The Wicked Day is a sequel to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, telling the story of Mordred, King Arthur’s illegitimate son, who was foretold by Merlin as Arthur’s bane. It blends together fact and fiction as Mary Stewart explains in her afterword, Arthur was a real historical figure and she based her books on him using Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in the twelfth century and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written in the fifteenth. Mordred, however, is probably as fictional as Lancelot.
I liked most of this book, the first part about Mordred’s early life is the best part. He grows up in the Orkneys, living with foster parents, until he is taken to the court of King Lot and his wife Queen Morgause as one of Lot’s bastard sons, unaware that Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister, is his real mother. This part of the book parallels the ending of The Last Enchantment but told from Mordred’s perspective.
All the characters from the legends are there, with the exception of Merlin – the High King Arthur, his beautiful Queen, Guinevere, his knights, Gawain and his brothers, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth (Arthur’s nephews) and the sorceress, Morgause, still plotting against Arthur. Mordred is portrayed as a good person, courageous but misunderstood and controlled by his destiny:
If Merlin saw it written in the stars that you would be Arthur’s doom, then how can you escape it? There will come a day, the wicked day of destiny, when all will come to pass as he foretold. (page 240)
After a good opening third the book lost some of its appeal for me. Unlike the earlier books, The Wicked Day is narrated in the third person, which is probably why it seems less engaging to me. With the exception of the Epilogue, the passion and the magic are missing from the last part of the book which is a dry account of battles.
I wondered how Mary Stewart was going to resolve the story because in her version of it Arthur and Mordred, who is traditionally depicted as the villain, become reconciled to each other and Arthur acknowledges Mordred as his son and heir. Mordred is no villain, but not exactly a hero either. So, how come they ended up as enemies? She managed a plausible conclusion but I thought it was rather an anti-climax.
Added 17 May 2014:
Mary Stewart died in 10 May 2014 aged 97 – her obituary in The Telegraph describes her as an ‘author of romantic thrillers who wrote for love not money, and had an intuitive feel for the past.’