Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows (With Giveaway)

Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy
by Richard Abbott

See below for details about winning a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows

In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian poetry began to be marginalized by the developing field of scholarly literary criticism, which focused on works fitting complex parameters requiring a rather esoteric body of knowledge for successful interpretation. Earlier poets such as Tennyson, whose works were written for and appealed to a broader readership, fell out of favor.

Perhaps post-war audiences “re-discovered” Victorian poetry once it was realized that it often actually integrated and entailed some of the elements it had been criticized for lacking. Given its enduring Arthurian theme, it is no surprise then, that amongst Tennyson’s work, “The Lady of Shalott” should be one of the first rising to resurgence in popularity: countlessly anthologized and appearing in numerous cultural contexts (video, music, theater, art, literature and more) even into our own time nearly 200 years after publication, it provokes wider analysis and re-interpretation than much modernist poetry, whose seemingly impenetrable nature often contributes to its own dismissal, despite its aim of getting people to culture up. While this is a worthy goal and there certainly is no shortage of study for early twentieth-century poetry, it disregards the lesson Tennyson already understood: holding something out of people’s reach won’t allow them to grasp it any easier.

Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.

Significantly, Abbott opens Half Sick of Shadows with an awakening, though it is veiled by a “kindly darkness” and marked as the Lady’s birth. It is as smooth and relaxed as Tennyson’s own lead-in, “On either side of the river lie/Long fields of barley and rye,” as it initiates the creation and, later, upbringing, so to speak, of an infant and then adolescent who will be the Lady villagers come to know by way of her song. She, in turn, learns about them via her second-hand observations of the people in a mirror housed with her, and to which she eventually begins to talk and, later, question. Their communication is of the telepathic sort, at least the expressive language is on the part of the mirror, which the Lady silently receives.

The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony. Indeed, the Lady travels through time and space as “[s]he ate, and she slept, and she changed[,]” as “[t]he world outside, with its fleeting years, took no notice of her sleep, and changed even more rapidly than she did.” These centuries of growth bring her from a time before people existed and “[n]obody was watching” through the eras until settling into the Arthurian, widening the form of science fiction the book engages.

For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.

As she grows, so too do the Lady’s awareness, needs, questions, demands and reaching out to the larger world. She observes and bonds, solitary as the association is, with a prehistoric family whose habits she admires and thrills to. It is this family whose actions first lend her an unarticulated awareness of herself as a shadow, only half existing, a theme that permeates the novella along with the idea of voice in its physical form and as metaphor. Upon re-awakening from one of her sleep phases, she comes to realize that the nature of the world’s growth and movement forward necessitates forfeiture, though awareness make it no less difficult. She laments her loss and fate within her existence, and one of Abbott’s most poignant passages gives new voice, as it were, to the idea of futility of life within isolation. Having already questioned the purpose of knowing how to speak if there was no one to listen,

[s]he noticed the Mirror’s stream of information falter and then, almost immediately, restart when she spoke of her beginnings. This, then, was the source of the deception. A little tingle of anxiety pattered inside her … Outside of these walls neither person, nor bird, nor animal could properly see her. Perhaps in truth she was no more than a fiction, an incorporeal figment, no more than someone else’s projection. Her fretful feet rattled on the floor, until she seized on a memory of song, a memory of the last time around.

 Surely I am like them? Surely I am as real as they are? I am not just a shadow. I am not.

 She felt a tentative acceptance from the Mirror, but knew that it was still holding something back. The truth she was given was always partial, always qualified. She flung herself full-length on the couch and … screamed at the unresponsive face in front of her.

 “I’m half sick of shadows.”

It is significant that the author utilizes this most famous of all “Lady of Shalott” lines to so masterfully illustrate the power of powerlessness, which might at times contain a wealth of talented, gorgeous magnificence waiting for the freedom to flourish, or the explosive consequences of destruction felt by some in history forced into idleness as a way of life (women), or blocked from society (poets), a lifetime of being thwarted by doubt and questioning by individuals of how real they actually are. The inscrutable, vexing shadows may eventually drive the Lady to one rupture or the other—determined productivity or her own end—and the growth of Abbott’s protagonist as well as the narrative itself as it progresses, contains an additional message within as to the value of any given circumstance and whose purpose it serves.

One easily noticeable trait about Half Sick of Shadows is that there is very little dialogue. It is only recently that this reviewer  discovered how much stronger this can render a well-told tale, and in this case such a possibility rings absolutely true. Abbott’s technique of utilizing the omnipotent observer—in some stories a gamble that may not always pay—works perfectly, and contains a silence and mystery to the feel of the tale as we move through, lending substance and support to the Lady’s feelings of loneliness and anguish following her efforts to oblige the mirror to answer her and later, access others to interact with her.

“I am Half Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

While quite different to such a work as The Metamorphosis, which also experiences very little dialogue and involves a character cut off from others but remaining cognizant of life and events around him, Abbott throughout expertly utilizes allusion in form and narrative, including when the Lady “become[s] desperate with the need to speak and be spoken to.” As in Kafka’s great classic, the theme of voice is part of how the author explores the meaning of being alive and aware as psychological and physical change occurs.

She knew that her voice was high, reed-like compared to any of his own people, and that she could not form the words properly. The parts of her mouth and throat would not allow anything closer. But it was better than nothing[.]

One needn’t be familiar at all with Tennyson or Kafka to appreciate, understand and thoroughly enjoy Half Sick of Shadows, an amazing study as much as it is pleasing story. Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.

*********

Would you like to win a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows? Simply comment below – even a quickie hello works! – and you are automatically entered into the drawing, which will occur in mid November. (This would also make a great gift!!!)

 Alternately, you may comment at the pinned post in the blog’s Facebook page, located here

Please make sure we have a way to contact you!

Click titles to read our reviews for Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports or Timing

For more on “The Lady of Shalott,” please click here.

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.

Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

*********

You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

*********

A copy of Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

*********

Author photo courtesy Richard Abbott

Advertisements

Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”

Today we start our New Year’s resolution a mite early with a series-in-development, one that gives us a space here at Before the Second Sleep to advance more deeply into the realm of poetry, territory we’ve not had much previous occasion to explore. Given our love of poetry and the enormous opportunities one has as poet as well as reader, we have decided it is high time to move forward.

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, one of three interpretations of the character by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting to open with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” partly owing to our considerable affection for all things Arthurian, going back to childhood. This new direction has also been inspired in part by a review upcoming, for a “retelling and metamorphosis” of the ballad.

The works of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, reflect a reality about poetry, in that while in his lifetime his words were exceedingly popular (even when savaged by critics), following his death they receded a bit into the shadows. Dr. Stephanie Forward notes that “with such adulation [as the poet received in his lifetime] a subsequent decline in his reputation was probably inevitable.”

Following two world wars and re-examination of Tennyson’s place within Victorian society, his work began once more to be recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature. As literary tastes change and peoples re-discover the values within what came before, perhaps his poetry again shall wilt and bloom in a representation of the ongoing and also inevitable death and re-birth of the artistic design of our world.

“The Lady of Shalott” is loosely based on the life of Elaine, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur as a noblewoman enamored of Sir Lancelot, later dying from a broken heart following this unrequited love. Tennyson writes of a Lady confined to a castle and subject to a curse that bars her seeing outside save for what is reflected in her looking glass. “Shadows of the world appear” describes how she witnesses life outside via those images, weaving her portrayal of them onto a loom, though becoming weary of the poor substitute the glass provides. “I am half sick of shadows,” she cries, determining that she shall leave her tower, even if it means facing the consequences within the curse.

Below are stanzas excerpted from “The Lady of Shalott,” first published in 1833 in Tennyson’s collection entitled Poems. For the ballad in its entirety, click here, and be sure to have a quick glance at Schmoop’s “Why Should I Care?” section—a brief and easy-to-read segment that may pleasantly surprise you.

Excerpt: “The Lady of Shalott”

[from] Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part III

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

 

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

*********

For our review of Richard Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows, click here.

Image of the Week: The Hollow Hills (Book Cover)

This week’s “Image of the Week” entails a mixture of sorts: between a “Cover Crush” and look back in time, as well as my own experience of how an image can lead to something that touches one much more deeply. For it is the cover of Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills that initially beckoned to a teen me, transporting me deeper into the world of Merlin, surrounding me even more with the magic of his time.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother told me stories of Arthur and Merlin as I grew up, and was delighted to see The Crystal Cave on the booklist we received the summer before I began high school. We were meant to choose three works and be able to discuss and write about them during the school year—I rejected The Crystal Cave in favor of The Turn of the Screw. Disappointed, she purchased the books I listed, but also, unbeknownst to me, the entire Merlin Trilogy: the aforementioned initial installment as well as The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I rolled my eyes when I saw them, but allowed her to line them up on my night table bookshelf anyway.

As it happens, I was a compulsively clean child and habitually performed such chores as pull my bed away from the wall to wipe down the floorboard or ensure there was no developing mark from the mattress. So it was that one day I pulled the table away from the wall to get at the dust behind it, when the books on the lower level attracted my attention—the shifting probably upset them—and I crouched to pick them off the floor.

(Click page for larger view)
(Click image for larger view)

It was a moment that lasted a couple of hours, for I glanced at the cover of The Hollow Hills—was it providence that I happened to pick that one up first?—and began to look deeply into the image as it motioned, called to me, pulled me toward the dusky swirl of a time I could easily melt into, felt I could become part of.

The figure on the cover was not difficult to take in. Handsome, with tousled red hair and rosy cheeks, he gripped a sword and held himself in a defiant stance, as if he were perceiving enemies in the distance and taking measure of his next actions. He seemed to me immensely strong, somewhat daunting, but still someone I wanted to be in the presence of. As a rather quiet child, my mind instinctively flew to the query of what birthed such potency, and I drew open the leaves.

It was Arthur, of course, and the second book in the series, but I do recall flipping through and reading passages here and there, wondering which one of them might tell me more about the world of such a man and how he came to be.

[B]elow me the grass, grey with rime, was barely distinguishable in the thick mist that held the whole place shrouded, from the invisible sea below the invisible cliffs to the pale blur where the winter sun fought to clear the sky. Below the blanket of mist the sea was quiet, as quiet as it ever was on that raging coast.

 Then, on the third night, the wind came. A small wind from the west, that crept across the battlements and in under the doors and set the flames fluttering blue round the birch logs.

As a reader, I had always been able to close my eyes and envision what the words communicated, as if I were watching a big screen behind my lids—at least most of the time—and the images in my mind on this day, brought forth by words more beloved than ever, were enchanting. The castle Tintagel I had dreamt of, the furious wind on a night portending the greatest event for the future of an empire. Something passed through my very soul on that afternoon, and I felt—in words as close as possible to the experience I lived—as if I had made a discovery of utmost importance, that I had uncovered something from my past and simply could not stop now. I must, I felt then, continue on this path and retrieve what it is I knew I had lost.

As I gazed once more upon the cover, the storm raging behind King Arthur seemed not unlike the one I had just witnessed, with a red sky over the castle, beckoning him to his destiny, the same he was directed to that squally night that the baby he, the one for whom the storm summoned, is carried away from his birthplace to his very purpose, to his future.

Why had I never been this mystified by the tales my mother told me? She was an able storyteller, and a gifted reader: her out-loud recitations of Poe were absolutely ghostly and filled with mysterious meaning. Well, she liked King Arthur—King Arthur—but she absolutely adored Poe, who I never took to quite as she did. Perhaps there was a connection between the darkness of his images and the ghosts she regularly told me about and I shrunk from. Her stories were delicious but frightening, and despite her assurances that the manifestations I frequently encountered couldn’t hurt me, I resented their invasion of my space (though I may not have had those words at the time) and how their almost-constant presence assaulted my very being. Only my room—the smaller one I had longed for years to move into, away from the large one I shared with my sister—offered a haven from them, and perhaps, in addition to natural inclination, was why I took such meticulous care of it.

I invited Merlin to my room. Merlin, protector of the future high king, magical, mysterious, occupant of memories that returned in a flood, present in a dissipating mist and the once invisible internal landscape existing amongst a raging sea.

The mist was lifting, drawing back from a sparkling sky. Faintly, high over the castle promontory, grew a hazy moon of light. Then the last cloud blew clear, billowing before the west wind like a sail blowing towards Brittany, and in its wake, blazing through the sparkle of the lesser stars, grew the great star that had lit the night of Ambrosius’ death, and now burned steady in the east for the birth of the Christmas King.

*********

An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller, but more complete, view to the castle behind Arthur.
An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller but more complete view to the castle behind Arthur.

“Month of Mary Stewart” concludes next weekend with a review for The Prince and the Pilgrim and a bit more from my own story of meeting with Merlin. 

 *********

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

Month of Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

September 17, 1916

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mary Stewart, beloved author of such blockbusters as Madam, Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting. With the “Month of Mary Stewart” series we honor the novelist and mark her fantastic presence in our lives, noting some of the special gifts she has presented to us over the years.

Today I take a look at what is my absolute favorite of all her works, possibly not fully articulating how it has translated into a lifelong gift for me, one whose rewards have been immeasurable. My effort is small, though I hope this month’s presentations are worthy of being but a small token, or gift, back to this wonderful storyteller whose tales live on.

Lady Mary Stewart, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

The Crystal Cave (Book I in The Arthurian Saga)

by Mary Stewart

It’s a little strange to imagine that The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart’s mega-bestselling Arthurian novel, made her publishers nervous. She’d been on a best-selling run with her romance-mysteries and they didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. But she took her cue from Geoffrey of Monmouth (admitting in her afterward that his name is mud), re-positioned the Arthurian tales within the fifth century and zoomed the focus in on Merlin, as opposed to Arthur.

merlin-as-a-boyAs the novel opens we meet Merlin, an old man, then, not long after, return via first-person narrative to his sixth year when his uncle returns to court. His grandfather, the king, has for years been trying to learn who Merlin’s father is but Niniane, his mother,  isn’t telling. The boy’s small stature and uncanny ability to know too much, along with the circumstances of his birth, mark him as a “devil’s whelp,” and his name, Myrddin Emrys, is a source of wry amusement, as Emrys means “child of light.”

Much of Merlin’s information comes from overhearing conversation while crawling under the floors of what was once a Roman country house, the heating system not being used by the palace’s current inhabitants. But he also is in the habit of visiting the cave of an old hermit, Galapas, whose education of the boy includes helping him develop his psychic gifts, some of which are demonstrated when we encounter the aged Merlin in the first pages, performing “one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten.” Galapas also teaches him to more clearly see events within the crystal cave that lies just beyond his own.

The king’s accidental death leads to a series of chaotic events that set Merlin on his path away from his native Maridunum and eventually to the court of Ambrosius Aurealianus, whom he assists in his preparation to defeat the Saxon Vortigern and unite Britain. In the course of these events he is captured by Vortigern and readers encounter what is perhaps one of the best-known episodes in Arthurian legend, that of the warlord’s collapsing fortress.

Every day, Vortigern’s builders and engineers construct their citadel, but each night it collapses. His priests tell him the only way to end the cycle is to sprinkle across it the blood of a boy with no father. The legends have various settings and circumstance of Merlin’s capture, though all involve the Saxon soldiers overhearing a companion of Merlin commenting on his fatherless status and swiftly taking custody. Stewart’s version, too, involves such a scenario, and it is worked into the narrative so seamlessly it comes as much of a surprise to readers as to Merlin himself; the idea of a writer working it into the storyline seems like another author’s task, because here it seems to simply happen.

Merlin is quick to understand that the caves below Vortigern’s fortress upset its foundation, but pretends to use the Sight to see two battling dragons and, utilizing “no power beyond his human wits,” advises as to the solution.

I pointed downwards. Below the surface something—a rock, perhaps—glimmered faintly, shaped like a dragon. I began to speak slowly, as if testing the air between us.

Merlin transitions into a frenzy even he doesn’t quite understand at the moment, and awakens to Cadal, his servant, who reiterates events.

“It was all dressed up, like poets’ stuff, red dragons and white dragons fighting and laying the place waste, showers of blood, all that kind of thing. But it seems you gave them chapter and verse for everything that’s going to happen: the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius fighting it out, the red dragon looking not so clever to begin with, but winning in the end. Yes. Then a bear coming out of Cornwall to sweep the field clear….Artos…Arthur…some name like that.”

This passage demonstrates one of Stewart’s most skilled approaches to writing her Merlin, and a major reason why hers is the favorite interpretation of millions. Her Merlin is self-effacing, scoffs at the idea that he uses magic, even claiming at times that what men believe to be magic is mere disguise. We don’t necessarily believe him, and he seems to understand this, and accept it, if somewhat begrudgingly.

Later Merlin uses his same engineering skills, savvy understanding—and a bit of magic—to rebuild Stonehenge and bring Uther Pendragon to assignation with the Lady Ygraine, subject of the monarch’s obsession.

Merlin tells Vortigern of the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)
Merlin reveals to Vortigern the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)

Remaining events of the legend are left yet to be told because there are two more books in the series, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I can recall approaching the end of The Crystal Cave the first time I read it, without a care about a fabulous book about to end, because I had two more still ahead of me, and I’ve heard told time and again of similar experience of others having read this novel.

Even today, reading years after I first dipped into it, Stewart’s descriptive powers remain as potent as ever and the legend fresh and captivating. Unlike so many other portraits of the wizard, this one depicts a Merlin who reaches out from the ages to put paid to the talk questioning his actual existence. His narrative recounts historical events and his part of them as if we are reading actual history (minus the dry parts), and Stewart welcomes us in, as we become one with events and the people who played their roles within them.

Especially for those keen on filling in some of the blanks in their knowledge of Arthurian legend pertaining to Merlin, The Crystal Cave offers a fantastically well laid out plot that also brings life to Merlin’s origins and how he came to be. Stewart’s choice of first-person is perfect as well, as we are able to really get into the heart of who Merlin is, how his perceptions and talents were shaped and what drives him. Though I’d been told stories of Merlin my whole life until I first read The Crystal Cave, and indeed had great regard for him already, Mary Stewart gave much more of Merlin, and I have dearly loved him ever since.

*********

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues next week with a review for A Walk in Wolf Wood.

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

*********

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

*********

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

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

“Then she saw me watching her. For perhaps two seconds our eyes met and held. I knew then why the ancients armed the cruellest god with arrows; I felt the shock of it right through my body.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

250px-beguiling_of_merlin
Vivian (Nimue) reads from a book of spells as she enchants Merlin into a deep sleep. (Wikimedia Commons)

O, Merlin, who moved the great Dance of the Giants

You, who brought Uther to beget the son of the earth

Enchanter, who, with the stars had an alliance

To be Arthur’s counsel, to bring meaning to his birth

O, bard, ensconced in the absence of Time

By the Lady of the Lake

But whilst, for you, the bluebells chime

Are you nevermore to wake?

Excerpted from “Whither Merlin” by Lisl Zlitni ©2016

Book Review: The Dragon’s Harp

Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar
Book One: The Dragon’s Harp
By Rachael Pruitt

Growing up, Arthurian legends were practically part of who I was, having been told them at my mother’s knees; later she began to expose me to written accounts, which I greedily consumed. I’ve lost track of how many or even which versions of the various tales I have read, but one thing is certain: there wasn’t much heard from the perspective of one very central character: Guinevere. So it was with great interest I learned of Rachael Pruitt’s novel of Gwenhwyfar—the Welsh spelling of this queen’s given name—where she came from and what made her the person she became.

Dragons Harp Cover SmallIt is fitting that Pruitt opens the novel not only from Gwenhwyfar’s point of view, but also beginning in the twilight of her life, when she has much to look back upon: this is no naïve girl telling her story as it begins and moves forward, but rather a mature woman utilizing hindsight and the wisdom gained over many years to simultaneously examine her own (and others’) behavior. Now, however, her husband murdered and children gone, Gwenhwyfar shares a moment on the sands with a gull, an encounter reminiscent of the many cultures, such as hers, in which the spiritual wisdom of animals is revered and incorporated into tradition and cultural habit.

Born into fifth century Wales, the young Gwenhwyfar, presented to us by her older self, is at this time eight “sunturns”; she reveres her parents but still recognizes the divisions existing between them as her mother has embraced the new religion. Occasionally Ceridwen acts upon outrages from her new perspective, her own mother somewhat of a go-between in the moments when she oversteps her bounds.

Gwenhwyfar has known war her entire life, and though she still retains some of the innocence of youth, her perspective clearly incorporates the reality set around her:

I tiptoed, even though there was no one to hear me, only the oppressive stillness of damp watching stone, its grey gloom penetrated by a faint haze of light from arrow slits rock-cut at each outward turning of the stairs. The worn steps felt like carved bowls beneath my summer-bare feet.

Nevertheless, Gwenhwyfar is, as she reminds herself, a Battle Chief’s daughter, “not to be bested by shadows.” So it is she wills herself to investigate mysteries that present themselves to her, including by listening in on conversations, one scene drawing me back to Stewart’s Merlin crawling through the unused furnace to eavesdrop on conversations in the palace rooms above him. Gwenhwyfar has inherited her father’s tough stance, even if she does on occasion duck behind her mother’s skirts.

[Remains of the keep at Dinas Emrys image to be replaced]

As the young girl comes of age at Dinas Emyrs, she certainly faces her share of trials, told to us in language filled to the wondrous brim with poetry and magic. Pruitt’s sentences are so fluid readers not only move from one scene to another many pages away without realizing how far they’d travelled, but also do so as part of the story itself, indeed, as part of their surroundings. “I dug into my soul,” Gwenhwyfar confides, “resisting his pull, as if I were digging my toes into sand so as not to get swept out with the tide.”

This, indeed, is how both author and protagonist set it out: the latter by commencing her story at a fireside to a young girl, the former with a “storytelling hearth” aura, the flickers of which can periodically be felt as the pages turn. While the mark of a great “wayback” story tends to be that readers are so immersed in it they forget it is being told from an older or other vantage point—while that is a strength, Pruitt manages to defy the dichotomous nature of that method and still keep us mesmerized within the flow of the tale: Gwen’s metaphorical digging in of her toes is reminiscent of the beach she surveys before she begins her story, and the gull who gifts her a shell, a raven who leaves a feather.

Readers are drawn into the events, warlike and magical—and the two are not always exclusive of one another. Indeed “magic and bloodshed went hand in hand,” as Gwen discovers at a turning point in which her whole world changes in a way that even death had not done. Merlin, her uncle in this telling, reminds her that greatness is typically found in the midst of ordinariness. The merging of elements with dual nature is a theme carried through the story within personalities, relationships, worship, beauty, even to the outcome of how it affects those involved: to their benefit or detriment. The “soft breath of dawn” might awaken to a cruel day; the presence of one with evil in her heart might walk through a night in which “the stars themselves grew tired.” Even the novel’s cover might speak to naked brutality or beauty, most likely both.

There is violence portrayed in The Dragon’s Harp; truth be told, it could not be any other way. Gwenhwyfar’s sixth-century Wales was a violent place where vacuums never existed for very long, a condition which surely also must have influenced the girl to grow into the woman, queen and wife she later became. It was exceedingly breathtaking a tale, a glimpse of sorts, into a world and time of her life many previous storytellers have skipped or ignored in terms of its influence on later history, as if Gwenhwyfar didn’t exist until she became a queen.

Fans of Merlin will also find a treasure within, as the mage appears, as mentioned earlier, as Gwenhwyfar’s uncle and, later, tutor. A seminal moment, one those familiar with the legends will recognize, involves Merlin as pertains to his meeting with Vortigern, who tradition says demanded the blood of a youth without a father to be sprinkled upon the foundations of his constantly collapsing fortress. The boy Merlin is dragged off to be sacrificed, but instead tells the engineers of a pool beneath the foundation, within which two dragons, one red and the other white, nightly battle it out, thus causing the destruction.

twodragonsPruitt’s telling is rather different and the duel between red dragon and, in this case white serpent, is not instigated by a superstitious and desperate king, though a young person in peril is present. The author stays true to the legend, however, and her imagery is punctuated by thunderous music from the skies as magic and community work together to ensure the defeat of red over white, leading to Merlin foretelling the freeing of this sacred land from their enemies and the coming of Arthur.

There are trying times ahead in the novel for Gwenhwyfar and Pruitt’s insight into the girl’s character as well as her times indicates a studied approach to an era in which magic reigned, as well as love and respect for those who lived within it. The detail of characters and perspective is impressive, and it is difficult to overstate Pruitt’s mastery with words, the more so given it is of a world that has all but disappeared to those of the modern world. Rachael Pruitt brings it back for us, a gift from our past sweeping us through time to reach the telling. Along the way readers will find this book exceedingly difficult to put down, and late nights are surely in the stars.

Fortunately for us, Pruitt has plans for four more installments in the Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar series, the title of which perhaps will lead us to clues as to how the tales finally, thankfully, come back us after so long.

*********

This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.

*********