Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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It has been a lovely month, with memories of Mary Stewart to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beloved author’s birth. Known for her groundbreaking fusion of mystery and romance set in exotic locales, Stewart is also widely adored for her interpretation of Merlin—and setting up of him as the main character—in her best-selling series, The Merlin Trilogy.

The Crystal Cave, first in the trilogy, provided for me an amazing transport into a new but old world, some of which I began to discuss last week, and continue today, below. This concludes our “Month of Mary Stewart” series as a small gift to the author’s memory, with long hope that all the characters she has brought to life will remain as bright sparks—Merlin’s favorite element—”clear and brightly colored.”

Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

And so there I stood, on a precipice between times, knowing I was about to launch forward into something entirely new, even though it wasn’t entirely new—it was to be my own experience of Merlin, mine, and Merlin, not so much Arthur, as my mother’s stories had always stressed, even when she spoke of the background tales, such as Tristan and Iseult’s romance or the brothers Balin and Balan, and of course, Galahad, Gawain and Lancelot.

Merlin as he appears with his mother before Vortigern, as he is about to gives prophesy of the two dragons (from Wace, Roman de Brut [a verse epitome], England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 24r( (click image)
Merlin as he appears with his mother before Vortigern, as he is about to give prophesy of the two dragons (from Wace, Roman de Brut [a verse epitome], England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 24r) (click image)

Inviting Merlin into my room and my life gave me greater views into worlds I had heretofore only seen in glimpses, and I began to write in greater earnest. I also begged my mother to deliver me upon the doors of every library she was willing to drive me to as I sought to collect any book remotely related to Merlin and Arthurian legends that our system owned. I think she knew she had opened these doors, for she never complained about the ferrying schedule and its frequent jaunts.

I actually did write about many other topics beside Merlin, perhaps reflective of his own study of subjects in addition to magic. And it seemed to me like such magic that I could enter into the lives of so many other people who existed in other realms, unaware I was watching them. I even began to spy on ghosts, writing into my journal the secret passageways they traveled in order to pass through veils, mists dividing time and spheres.

I had been writing poetry for some time and the epigraph at the start of The Crystal Cave, Edwin Muir’s “Merlin”—

O Merlin in your crystal cave

Deep in the diamond of the day,

Will there ever be a singer

Whose music will smooth away

The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger

Across the memory and the wave?

Or a runner who’ll outrun

Man’s long shadow driving on,

Break through the gate of memory

And hang the apple on the tree?

Will your magic ever show

The sleeping bride shut in her bower,

The day wreathed in its mound of snow

and Time locked in his tower?

 —and Stewart’s magician gave me the courage to directly address Merlin in my search for him in all these and other shrouded locales. He remains extant in a collective memory, my part of which sought him out, asking when, when, Merlin, will you unfurrow the world’s brow, or is the best part of any era—the “diamond of the day”—long gone, accessible only to you? Will you breach Time, will anybody ever be able to move fast enough to greet you, accompany you into the world we have now and in which we need your healing arts?

I had always been a very creative child, so it came as no surprise that Merlin appeared in my dreams, and I woke once to write out the words, I seemed to sense him in his oaken shadow. I had detected him very close by and felt more as if I had been transported than dreaming, though conventionality dictated I chalk it up to what my mother labeled “a strong imagination.” Within it I explored what Muir calls the “gate of memory,” wanting to know what could be discovered in the shadows of our past experiences. In search of this and more, I wrote out thousands and thousands of words discovered, experimented with, targeted, discarded, twisted, conjured—all in a quest of sorts, to find this figure I knew I had encountered already.

I wrote Mary Stewart a letter and received a reply. Sadly, I no longer have the wonderful, typewritten return message, though I recall her encouragement of various interpretations of Merlin and best wishes with my own writing. Printed on House of Letterawe letterhead, it traveled the world with me for some time as I often pulled it out as part of my Merlin conversations with people intrigued by tales that swirled around their own memories, and I have been encouraged by how many are genuinely interested in not what is the past, but indeed our past.

“[T]he recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly colored.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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The Complete “Month of Mary Stewart”

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Review: Thunder on the Right

Review: Nine Coaches Waiting

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

Review: The Crystal Cave

Review: A Walk in Wolf Wood

Image of the Week: The Hollow Hills

Review: The Prince and the Pilgrim

Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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We ♥ Mary Stewart

Month of Mary Stewart: A Walk in Wolf Wood

A Walk in Wolf Wood: A Tale of Fantasy and Magic

by Mary Stewart

The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child
The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child

A Walk in Wolf Wood came my way owing to what my mother called “a great pairing”: medieval fantasy and child protagonists matched to my love for the era of Merlin and my then newly-minted Mary Stewart fangirl status. As young adult literature it also suited my age, and I was pleased to see magic wrapped up in the entire package as well. Even for children, Stewart knew how to present intrigue.

Our story opens to the setting of Schwartzwald, Germany’s Black Forest, just outside of which brother and sister John and Margaret are picnicking with their parents, who shortly afterward fall into a post-lunch slumber. As the heat settles around the party, lulling even the afternoon to sleep, the children see a man approach and then pass them, weeping, as his tears “poured down his face and dripped onto the faded red velvet of his coat.” The intuitive pair notice the unusual clothing, naturally, but in discussing it, reject the idea that he is a re-enactor or some other sort of role player. John has difficulty articulating his instinctive understanding that the dancers they’d seen at St. Johann’s were “just dressing up” and that the weeping man seemed to be accustomed to what he wore.

As readers of fantasy are aware, children are intrepid creatures and it doesn’t occur to them to simply watch events pass by—of course these two have to run after the weeping man and see what his story is! It’s practically a requirement—“It’s in the script,” my mother used to say—and the entire experience is better off for of it, especially today when children are much more regulated and corralled than they were in the not-so-distant past. Stewart couldn’t have foreseen the downside of mixing children with Internet, but she presents to them, and all of us for that matter, the magic of imagination and not just where it can take you, but also when.


“It’s not turkey. It’s swan. And that bit’s peacock. Meg, you should just see the way they do them up, all the feathers and tail, the lot! They’re fixing them up now in the kitchens, ready for supper. Just wait till I have time to tell you everything! But we’d better exchange news first. No, no one suspects me. I really came down to get out of joining the boys’ games in the courtyard!” He made a face. You should see them! Black eyes and broken noses are the least of it! It’s all war games, of course, mock fights and tilting at the quintain—that’a sort of tournament practice—and they really do hammer at it. The master-at-arms is in charge, and he’s really tough type. I don’t think I’d have lasted very long there!”


As it turns out, their imaginings and urge to follow the man lead John and Margaret to a house in the forest, where they eventually befriend the one they come to know as Mardian. Though he once had been servant and close friend of Duke Otho, an evil sorcerer called Almeric has placed a spell on him, and he is fated to a shapeshifting existence while the sorcerer has assumed Mardian’s identity at court. The real Mardian helplessly watches Almeric’s takeover plan successfully move from step to step toward its ultimate conclusion, a palace coup that would not only unseat the duke, but also eliminate him and his son, Prince Crispin, entirely. Only John and Margaret can change the course of this wicked plan, though to do so they must enter the castle and place themselves in Almeric’s very path.

While I have never been attracted to werewolf stories, for a reader with my preferences this one nevertheless works well because Stewart focuses on how the spell robs Mardian of his full life and forces him into a destructive existence that eats at his will to overcome it.

“[F]or a year and more I have been as I am now. By day I am still Mardian, but the night, as you have seen, forces the wolf-shape on me, and with it the wolf’s appetite and lust for blood. With sunrise the bloodlust goes, and my man’s shape and mind return, but the memories and the shame remain.”

 Throughout the novel Stewart also weaves an aura of enchantment that occasionally manifests itself in the children’s self-awareness and their conclusion that everything they are experiencing must certainly be a dream. How else could they have walked only a short distance into another time? Moreover, how is it they are able to communicate with Mardian, whose language is different to theirs? For this they conclude they in reality are asleep near to their parents, and they speak a “dream language” that enables communication.

Stewart provides answer for these questions, cleverly inverting the notion that we in the modern era are the sensible, cleverer people, and Mardian’s fourteenth century is populated by the backward and superstitious. Yearning for some explanation for their experiences, the children opt for the ages-old technique of finding an explanation, no matter how illogical, for their experiences and ascribing them to it, whereas Mardian directly faces the truth, counseling them that

“spell it is … and no dream, my dears, as you had hoped. This is real, as your own time is real, and there is suffering to be won or escaped from. It is for you to choose. Choice is man’s right, and for that I leave you free.”

 In this scenario, twentieth-century children seek to escape the possibility of sorcery and imagine an alternate reality to account for it, whereas Mardian explains it quite matter-of-factly, even hinting in rather modern fashion that the choice to remain in the state they have concocted or move away from is their own. It is he, not they, who is unafraid of the idea of mixing time, and he who references their native time without including their own travel within the realm of evil.

A magical cover image: flags flying at the castle, looking a bit Hansl and Gretl-like, getting friendly with the wolf. Stewart is a master at turning the familiar a bit inside out.

As a fantasy tale, A Walk in Wolf Wood more than stands on its own, for it also encompasses time travel and a sense of history, and speaks to the themes of royal life, treasonous activity and the bonds of true friendship. A young adult novel, it attracts grown-up readers as well with its rich descriptions and the storytelling magic fans of Stewart are accustomed to. Simple but not simplistic, it is an engaging read with just the right recipe to charm readers of various ages as they follow John and Margaret and where the enchantment will take all of them.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues later today with “Image of the Week” and concludes next week with a review for The Prince and the Pilgrim.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.