exclusively around the book's status as the continuation of the popular series, the romantic nature of the novel, and its subtle twists relative to the traditional plot. "There are as many versions of the Arthurian legend as there are books about it, and Stewart has added enough unexpected twists to keep the suspense running high." (Middleton) It is not until after the initial reviews of the series that more in depth criticism begins to appear. The fact that The Last Enchantment was not as well received as the previous installments in the series yet nonetheless achieved the status of bestseller places it in the company of books such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Simarillion. In an even more extreme case than with The Last Enchantment, Tolkien's successor to his Lord of the Rings series derived much, if not all, of its financial success to the popularity of its predecessors (Jordan). This can be attributed to the fact that the original series was so successful and had such an impact on a group of readers that they became almost religious in their devotion to the author (Jordan). This model is common throughout the world of bestsellers, albeit at different scales, with authors such as Stephen King and Danielle Steele whose names automatically bestow best-selling status on anything they write. Although this phenomena explains the status of The Last Enchantment, an explanation as to why the entire series was successful offers more insight into the realm of the bestseller.
Perhaps the most important difference between Stewart's series and previous Arthurian novels was her departure "from standard versions of the legend: they are told from the viewpoint of Merlin the magician rather than from that of King Arthur, they are set in the fifth century, rather than the twelfth; and Stewart adheres to historical fact in describing places, customs, and costumes, unlike many chroniclers of the Arthurian legend."(CLC 35,388) This had the primary effect of opening up the novel to literary interpretation because of the inconsistencies inherent in the original version. It further enriched the novel by allowing it to be read both as a (marginal) account of 5th century Britain and as an escapist fantasy. While not a piece of historical fiction, the mere inclusion of historic accuracy, especially in combination with the fictional legend, may be enough to draw the readership of people who are interested in history. The degree of interpretation to which Stewart has availed herself provides for the many subtle yet significant twists which occur throughout the series: "The reader should not be put off because he thinks he knows how everything is going to turn out." (Middleton) Stewart's choice to cast Merlin as the protagonist -- in addition to her other digressions from the established storyline -- gave her further literary license and shed new light on the otherwise well-known legend thus making the book attractive to Arthurian experts as well as first-time readers.
The combination of a well-established literary genre (in this case the Arthurian legend) with contemporary issues from outside of the novel is similar to Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles." This strategy is useful because it allows the author to capitalize on the popularity and accessibility inherent in the already established plot. Freedom from designing the plot further allows the author to interpret the other aspects of the novel in order to investigate certain themes. In the case of Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" these included social issues such as homosexuality and the appearance of alternative lifestyles (Lewis). Like Rice, Stewart used the framework of the Arthurian legend as a platform from which to explore contemporary issues -- in this case reinterpreting the role of women in a literary genre where they were almost invisible (Herman,370). In sharp contrast to women found in the traditional Arthurian legend, Stewart's women "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 marriages and children(Herman,370)." Although the examination of this phenomenon by Harold J. Herman focuses mainly on documenting the phenomenon, it requires no great amount of deduction to make the observation that in the changing social climate of the 1970s, issues such as this one may have had resonance with contemporary readers.
Closely related to Stewart's application of historical fact to the original versions of the legend is her treatment of the supernatural. In keeping with the predominant trends of contemporary fiction, Mary Stewart chooses to reinterpret the role and expression of supernatural events to correspond with more realistic explanations (Dean, 384). Unlike contemporary fantasy science fiction, Stewart does not ask the reader to accept the nonchalant use of magic but instead interprets Merlin's powers as a combination of a gift of vision bestowed upon him by God combined with the use of scientific knowledge accumulated through the study of Antiquity. In effect, Merlin becomes a fictional reconciliation of the eternally conflicting forces of religion and science at a time when (in the real world) recent scientific speculation (mainly about the origins of the universe) is again forcing them into conflict. Again the inclusion and interpretation of issues that are pertinent contemporary culture adds another facet to what had at first appeared to be a simple book.
Indeed, in this sense The Last Enchantment surprisingly finds coincidence with books such as Carl Sagan's Contact. Sagan uses scientific fact in order to extrapolate a fictional scenario in the future whereas Stewart uses historic fact to make projections into the past. Although these processes present the two books as complete inversions, the method remains almost perfectly consistent. By combining aspects of reality with fictional ones in such as way that both can coexist without one subverting the other, the product is something that has more relevance to a greater audience.
While Stewart's Arthurian Series (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment) were bestsellers almost immediately after they became availalbe, it is perhaps because of their subtler features that they are still in print 20 and 30 years after their initial publication. One of the main reasons that the books have remained in print because Stewart has bestowed them with a number of attributes that can be appreciated by both distinct and general audiences. As demonstrated by the other novels mentioned here, it is exactly an author's ability to combine vastly contrasting aspects such as the timeless and contemporary, formulaic and unorthodox, historical fact and high fiction, escapism and realism-- ultimately the universal and specific, that allows the book to be appreciated by a wide audience across time.
The following articles were taken from
Sources ? having already extensively researched the topic, I was able to choose sources that were all fairly useful
Con Davis, Robert; Schleifer, Rondald editors. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 117 New York : Longman
Dean, Christopher. "The Metamorphosis of Merlin: An Examination of the Protagonist of The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills," in Comparative Studies in Merlin from the Vedas to C.G. Jung, edited by James Gollnick, 1991, pp. 63-75.
Herman, Harold J. "The Women in Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy," in Interpretations: A Journal of Idea, Analysis, and Criticism, Vol.15, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 101-14.
Jordan, Cory. Assignments 4 and 5 on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion for ENTC 312 University of Virginia. http://www.engl.virginia.edu:8000/courses/bestsellers/
Lewis, Deirdre. Assignments 4 and 5 on Anne Rice's Tale of A Body Thief for ENTC 312 University of Virginia. http://www.engl.virginia.edu:8000/courses/bestsellers/
Middleton, K.P. Best Sell 39:241 O 1979 -- from Book Review Digest 1979
Spencer, Jennifer. Assignments 4 and 5 on Carl Sagan's Contact for ENTC 312 University of Virginia. http://www.engl.virginia.edu:8000/courses/bestsellers/