Of a fair evening in the mythical but true world of Middle Earth, towards the end of the Third Age, a young hobbit named Frodo is holding private counsel with Galadriel. She is the queen and lady of Lothlórien, the most secret and beautiful reserve of the Elves. Frodo has been gazing into her Mirror, a shallow basin of silver filled with water from the stream, and there he has seen clouded predictions of the future, terrifying in their uncertainty. But these uncertainties are followed by an absolute certainty, and an unwelcome one at that.
For Frodo, as the bearer of the Ring, the bewitching and irresistible work of the evil Sauron, recognizes on the finger of the Lady Galadriel another Ring—sister to his own, Nenya by name, but not evil. It is one of the three Rings belonging to the Elves, the source of their safety and peace, skill and elegance; yet these Rings are beholden to the one Ring, Frodo's Ring. Therein lies the sad certainty.
“Do you not see now,” Galadriel says to Frodo when he has espied the lady's Ring, hidden from the sight of others, “wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away.”
Already in this the third of six volumes in The Lord of the Rings—J.R.R. Tolkien's much-acclaimed fantasy that twice has been proclaimed the book of the century (admittedly by a self-selecting group of people, Waterstone patrons in Great Britain and Amazon.com users)—the end is near. The end of the Ring bodes well for the future of Middle Earth, unquestionably: the power to conduct unchecked devastation of lands and peoples in pursuit of wicked goals will forever be lost. Sauron, the lidless Eye, will be no better off than an angry orc on an empty stomach. There is no chance that he, or any equal to him, will rise again; evil is no longer concentrated in one deadly place in the land of Mordor.
And yet, just as evil is no longer concentrated, good is forced into diffusion as well. When the final battle has been fought and the Ring dissolves into the fires of Mount Doom, the Elves will pack their remaining treasures and leave in necessary exile from their homes, Lothlórien and Rivendell and all the rest, bastions of the lovely and the right and the kind. With them will go Gandalf, the wizard, whose skills are no longer required as the Fourth Age dawns. So will Bilbo and Frodo, hobbits indelibly marked by the enchantments of the Ring. Their hard-won wisdom belongs to a world governed by magic, but the fulcrum of power in Middle Earth is shifting. It is no longer in the moral certainties and magical assurances of ages past. Now it is in the morally ambiguous governance of men, who shortly will take center stage in the unfolding drama of the planet. The Elves leave for the Grey Havens of their own volition, but the hobbits will be marginalized, the dwarves swallowed up by the earth, and even Tom Bombadil will be seen no more.
For a tale of heroism and virtue, The Lord of the Rings is deeply sad. With good reason: all the struggles of the story, all the adventures in a much-loved world, build up to its own abolition. All the same, the ending is inevitable. Magic is too much to maintain. In a world of magic, this Ring—any Ring—is a possibility; an ever-present possibility, a continuing threat and temptation to all its inhabitants, whether bloodthirsty Nazgûl or retiring, domestic hobbits. The Ring is an addiction, a demon, a torment, a granter of favors, a precious. It will not go away on its own. The world cannot sustain it; the imagination cannot either. And so the magic must come to an end.
When Tolkien took the old-fashioned fairy tale and transformed it into the genre we now call fantasy, he set the standard for all the works that would follow his. All such novels of a literary bent since then (as opposed to the breed of small paperbacks with florid covers that feed off the Dungeons & Dragons market) inevitably involve obeisance to and commentary on the regal tale of the Ring. The medieval-ish feel, the restricted technology, the stringent roles and hierarchies, the battles and the magic, all of these are par for the course in fantasy writing. Strikingly, so is the theme of the end of magic. There is an unmistakable series of parallels to The Lord of the Rings' melancholy self-destruction in other fantasy works.
The problem of power is at the core of that self-destruction, and the plots of the various series participate in the same struggles between power and powerlessness that Christians know so well (so well they barely notice them) from their own salvation history. Tolkien's work draws on this heritage, namely in the sacrifice of the Ring, but cannot fully address the problem. Rather, he sets the stage for the expected story of Jesus Christ some thousands of years later. Tolkien does this and succeeds because he knows the limits of his own literary witness. For others with more ambiguous relationships to Christianity, the struggles and their solutions range from the provisionally profound to the shockingly trite, all the while remaining beholden to the death of their own magic.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander are the most evidently similar to The Lord of the Rings both in content and conclusion. The five books are geared to a younger audience, and the language is rather less flowery. There is, however, an identical concentration of evil in the ultimate enemy of the tale, Arawn Lord of Annuvin, whose armies are forged in the black cauldron, a huge and sulking pot stained with the blood of dead men who have been brought unwillingly back to a life of mindless, memory-less bondage. In the first novel of the series, The Book of Three, Arawn's wicked warlord the Horned King meets his end at the hands of Gwydion, one of the several Sons of Don who are charged with guiding Prydain while Arawn is in ascendancy. In the second book, The Black Cauldron, the title object is destroyed and Arawn thus thwarted from infinitely expanding his squadron of zombies. In books three and four, The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer, Arawn bides his time in the background while the true heroes of the tale, Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper and Princess Eilonwy, grow up, develop character from hard experience, and discover that they love one another.
However, the fifth and final book, The High King, requires a conclusive battle. Arawn cannot be permitted to go on forever; a confrontation must be engineered. So Dallben, the hermetic wizard whose clipped and enigmatic advice leaves Taran forever uncertain of his place in the world and in the household, turns to Hen Wen, the oracular pig, to give him a prophecy from ash-wood sticks inscribed with magical letters. After a few apparently depressing predictions on their chances of overcoming the Death Lord, the letter sticks explode: the final prophecy is simply too much. And that is because the letter sticks are prophesying their own end, a prophecy that puts an end to prophecy.
Arawn is indeed defeated and Prydain set free. In the final blaze that takes out the enemy, though, the magical instruments that once tilled the land of their own accord are destroyed as well. What is left is but one small book, a book of knowledge, requiring wisdom and patience to be put to any good use. It is not a bad settlement, but it is certainly not magic. And on it goes. The Fair Folk, dwarves with a knack for gems and a talent for turning invisible, seal themselves under the ground and forsake the plights of mortal men. The reigning kings, much like the Elves in The Lord of the Rings, retire to their boats and sail across the sea to the Summer Country, a land of no sorrow and no death. With them they take Dallben and all his powers. They also threaten to take Eilonwy, daughter of a long line of enchantresses, until she decides to sacrifice her magic in order to stay with Taran. He himself has inherited the High Kingship of Prydain instead of eternal life in the Summer Country for choosing “a kingdom of sorrow over a kingdom of happiness.”
Thus magic ends in Prydain, and in time even Taran and Eilonwy are forgotten by posterity. But where the real story seems to be over in Middle Earth once the magic vanishes, in Prydain the story is only beginning. Interpreting, a long time after the fact, the meaning of the exploding letter sticks, Dallben comments, “It is clear to me now why the ash rods shattered. They could not withstand such a prophecy, which could only have been this: not only shall the flame of Dyrnwyn [the sword] be quenched and its power vanish, but all enchantments shall pass away, and men unaided guide their own destiny.”
The final clause is the key. Taran and Eilonwy's adventures through magic to maturity are microcosms of the bigger story of the maturity of the human race: no longer the easy delineation of good and evil embodied in different kinds of wizards, but the knowledge of good and evil running right through every human heart. Prince Gwydion reminds Taran as they are about to part forever, “You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched.” It is an end to easy answers. The problem of power remains, but its locus has shifted. Magic tells a good story, but it cannot provide the solution.
In The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, magic is only the basis for a good story—and in the end dies of its own irrelevance. The five-book series imagines Merlin, known by the pseudonym Merriman, coming to present-day Cornwall and Wales to see to it that the power of the Dark does not take control of the earth. Assisting him are three siblings, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who start off the quest to find the “Things of Power,” ancient items that the Light, the good side, must collect to stave off the Dark. As the sequence presses on, two other boys come to Merriman's assistance: Will, who is an “Old One,” a wizard of the Merlin stripe, and Bran, the legitimate son of King Arthur, who at his birth was slipped through time to grow up in a safer century. (Quite ironic.) Again, the efforts of the Light mean at the last a confrontation with, and defeat of, the Dark, and with that magic ends.
Magic, all this time, has had four expressions. The two that most concern humans are the Light and the Dark, and their commitments are fairly obvious. Strangely, though, the story never provides any intrinsic reason as to why one might choose the Light over the Dark. Like the Dark, the Light is concerned with winning over its enemy, but why it should prefer life over death is as baffling as why anyone should choose the Dark at all. There is a curious moral emptiness to the worldview behind the series, perhaps not surprising in a work that is at best condescendingly sympathetic to Christianity. (As told in the second book, The Dark Is Rising, there are six Signs, each a cross enclosed in a circle, that keep away the Dark; but when the rector comments on what he perceives to be their Christian source, one of the Old Ones replies sternly, “Very old, them crosses are, rector. . . . Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.” Thus the rector is dismissed.) The arbitrariness of the moral choices is all the clearer in light of the other two kinds of magic, High and Wild, which are neutral and amoral respectively. Neither Light nor Dark can make any demands on these two whose power is superior. The prerogative of magic supersedes the ideals of goodness; and in the end, it just doesn't work.
The author apparently intuited this herself and was forced to end the sequence sentimentally. The triumphant conquerors on the side of the Light, when the battle is over, prepare to sail away and “have rest, in the quiet silver-circled castle at the back of the North Wind”—remarkably similar to the final voyage of the Elves in Middle Earth and the Sons of Don in Prydain. Arthur invites his son Bran to join him, and Bran (like Taran) finally refuses because of the love he bears for his country and people: “Those bonds are outside the High Magic, even, because they are the strongest thing on earth.” Love then is a fifth thing beside the magics, not necessarily related to the Light, which in turn casts doubt on the whole endeavor of the Light. But no matter; the Light fades away with the Dark, the three siblings have their memories wiped clean, and the Old Ones are outmoded. And once again comes the exhortation to go on saving the world now that magic has done its part. Remember, Merriman says, it is “altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and hope and the promise are in your hands—your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth. The future cannot blame the present, just as the present cannot blame the past. The hope is always here, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world.”
This speech, delivered at the end of the fifth novel, Silver on the Tree, rings hollow. Suddenly there is an urgent appeal to free will and moral agency after hundreds of pages of pell-mell providence, wizards turning up at the last possible moment, and valuable items snatched away from the Dark in deus-ex-machina tropes. A stirring speech from the ordinary human John Rowlands, who has just discovered his wife Blodwen to be one of the enemy, indicates Cooper's last-ditch attempt at a corrective: “I do not believe any power can possess the mind of a man or woman, Blod—or whatever name you should really be. I believe in God-given free will, you see. I think nothing is forced on us, except by other people like ourselves. I think our choices are our own. And you are not possessed; therefore, you must be allied to the Dark because you have chosen to be.” But all of this is patently untrue to the plot of the story: the children have been forced to live up to the destinies delivered to them with an outcome practically assured from the start.
What undoes the sequence, and forces the basically silly ending, is its obsession with power above all else. The Light wins by a superior show of power, and the High Magic can't make its claim on Bran because love is yet more powerful. But there is little if any content to the power, and that, like magic, is unsettling. The only answer is to let both of them dissipate into a pleasant yarn of the past so that the children, and the rest of the human race, can get on with the hard work of getting along.
Philip Pullman, author of the trilogy collectively entitled His Dark Materials, denies that he is a fantasy author. Rather, his books are works of “stark realism” illuminated by fantastic elements (as Daniel P. Moloney notes in his deadly accurate review in these pages, May 2001). The fantastic elements are easily integrated into the ordinary life of Lyra's world and plenty of other parallel universes, if not our own: witches, subtle knives, alethiometers, archangels, and specters all have their place without the slightest self-consciousness about their magical properties.
But the trilogy's conclusion imitates, in an odd and truncated sort of way, the other fantasies considered here. The heroine Lyra is prophesied from the beginning to be “the end of destiny” in her role as the new Eve. Here it means the long-overdue disintegration of God the Authority and the defeat of Metatron the killjoy angel—no more dictation from on high of the fates of men below. Yet this happy victory necessitates an unhappy ending (for reasons not entirely clear): the subtle knife, which cuts passageways between the universes, must be broken once and for all and its windows permanently closed. No more adventures, but no more bad guys (or gods), either.
Predictably enough, the conclusion is absurdly moralistic. Now that the persecuting church has been subdued and hell emptied out, sentient beings are free, and not just free but obliged, to pursue the Republic of Heaven, Pullman's embarrassingly anticlimactic solution to his trilogy's dilemma. On the last page of the last book, Lyra muses to her daemon Pantalaimon that the Kingdom of Heaven is blessedly finished, so now all the people can devote their energies to this life on this earth rather than worrying about the next. And it entails, she realizes in a convenient flash of insight, being “all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds.” This goes well beyond the philosophical fallacy of deriving an “ought” from an “is.” It's deriving an “ought” from an “isn't.”
The problem of His Dark Materials is the same as that of The Dark Is Rising: power, in itself, is the ultimate good. The winners are the ones with the most power, and so they (and their author) can define their goals as righteous. Power is not forsaken but democratically distributed, and the excesses of power in pursuit of that distribution are never seriously addressed. The disturbing questions that remain are quietly covered over in the name of the brotherhood of all mankind. The knife is broken, and then it's back to the age-old conundrum of how we live together. It is deliciously ironic, though, that a series so determined to disprove original sin is forced at the end to demonstrate its unassailable existence with a concluding ethical plea.
The Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin is the most morally and metaphysically sophisticated post-Tolkien fantasy series to date. In Earthsea, magic is not a set of esoteric spells reserved to the learned few or a clever manipulation of the elements, but the logical outcome of the entire society's distinction between true names and use names. In the beginning, Segoy the creator raised the islands from their watery depths, sang life into being, and gave every single thing its true name. Dragons kept the original language of the making and the nonmoral freedom that accompanies it. Humans chose created language, discovered the ability to lie, and found themselves yoked to the knowledge of good and evil. During the time in which the five Earthsea novels take place, the only humans who know the true names of things are the wizards that study on the island of Roke, along with, here and there, strange and smelly women who know just enough true words to cast love potions and finding spells, earning themselves the title of witches.
In none of the five books is there a grand and mighty enemy looking to overtake the planet and impose his death and devastation on it. That is a great strength; the moral struggles are far more subtle in Earthsea than in other fantastical lands. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that LeGuin based the magic and morals of Earthsea on the Chinese nontheistic philosophy of Taoism, which above all stresses balance and inaction. Ged, the wizard and main character throughout the stories, has the power to change a pebble into a diamond: but power of itself, as he learns first on Roke and then in his own ordeals, is not enough to justify the change. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, recounts Ged's catastrophic release of a devastating shadow into the world during a self-aggrandizing act of needless wizardry. The source of the evil is not outside himself but within, and the shadow's power against him is defeated only when Ged names the shadow with his own name and thus tames it. In this act he learns that he himself is dark, fallen (to borrow Christian language), prone to evil and in need of restraint. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, also narrates a rejection of power: this time, that of the silent and greedy powers of the earth that ritually devour Tenar, an unwilling priestess.
Oddly, after such a brilliant start, the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, builds up beautifully and then, unexpectedly, falls flat. The story is in large part a polemic against eternal life along the same lines as His Dark Materials: defending the value of this-worldly concerns, scoffing at human life extended indefinitely. It also comes closest to having a real external enemy, the shamed wizard Cob, who above all wants to avoid death. This he achieves (though one is never quite sure why) by ripping a tear in the land of the dead through which the lifeblood of the living drains out. The moment of death never comes for him or those who hand over their lives to him: instead eternal death, silent and mindless, intrudes upon the living. They forget their names, their memories, and their magic, but their bodies never decay and they never cross over into the land of the dead. In other words, LeGuin is saying, eternal life and eternal death are the same thing.
But her solution is utterly unsatisfying. Ged manages to close the gap that Cob has opened and set the balance between life and death right again—another Taoist theme. Death must be accepted as the flip side to life. But death is still death, silent and mindless. Whether its onset is delayed forty years or so matters little. Both Ged and his companion Lebannen have seen the land of the dead, how it goes on forever, how the dead walk around empty and soulless. It is really not balanced at all; the solution is in fact no solution. And it takes a terrible toll on Ged: in the process of closing the gap, he uses up all his power. He still knows the true names of things, but they no longer obey at his summons.
The problem of death takes some time to work out, so a full eighteen years passed until Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, which was in fact not the last book of Earthsea, was published, taking a tentative stab at the problem. It is approached, once again, by the relinquishing of power. In Tehanu, the story begins and is dominated not by the men of the previous three—wizards who control the weather and the names, kings who control the pirates and the ports—but two women, Tenar of The Tombs of Atuan, now a widow of a respectable life and her priestess days nearly forgotten, and Tehanu, an abused, burned, abandoned child. Tenar and Tehanu are the weak ones of society, lacking strength or authority, and without the means of deriving either from men by marital or sexual arrangements. In time they are joined by Ged—the magic-less Ged—who also has entered the ranks of the weak after spending his whole adult life the most powerful wizard in the world. The advent of Tehanu, she who is found to be the daughter of dragons and fire, signals a new age dawning in Earthsea. What it all means is left enticingly unclear, but the established wizards of Roke look to her, once banned from their halls because of her womanhood, to explain the changes unraveling the conventional fabric of their world, and to teach them that their mortal enemies, the dragons, are in fact their closest kin.
In late 2001, the last-last book of Earthsea, The Other Wind, finally resolves death, power, and ethics. The secret of “Vedurnan” breaks open, the agreement once upon a time to separate those who became dragons and those who became humans. The king reports the ancient tale: “The human beings went east, the dragons west. The humans gave up their knowledge of the Language of the Making, and in exchange received all skill and craft of hand, and ownership of all that hands can make. The dragons let go all such things. But they kept the Old Speech.” In wizardry, however, the humans breached the contract. They regained knowledge of the original language and used it to create the land of the dead in the western province of the dragons, visited by Ged and Lebannen in The Farthest Shore. The land of the dead is a lie: it is neither the immortality of dragons free of both possessions and morality, nor is it the reentry into the earth and reincarnation of the people in the far eastern reach of Earthsea where wizardry has always been accursed. It is not even properly death, for it refuses to accept its limits. It cannot have it both ways: it must be either limitless power (dragons) or right and wrong (humans). And so the humans do the right thing, as they are wont to do; they break down the wall around the land of the dead and watch the souls dissipate into the air, in an astounding parallel to Pullman's harrowing of hell. Once again, dragons take to the west, humans to the east, but this time, ne'er the twain shall meet.
Fantasy's task and trouble alike is power. The word itself derives from the Greek phantazein, to make visible, and so the genre at its best—as Pullman rightly understands—brings to light the starkly real problems of the human race, its quest for control over itself and others. The difficulty is that, once having exposed (however brilliantly) the dilemma of power, magic can offer no solution. Magical cures to sinful ills reduce themselves to absurdity. Power arrives to solve one moral dilemma, but only succeeds in creating another. The best magic can do is quench itself and, as the flame dies out, exhort its readers to righteous civilization among peoples and nations. For this reason, fantasy can pose no real threat to true faith (as some have suspected)—it will always exhaust itself long before arriving at religion.
The perpetual weakness of the genre is its inability to maintain the paradox of goodness and power. In fantasy literature, one of the two has to be dispensed with, and in the end it is always power, in the form of magic, because no author will sanely forsake goodness. But the goodness quickly turns to moralism, as far too many fantasies prove. For the characters, the end of the story means the inauguration of the new, moral way of governance, sentimentally appealing; for the readers, it is a dreary return to the same old thing. The impulse to sacrifice power is true and right—shown most meaningfully in the decision (in The Lord of the Rings) to destroy the Ring instead of using it against Sauron—but its aftermath leaves even the best storyteller at a loss.
In other words, fantasy passes the torch. Logically, though, the outcome is not the noble moral struggles of men and women, but the fast-approaching quandaries of science and its literature, science fiction, already hinted at in the fate of the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings. And if anything, in science fiction it is not science that dies (in supposed parallel to magic), but the people who control or fail to control it.
In this light, it becomes clear why The Chronicles of Narnia had no choice but to end in eschatology. In the most explicitly Christian of any fantasy series, the charmingly non-modern countries of Narnia, Archenland, the Lone Isles, and all the rest had to escape before someone figured out how to make an internal combustion engine—a clear threat from the Calor menes in The Last Battle who had no qualms about chopping down the talking trees to serve their technological purposes. Instead of that horror, Aslan made a door from the shadowland Narnia to his own country—happily a bigger and better Narnia—where magic is utterly beside the point, goodness reigns, power is unnecessary, and so, thank heavens, is electricity.
The gospel, fantastical to some, story regardless, is a progressively heightened challenge to the conventions of human power. The Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Romans jockey for position over and against the protagonist who, though born in a manger and invading the city on the back of a donkey, poses an inexplicably terrifying threat. This is strange. They are terrified of the one who among his own in Nazareth could perform no miracles because of their unbelief, who gives good wine to those too drunk to appreciate it. He promises the earth to the meek (disturbing) yet walks an extra mile and gives away his shirt. He disappoints the devil by leaving the stones uneaten and keeping back from the edge of the cliff—he even turns down the offer of all the worldly kingdoms—but still the Romans worry about him. The Pharisees are unsettled, yet the only sign he delivers them is the sign of Jonah. And the Zealots are concerned that he plans to deny himself and lose his life.
Throughout, proofs are refused; miracles, the “magic” of the Gospels, conceal more than they reveal; that Jesus is the Messiah remains a guarded secret. At the end, the thieves on the adjoining crosses taunt Jesus to save himself and them too: let his power supersede their fate. He doesn't. He dies. And in his death “it is accomplished.” The great wizards of fantasy are models of restraint (Dallben in Prydain, Gandalf in Middle Earth, Ogion and later Ged in Earthsea), but in the end they justify the use of power. Its use spells their end. The Christ, however, relinquishes all power. He outstrips the demands of the law and its unstable efforts at peacekeeping by his descent into hell. In his powerlessness, true power finds him on Sunday morning and raises him from the dead.
Paul, undone by the mercy of those whom he persecuted, interprets this quandary that remains inaccessible to human notions of power. The man who was also God, he proclaims in Philippians 2, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, and so he humbled himself, taking the form of a slave. The slave is the one whose name is praised over every other name; the crucified with everlasting holes in his hands is the lord of life. This foolish pattern of God's is wiser than human wisdom, and this weakness is stronger than human strength, and in every case the former brings the latter to shame. As it was for the Son of God, so it must be for the human race, always aspiring to be the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of the universe in pursuit of prophetic powers and all mysteries and all knowledge. The prophecies and mysteries and knowledge avail nothing, but they are not willingly relinquished. Their spell is too strong. Power for its own sake is the original and ongoing temptation.
The end of the enchantment of the human race, then, cannot be its own willing sacrifice of power (which never happens), nor its entry into the mature solution of conflict aided by a little love and understanding (which fails cruelly every time). The end of magic resides in the death of the highest power of all on the cross. This power is demonstrably not power for its own sake. Its solution rejects both godly privilege—something Pullman has never understood about Christianity—and legal right in favor of self-giving love and obedience. This power is welded with goodness and both lead to the resurrection of the dead, a community where the paradox ceases to be a paradox any longer.
The Arthur legends understand this truth better than any other fantastic myth. T.H. White's telling in The Once and Future King recounts the struggle between Might Makes Right and Might For Right, the latter, naturally, being the dream of the young idealistic Arthur. He has great plans for his knights and nation and strives towards them energetically, driven on by faith and chivalry. And yet, sadly, he fails all the same. He is undone by his own mistakes, by treachery and heartbreak, by stubborn human resistance to Right that even the highest ideals and noblest souls fail to overcome. The one hope he might have to set his errors right again is Merlyn—and Merlyn, the greatest magician in history, fails too. While Arthur meets his death and sails (once more on a boat) to the vale of Avalon to await a better kingdom, Merlyn is lured and captured by Nimue, his magic tucked safe away inside a cave until the time of his own liberation. Even his magic ends. And there he will stay until the day of redemption, beyond men and magic alike.
Sarah H. Hinlicky is a senior in the Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary.