Tuesday, 18 December 2001

Mary Stewart: The Wicked Day (1983)

Edition: Fawcett Crest, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1015

"The wicked day of destiny" is how Malory described the battle of Camlann, at which Arthur was victorious but was mortally wounded by his traitorous son Mordred. The tragic ending of the story interested the medieval mind more than it does our own, with our cultural yearning for the cosy, happy ending; and this is why today's retellings tend not to concentrate on the event which gave Malory the title for his whole poem, the Morte d'Arthur.

There are certain inconsistencies in the traditional portrayal of an evil Mordred, and Stewart in this novel has attempted to smooth some of them out, at the same time softening the ending. As a central character, he brings more life to The Wicked Day than there is in any of Stewart's Arthurian novels since The Crystal Cave. He is made an ambitious but not wicked young man, misled by false reports of Arthur's death to take the crown rather than taking advantage of the king's absence to rebel. My feeling is that this should make the ending more tragic, but in fact it isn't; this is mainly because it is not sufficiently real to be affecting.

The let down of the ending is one of the problems of The Wicked Day; it also suffers from repeating too much of earlier writers. While it would be virtually impossible to write an Arthurian fantasy that wasn't derivative in some way, much of the characterisation of the children of Morgause (Mordred along with Lot's four sons) is taken pretty much directly from T.H. White. Stewart is a bit more explicit about incestuous desire than White could be, but the psychology (particularly of the twins Agravaine and Gaheris) is identical. This is important, because the five of them are the most important characters in the novel, not excluding Arthur himself.

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