The Last Enchantment is an Arthurian fantasy novel by Mary Stewart, first published in 1973. Following on from The Hollow Hills (1973), it is often regarded as the third book in Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy. However, it is, in fact, the third of five novels she wrote novel dealing with Arthurian legend. The next in the series is The Wicked Day (1983). The cover (shown) is from the 2003 Eos edition by HarperCollins.
Like the former books in this series - The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Crystal Cave (1970), Mary Stewart based the story largely on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s highly inventive (and questionable) Arthurian 'history'. She also incorporated elements from other Arthurian legends and candidly begged forgiveness for the many gaps in her knowledge of these tales, stating that - “if I had read more widely, I should never have completed this book”. She also added – “but I can hope, in all humility, that my Merlin trilogy may be, for some new enthusiast, a beginning”.
This third novel in the Merlin trilogy spans the period from when Arthur Pendragon took the throne to the more advanced years of Merlin – a time when the mage’s abilities are in decline. At this stage Merlin has found he can best assist Arthur to unite a divided Britain by gathering information undercover from various influential and powerful sources. He prevents other zealous lords from claiming the throne and undermining Arthur’s venture to establish Camelot as the heart of British government. Unfortunately Arthur, as a youth, had unwittingly fathered a son, Mordred, after a liaison with his half-sister Morgause. Merlin predicts that Mordred will, in some way, be responsible for the death of Arthur, and hoping to learn why, he travels undercover in order to keep a watchful eye on the cunning and calculating Morgause.
At the same time, Merlin has acquired an apprentice named Ninian. At first he believes that this person is a young male but Arthur points out to Merlin that he has been deceived and that this is actually a girl in disguise. Together, they confront her and she confesses that her name is Niniane (with an ‘e’), but that she has always been called Nimue in the past. While Merlin teaches Nimue his esoteric secrets, they fall in love. However, as she learns to develop her increasing mystical abilities, he gradually loses his own powers and becomes weaker and weaker, finally falling into a coma. Eventually, when he appears to have died, Nimue sadly buries him in the crystal cave. After what must have been a few weeks, Merlin awakens, having recovered, and later manages to escape from the cave. He then, over some time, travels in disguise to inform Arthur he has not perished after all. Nimue, by this stage, has now taken Merlin’s place as Arthur’s magician/counselor and, believing Merlin dead, has a new lover, King Pelleas. Nimue and Merlin have a warm reunion and he calmly accepts the new directions their lives have taken and peacefully retires to his crystal cave enjoying these latter days he described as “golden, tranquil and sweet”.
Ulfin – Merlin’s travelling companion