We now draw near the conclusion of this fabulous month we have had re-visiting—in today’s case newly discovering—a selection of the magical and legendary novelist Mary Stewart’s works in honor and celebration of the hundred-year anniversary of her birth.
The Prince and the Pilgrim
by Mary Stewart
This particular title is one I hadn’t read before, so was rather excited when the opportunity arose during this “Month of Mary Stewart” to dive into it—especially as it is set in the same Dark Ages/Arthurian era as her Merlin Trilogy.
In her author’s note, Stewart references Malory’s tale of “Alice la Beale Pilgrim,” a figure who had long fascinated her, and who she had in mind for a scene in The Wicked Day, when Mordred encounters a priest and young girl in the forest. “Here,” she writes, “she is at last.”
Stewart combines Malory’s “pretty pilgrim” and the legend of Alisander le Orphelin with a grail quest as the central plot of her novel. Alice, daughter of a widowed Duke Ansirus the Pilgrim, travels with her father to Jerusalem over time and becomes involved in the rescue of a Merovingian prince as he escapes the fate of his murdered brothers. He carries with him a chalice rumored to be the very cup Jesus used to drink from at the Last Supper.
In the sixth year of the reign of King Arthur, Prince Baudouin, younger brother to King March (Mark) of Cornwall, chances to spy Saxon longboats on their shores, and rapidly develops a plot to set them on fire. This spares the kingdom from invasion, efforts the narcissistic March does not appreciate, and he murders his brother in a fit of jealous rage. The prince’s wife, Anna, escapes with their infant son, Alexander, finding shelter with a relative after a concocted story makes its way back to March that her pursuers drowned the orphan while allowing Anna to carry on. Unbeknownst to all others, Anna bears her husband’s bloodied shirt, one she will reveal when her son comes of age and is tasked with avenging his father’s death.
While The Prince and the Pilgrim does not contain the depth of The Crystal Cave or its sequels, it is nevertheless a well fleshed-out story brought to life from one of the many background Arthurian tales. Stewart adds intriguing tidbits and flaws to her personalities, enabling development beyond a cast of “goodies” and “baddies,” simultaneously highlighting otherwise subtle traits that enable them to survive the sixth century in which they live. Anna, for example, when explaining the precarious politics of the situation to her now-grown son, understands he does not possess quite the savvy she does:
She regarded him. He was a tall youth, blue-eyed like his father, with brown hair falling thickly to his shoulders, and a slender but well-muscled body. Standing tall and aggressive-looking in the bright sunlight from the window, he was the very picture of a splendid young fighting man. No need—Anna admitted to herself, indulgently—no need for such a man, young and handsome and lord of a snug little castle and fertile lands, with good servants and a clever mother, to have quick wits as well.
This provides a bit of a jolt as Stewart’s character concedes to readers that her son is not as bright as he could be: the negative statement of a mother regarding her own child and removal of any cloak of perfection characters such as these often have in legends of old. Readers wonder momentarily if she really means it, or if it is a bit of a tease from the author. There is, of course, her own self-assessment to cement the understanding, along with reader awareness that characters such as Anna survive typically because they must at times shed niceties and face reality. Anna’s goal is her son’s survival, and so it is also brought to bear that mother love in the Dark Ages is both the same as well as very different to that we know today.
Alexander does, however, leave his mother’s protective regard to avenge his father’s death, along the way becoming caught up in a web woven by the ever-present Morgan le Fay, who also has a goal: to acquire the grail on the move, and with it, solidify her own powers, exceeding those already hers, even as prisoner under a sort of “house arrest,” lavish and powerful as it may be. Using her legendary trickery, Morgan convinces Alexander to seek out the grail and bring it to her, an act that in turn will lead to the undermining of her brother and jailer, High King Arthur, forever.
Readers likely spot March as the cruel king-husband of Iseult, and of course Morgan le Fay, the scheming sister to the high king, imprisoned for marital crimes, though permitted to hold court at the castle in which she resides. There also are occasional references to the island’s previous occupiers, such as when someone points to an old road, the “Romansway.” Also to be recognized is the romantic element, not merely of the story itself, but also in how Stewart cleverly develops her characters’ self-awareness. Alexander, who hadn’t divulged his name upon arrival at the castle of Queen Morgan, initially finds it irksome that the servants and all others assume he is base-born.
[T]hen he saw it as another romantic touch in this adventure he had stumbled into: no doubt at some later stage there would be the discovery scene beloved of the poets when he would be revealed as a prince in his own right, and a fitting lover for a queen.
As with reader questioning of what they just read at the passage pertaining to Anna matter-of-factly painting her son as a bit of a dolt, here, too, they wonder if Stewart is playing with them as Morgan toys with Alexander. There is a bit of the formulaic to this strand in the plot, and the orphan prince’s awareness of the requisite discovery of royal status gives rise to the contemplation that Alexander—as well as the story he inhabits—is not quite as simple as originally ascertained. Stewart subtly employs this metacognition, paired with Alexander’s growth in direct opposition to his proxy role in Morgan’s quest, keeping readers guessing all along as to where he goes and what he learns.
As the paths of Alexander and Alice grow closer together, the entire novel is imbued with the typical Stewart narrative, written with a rich flow of sumptuous words that delight and intrigue, oftentimes acting in much the same manner as Morgan’s charms as we see only as much as she wants us to, such is the mastery of Mary Stewart’s craft. She also keeps the twists and surprises and danger flowing all the way until the end, adding to it the personal in the quest that adds another layer of meaning to it all, in this manner truly sharing with us a story for all ages.
Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”
“Month of Mary Stewart” concludes tomorrow with the second of two parts of my own memories of how this amazing novelist brought Merlin to life and what it meant to my world. I hope you will join us!
A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.