Browsing Books: Searching for Merlin Edition

Day’s book has also been released under the title The Quest for King Arthur

My mother used to say that the passions we most care about come to us by accident. That certainly was true of my affection for Merlin, smaller stories of whom intrigued me through childhood as I learned of Arthur, as well as when a set of books my mother purchased—and I initially ignored—mystically beckoned, revealing to me not more of Arthur, but rather the wizard I really wanted to know. I’d never experienced anything like him—whether within words, my own imagination, or memories of a past so distant their familiarity still remained somewhat vague, though shimmering.

Not unlike that day all those years ago, something summoned me recently. I reached into our armoire and pulled out the box set of a television series, The Adventures of Merlin, my son and I had “discovered” about eight years ago. I’d had no intention of re-visiting the show, yet into the Xbox the disk went and drawn I was back into the saga of someone I was first entranced by as a small child. Catching me unaware, Merlin once more drew me close, reminding me of his presence, and perhaps that I hadn’t been paying quite enough attention. He had never been demanding before; perhaps it was my own guilt I felt. Whatever the case, I made plans to seek out more to either revitalize my awareness or add to it. I immediately broke out my unfinished copy of Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin and made a weekend date with the library.

As it turns out, perhaps the best items are at other branches, though that remains to be seen; I’ve requested a few items and will assess them when they arrive. What I did obtain, though not exactly what I’d been hoping for, will at least get me started as I commence my next journey with Myrddin Emrys, whose misted path I hope might become clear and brightly colored.

The Search for King Arthur (David Day) – I’d actually borrowed this book before, and it is one of several from today focused on the king, but the only one in which Merlin has his own chapter. Of course, all the major characters receive one but, not having found precisely what I’d been seeking, this will perhaps best move me forward. Few volumes focus entirely and exclusively on Merlin, for he and the others are woven together in a complex of symbolism and extended metaphor, but it is certainly possible to pick through the threads and re-discover much of what has retreated to the backs of our minds.

Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth (Joseph Campbell) – Compiled from lectures Campbell presented over the course of his lifelong journey studying mythology and “the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths.” Containing metaphors for the human stages of growth, Campbell believed they exemplified the development of humanity and discusses reflections, from all over the world, on the stories.

In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages (Max Adams) – Seemingly linked in theory to Campbell’s ideas, Adams’s volume is “[a] cultural exploration of the Dark Age landscapes of Britain that poses a significant question: Is the modern world simply the realization of our ancient past?” While it does not appear to speak at all of Merlin et al., except possibly in passing, I was attracted to the travel angle and the author’s focus within the locales of their ancient past. “Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks, knights, and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of Britain’s history.” For me, much of this excitement stems from the possibilities of understanding regarding these more ordinary people within the times we still speak of today.

Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King (Adam Ardrey) – Arthur is really from Scotland, Adams posits (a claim he also makes for Merlin); the victors wrote the story and that’s why Scottish Arthur has been erased and recast as an English Christian king. I’m pretty sure I have borrowed this book before but never got a chance to read it; today I picked it up because I’m certainly open to reading what’s behind his assertions, and I probably should. It is true, after all, that the victors write the history. I confess to having heard of this theory before but not really giving it much airtime. It sounds a bit fantastic and, truth be told, I’m a little concerned it will come off as conspiracy theory-type reading. At the same time, truth is stranger than fiction, so who knows? I probably shouldn’t worry about whether I end up agreeing or not, liking  it or not. It’s a dive into history, which is always fascinating. However, I may switch over to the Merlin volume instead, given my limited reading time and how I’m currently needing to divvy it up by topic.

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Guy Halsall) – My dilemma related to the previous book entry, and indeed the book itself, can safely be ignored, according to this author. He doesn’t call Ardrey’s book out by name, at least not in the blurb, but does discount works that claim to reveal “the truth” behind the “historical” Arthur, who is largely a figment of the imagination anyway. I am a little intrigued at what might be the truth that is much more fascinating, as per jacket description, though flipping through the book brought me to one page with the following sentence: “Unless some important new written sources are discovered, which is unlikely, the construction of a detailed narrative political historical account is quite out of the question and always will be.” This seems rather restrictive to me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about history is that it often surprises us (perhaps because we fail to heed its warnings). It also reminds me a bit too much to Allison Weir’s assertion, in the opening pages of The Princes in the Tower, that we are unlikely to ever gain better evidence than what we already have regarding Richard III’s involvement (her “evidence” being laughably suspect, but that’s another story), and gives me a bit of an allergic reaction. Still, we’ll approach with caution and see where it takes us.

Dragons with Many Faces

Illumination of a 15th-century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae showing king of the Britons Vortigern and Ambros watching the fight between two dragons. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

In recent months I’ve continued to check out social media, but not in the ways or as frequently as I used to (which is a good thing). Over the last weeks I’ve been super busy and looking for a lot of lighter items, such as the snooty cat or book addict memes that brighten the days. These are so perfect because it only takes a moment to read them – often the only space of time someone has in a frantic day – but you can carry the good feeling away with you, remembering that spark of sunshine.

In the past month one meme I’ve seen a fair few times is the dragon one: take the opening line or some segment of a particular book/book you last read, &tc. and add the following sentence: “And then the dragons arrived.” I’d wanted to post my own the first time I saw it, but didn’t have time, and you know what happens to “saved” ideas, right?

That turned out to be ok, actually, that I forgot to do it, because when the weekend arrived, I was thinking of this line for a lot of books, including one I had been reading through. My eyes roamed over titles when I passed bookshelves, thinking, how would that line work with this one? Or that one? Then I began leaving tasks I was involved in to go get books whose titles popped into my mind. I began pulling books down solely for this purpose and ended up with a few I think are worth sharing, including at least a couple that could bend how events with these dragons and the characters’ particular situations turn out. It might not be as predictable as we first presumed *rubs hands together* Starting with my favorite book ever, enjoy!

“I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. And then the dragons arrived.”  Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

Part I – Emperor

Chapter One

“Four Princes of the World”

“The Balkan Hill town of Tauresium appears on no modern atlas, and was almost certainly absent from maps that were in use during the centuries that modern historians call late antiquity. The only reason that the village, in the Roman province of Illyricum, is remembered today is that, in the closing years of the fifth century of the Common Era, a boy departed it. Twelve years earlier, his mother, a peasant girl named Vigilantia, had christened him Petrus Sabbatius. Many years later, after his journey to the capital of what was still the world’s largest empire, he was known by the name he gave himself: Justinian.

And then the dragons arrived.”

— William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire

Chapter One

“The Boy Who Lived”

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you

very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

And then the dragons arrived.”

                 —  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“First Day”

“Fairest ladies, whenever I pause to consider how compassionate you all are by nature, I invariably become awre that the present work will seem to you to possess an irksome and ponderous opening. For it carries at its head the painful memory of the deadly havoc wrought by the recent plague, which brought so much heartache and misery to those who witnessed, or had experience of it. But I do not want you to be deterred, for this reason, from reading any further, on the assumption that you are to be subjected, as you read, to an endless torrent of tears and sobbing. You will be affected no differently by this grim beginning than walkers confronted by a steep and rugged hill, beyond which there lies a beautiful and delectable plain. The degree of pleasure they derive from the latter will correspond directly to the difficulty of the climb and descent. And just as the end of mirth is heaviness, so sorrows are dispersed by the advent of joy.

And then the dragons arrived.”

                                    — Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Book One – Mistress of Magic

Chapter 1

“Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place; Igraine, Lady of Duke Gorlois, looked out over the sea from the headland. And she stared into the fogs and mists, she wondered how she would ever know when the night and day were of equal length, so that she could keep the Feast of the New Year. This year the spring storms had been unusually violent; night and day the crash of the sea had resounded over the castle until no man or woman could sleep, and even the hounds whimpered mournfully.

And then the dragons arrived.”

                                    — Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon

Preface

I. The Quarrel Between Agamemnon and Achilles

Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the councels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And then the dragons arrived.”

                                    — Homer, The Iliad

Reading 2019: Better Late Than Never, Right?

I know, I know – it’s nearly March 2020. Hey, it just about matches last year, since that month was when I started to read again. Though there is a bit of an uptick this year, since I did actually blog on January 1, whereas 2019 didn’t see any of that activity until the third month.

Yes, things are still not quite as fast as they once were, but improvement does come, slow as it may be. Happily, I did finish my first book of 2020 just a few days ago and our approach toward March indeed brings my mind back to this time last year, when illness preoccupied my days and ghosts visited at night. As mentioned here, I slept a lot, but by the month of Mars, I’d sat up a bit more and began to reach for the world again.

As has been customary for me, I write a tad about that world, found in such a large portion in the books I read, and my first from last year, I am super excited to say, is coming up for review here pretty soon:

A true story based on a 1680 ballad, The Ghost Midwife is book two in Annelisa Christensen’s Seventeenth Century Midwives series.

Not long after I began to look at books I’d been wanting to read (catch up on the Alexander McCall Smith series) or re-read (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China), and there was also some familiarity in store with authors established in my repertoire (Joanne Larner, Lars Hedbor). I did some reading about ravens, given a group of them had a longtime habit of hanging out in my back yard, and one used to perch on my window to watch me as I typed. Another curious animal showed up in The Inquisitor’s Tale and I encountered a new portrayal of old favorites (The Retreat to Avalon).

Recommendations seemed to dominate this last batch of reads, which started with Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers, in follow up to this same author’s Company of Liars, read in 2017. In reading this second novel, I knew I was safe from dangerous events within, but Maitland’s narrative kept me on the edge of my seat and to this day I still use the word scary as one descriptor for this un-put-downable tale. Gone Girl and Little Fires Everywhere have both been made into movies, and The Midwife’s Tale came to me from someone who knew of my attachment to Annelisa Christensen’s midwives and fondness for mystery. I’m looking forward to more from both authors.

It wouldn’t be a real follow-up to my January blog entry if I didn’t mention 1066, gifted to me years ago by the same sweetie who sent this fabulous stash. It’s important because events discussed in this book are a significant reason for my current WIP, a story being partially dictated to me by someone who lived at the time of the last ubiquitous palindrome before 2020-02-02 – over 900 years ago. She’s called Adela and I bet you can easily spot the two books below that more than strongly hint at which former kingdom she called home – and that I’m perfectly smitten with.

So, I’ve only read one book so far this year, but I thoroughly enjoyed it – extra lovely given it was a Christmas present. I’ve got a few more going and, though I know it will stay slower owing to my research reading, I’m getting there, aiming to end up with another one for your shelf. In the meantime, Adela is looking forward to it.

Book Review: The Retreat to Avalon (Book I in The Arthurian Age)

Having grown up with a large portion of my attention almost continuously tuned to the era within which The Retreat to Avalon is set, the title naturally piqued my interest. I adored all the same figures millions of others did and could never get enough. It also happens that I am a great lover of “regular people,” often craving glimpses into the lives of those who lived in an amazing time but who were, perhaps, not unlike many of us. Author Sean Poage opens his projected trilogy, The Arthurian Age, with a chronicle giving us the best of both, bestowing upon us, especially those of us with a thirst for the ordinary, a glimpse of the Gawain we’d always longed for but never quite attained.

avalonThis author guides us away from lofty tales of virtue and beheadings, steering readers toward the more gritty world of crumbling Roman holdings and those willing to fight for its survival. Rome sees Poage’s Arthur as their last, best hope, and as the High King makes his way to war in Gaul, so too does Gawain, who until then had been living in the shadow of warriors, seeking a path for himself in a time of peace. A fairly sizable chunk of the novel’s first portion sketches out Gawain and his existence at home, depicting his struggles, small victories, relationships and dreams as we learn the who’s who of Gawain’s world and how it operates. Readers really get to know the ways of this era, not because Poage tells us, but through a narrative that truly sets us within, amongst the characters.

The Retreat to Avalon’s prologue sets up the story—and brilliantly so. Rather than a small bit of informative detail, the author allows characters to draw the curtain, but not merely with expository dialogue, though this is not a bad technique when done well, which Poage does. We recognize decades of history in the exchange between a pair of officials, who do sneak some backstory into their conversation, though they also reveal fears, dreams, and that which devastates one but is a symbol of future prosperity to the other. I did wonder about the extensive knowledge and economic projections Sidonius passes to Anthemius, specifically why the latter lacks such understanding. As a poet and diplomat, the Gallic Sidonius may have been better placed to draw such conclusions, than the at-times mistrusted Greek, whose military career tended toward the administrative. This speaks well of Poage’s research and which historical figures he chooses to fill certain roles.

This dexterity is brought to bear on the novel as a whole, and as the story progresses, we see a Gawain influenced both by the pre-Galfridian and Vulgate cycle of Arthurian legends. While there could be said to flow an element of the spiritual through the novel, Poage does not use it to paint Gawain as unworthy of any given “quest” he undertakes. He is human; he experiences errors in judgement and could have done differently at times. Still, he is brave, courteous, loyal to his oaths—just as we remember him—and devoted to his wife, Rhian. His parentage gives a nod to the Welsh tradition, as does the name of his brother, though his sibling is reminiscent of the character from either telling.

So too do we find elements that match our memories of these characters as the author moves us away from the realm of the magical to tell a story as it might have historically occurred. Even Merlin—who appears rarely—hints at the ordinary nature of his gifts. Jokes play the role one might expect them to in wartime, and when coming across them, I found myself actually chuckling aloud in the appreciation of a break from the hostilities. Some comedy is more sophisticated than at other points, but they all fit right into their passages, contextually as well as materially. Plus, they do their job.

            “A letter!” Gareth, looking obnoxiously awestruck, took back the jug and had a long pull. “You need to stop spending so much time with your letters, and your books and your lords and your…” He trailed off for a moment, struggling to continue the thought. “And whatever, and spend time with the lads. The goodwill you earned for the wine back at Cadubrega won’t last forever. In fact,” Gareth’s voice lowered conspiratorially, “I’ve been hearing many people call you the southern end of a northbound horse.” He nodded seriously, wobbling slightly. 

            “Who said that?” Gawain was more puzzled than angry.

            “Well, just me,” Gareth shrugged. “But I say it a lot, so it seems like many people.”

It is in moments such as this that one feels closer to the characters, and in the laughter comes a feeling of pleasure that we got to know them. Gawain’s story has been laid out and now we follow its trail, with rich passages of detail unburdened by excessive description. It is more as if we are within the scene, taking it all in ourselves; it is not merely a case of the narrator feeding us individual or stilted descriptions of what surrounds us—and there is a lot. This may account for the rather lengthy chapters, which ordinarily can wear me down a bit, though in this case I felt almost buoyed as I experienced each chapter, the scenes of which transition from one to the next so smoothly it can be difficult to stop reading. This includes the battle scenes, which, like the others, are written in a reader-friendly style that treats its audience as intelligent participants without overburdening them with less-than-commonly-known period or linguistic detail. The battle scenes, it should be stated, are some of the best in the book.

The only quibble I have with this author’s writing style is his wont to use action beats and speech tags interchangeably (e.g. “No, stay mounted,” Gawain waved), which can be slightly jarring for the expectation of words that aren’t there. However, he just about makes up for that with his pleasantly even use of “said” and other tags, such as “quipped,” “interrupted” or “groaned.” I’ve seen a lot of advice in recent years about sticking to mostly “he said/she said,” therefore many authors do. Poage, however, takes the matter into his own hands and succeeds by sprinkling all types around.

I would definitely be remiss if I left out one of the best parts of reading anticipation, something many people frown upon, but almost all people do: judge the cover. At a little over 400 pages, the heft is just the right amount to cheer one at the thought of sitting down with it, and its attractive images, inside and out, lend themselves to a perusal, a flipping through and contemplation of what we are soon to encounter as we take up the book. Each chapter head is illustrated with a simple, though not simplistic, drawing, the style of which reaches out to the ends of the page in actual scale but also breadth of imagination. I found myself, with each, wanting to continue scanning with my eyes, for the image to continue along far after it actually does.

This is not so different to how I feel about the book as a whole—it ends when it should, but I’m very pleased to know The Retreat to Avalon is just the first in a trilogy, and there is more to come. Anyone who knows even the basic layout of the Arthurian legends will find this version gripping for a number of reasons, amongst them the ordinary and extraordinary people whose lives contributed to this age as they filled and fought within it on their terms. Sean Poage brings to life for us the stories of people we so often want to read about, but whose voices, for various reasons, are in the margins, like the rest of the pictures we so long to see.

About the Author

SeanPoageHistorical fiction author Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied life as a laborer, soldier, police officer, investigator, computer geek and author. Travelling the world to see history up close is his passion. These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can and spends the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride, scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.

About the illustrations, the author adds: “The chapter illustrations were done by Luka Cakic, a very talented artist in Montenegro. When most people imagine King Arthur, they picture the later medieval romance versions, with plate armor and stone castles. It can be difficult to visualize an era we know little about, so I wanted to provide some pictures that might help anchor the reader in the time, and give a mental image to moments from the chapters. Luka worked with me through the process and did a fantastic job merging his style with my goals.” Check out our author’s interview with his illustrator here.

Have a gander through the rest of Sean Poage’s website, seanpoage.com. This June will be the one-year anniversary of The Retreat to Avalon‘s release, so there will be a giveaway contest! Visitors who comment on any of his blog posts will be in on the chance to win a signed copy of the book.

Look for The Strife of Camlann, Book II in The Arthurian Age series – coming soon! The Retreat to Avalon is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find the author at Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and BookBub.

About the Reviewer

Lisl has loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy since childhood and has lost count of how many times she’s read the books. She also adores poetry and, once she overcomes the fear of baring her soul, will be ready to publish her own first collection. She is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Alaska Women Speak. She is currently working on a book of short stories, a tale set in 1066 and several essays, and it is her dream to write a ghost story on par with the best of the spooky Victorian writers.

Freebie Friday: Giveaway Bonanza!

Need help filling up your shelf? You’ve come to the right place! I think it was last month I started somewhat of a flurry of reviews that came one after the other, many of which have giveaways attached. Typically I hold drawings one to two weeks out, but this time Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas kind of darted in and out of my schedule and plans, and dates became sort of wonky.

So, for your ease and mine, I decided to post a blog with links to all the drawings in one spot. Simply click on the link (book title) to the review for any book you like the look of and comment there – fancy schmancy not necessary – to get your name in the drawing. (And be sure to leave current contact info in the event you are our winner!) Since some peeps have difficulty commenting at WordPress, I’ve also linked to respective Facebook threads where you can comment instead. You do not need to comment at both; one works perfectly well. Unless otherwise indicated, blurbs are from Amazon and author names link to their websites and/or blog.

There is no limit of books you can enter the drawings for – enter them all if you like!

Drawing to be held December 16 

So without further ado, here are the prizes up for grabs:

Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy by Richard Abbott (One paperback copy available, and this author also has December Deals from December 10 – 17)

Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot. The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost, swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.”


Lars D. H. Hedbor is offering our winner a choice of any one of his books in paperback. In this case, review links are below and blurbs at author website; click author name to access. (He also has a promotion for free e-copy of The Declaration; click book title to get yours straight away.)

The Light (Tales From a Revolution: New-Jersey)

The Smoke (Tales From a Revolution: New York)

The Break (Tales From a Revolution: Nova-Scotia) 

Excerpt from The Break

The Wind (Tales From a Revolution: West-Florida)

The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

The Path (Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island)

The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

 

 

 

 


Child of the Northern Spring by Persia Woolley (Blogger is gifting one paperback/hardback copy direct from online retailer)

Among the first to look at the story of Camelot through Guinevere’s eyes, Woolley sets the traditional tale in the time of its origin, after Britain has shattered into warring fiefdoms. Hampered by neither fantasy nor medieval romance, this young Guinevere is a feisty Celtic tomboy who sees no reason why she must learn to speak Latin, wear dresses, and go south to marry that king. But legends being what they are, the story of Arthur’s rise to power soon intrigues her, and when they finally meet, Guinevere and Arthur form a partnership that has lasted for 1500 years.

This is Arthurian epic at its best-filled with romance, adventure, authentic Dark Ages detail, and wonderfully human people.


Insurrectio and Retalio by Alison Morton (Two prizes: one e-copy of each book)

In Insurrectio

‘The second fall of Rome?’ Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk. But 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader. Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy…

And Retalio

Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century. Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.


There is Always A Tomorrow by Anna Belfrage (One e-book available)

It is 1692 and the Colony of Maryland is still adapting to the consequences of Coode’s Rebellion some years previously. Religious tolerance in the colony is now a thing of the past, but safe in their home, Alex and Matthew Graham have no reason to suspect they will become embroiled in the ongoing religious conflicts—until one of their sons betrays their friend Carlos Muñoz to the authorities.

Matthew Graham does not leave his friends to rot—not even if they’re papist priests—so soon enough most of the Graham family is involved in a rescue attempt, desperate to save Carlos from a sentence that may well kill him. Meanwhile, in London little Rachel is going through hell. In a matter of months she loses everything, even her surname, as apparently her father is not Master Cooke but one Jacob Graham. Not that her paternity matters when her entire life implodes.

Will Alex and Matthew be able to help their unknown grandchild? More importantly, will Rachel want their help?


Hearts Never Change by Joanne R. Larner (One paperback copy available)

Richard III as you have never seen him before! Richard has been King of England and France and Lord of Ireland for over twenty years and he is beginning to question his life. He misses his secret wife, Rose, who had to return to the twenty-first century when she found she was expecting twins, both for her own and the babies’ safety. Everyone around the king seems to be happily in a relationship. The realm is at peace and his son and heir, Richard junior, is of an age to take over the reins of government, so Richard makes a decision…


Good luck to all!!!

Update: Some of the older reviews for the Tales From a Revolution series are unlinked as they were done before the drawing was planned.

Feel free to comment there anyway OR at any other review from that series OR below on this post OR at this post’s Facebook thread, located here

Whichever is easiest for you; we’ll be checking them all. 🙂

Book Review: Child of the Northern Spring (Plus Giveaway)

Update: Drawing referenced below will be held December 16

(see link here)

I no longer recall how it was I came into contact with Persia Woolley, though I do remember it was on Facebook we first spoke. Perhaps I messaged her with the same words of adoration she’d heard a thousand times before, something like, “I read your books when I was in school and loved them ….”

No matter; she was always gracious and friendly. In our case she had a connection to the isolated place I live in and frequently asked about my child by name. It was as if he was her own relative, and her recall of his antics gifted me with fits of laughter all over again. Knowing of my love for Richard III, she sent me a booklet and we chatted online about word etymology, reading and writing, snow, teenagers and pizza–all sorts of fun stuff, and when looking back I was surprised at how extensive our little snippets of chatter were. 

One day I picked up the phone and dialed her number, expecting that she might be too busy or politely end the call after a decently lengthy enough courtesy exchange. Instead, when she heard my name she launched straight into conversation and we talked for at least two hours. It was like a birthday present, and I marveled later not at how much smaller the world has become (or so it is said; I’m not sure I believe it), but rather that some of the people within it are just as pleased to interact as we are. Persia, though, was more than just great at making people feel special; what you said mattered. I could always see that in her responses, and I valued it greatly. I still do.

On October 4 I was surprised and saddened to receive a message early in the morning, via comment subscription at her website, that Persia had passed away. I knew she was older and she had always spoken openly of aging, for the better and worse. I guess, though, when some people are so full of life, we forget that they are subject to the same rules of eternity as everyone else. It was a harsh lesson for the day, because I loved and cherished her presence in my life, online though it mostly was, and I already missed it sorely. 

I have long wanted to write a review of Persia’s words, and so today I present this one, hoping that on this day, this wonderful lady’s birthday, it can be like a gift for her, shared with many others who perhaps will see her works for the first time and join Guinevere’s world, or those who, like me, were earlier acquainted and fall in love all over again. I’ll be re-reading the next two in the series and hope you will as well. 

In memory of Persia Woolley and as a special thank you, I would like to gift a copy of Child of the Northern Spring

Please see below for more information 

Godspeed, Persia, and until we meet again!

Child of the Northern Spring
Book I of The Guinevere Trilogy

by Persia Woolley

I first read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere trilogy when I was in high school, loved it and was sure I would again. What I didn’t realize, when I recently began re-reading Child of the Northern Spring, was exactly how much I would enjoy this book, how much more, this time around. First in a series depicting the Arthurian age from the eyes of Guinevere, Child of the Northern Spring is packed with detail: expert observations of human behavior, particulars of the natural world and idiosyncrasies of various relationships—for starters. The narrative is written as if by the hand of someone who has actually experienced life in these times, ridden the trails and watched the world of the day, then with magnificent recall tells us of the era we long to know.

Updated cover for Child of the Northern Spring. I love the visual of Guinevere!

Readers join the story as Guinevere, Celtic princess and daughter of King Leodegrance, recalls the previous night when a bit of panic had set in and she scrambled to make a getaway from the next morning, now arrived, when she would begin her journey to become High Queen, wife of the legendary King Arthur. Reminded of the strength of Celtic womanhood, Guinevere determines to make the transition and her recall opens up as she remembers the road leading to this moment.

As the measured progress of her wedding journey slowly makes its way south, readers and protagonist are taken along the pathway of the princess’s childhood, and in alternating chapters, Guinevere tells her story as she describes the drive to her new home, the two roads ultimately meeting as her destination draws near. Woolley so expertly fuses the two times while simultaneously distinguishing which events are happening when, bringing to bear on a life story the understanding that in some manner everything is linked, as far apart or disparate as it all seems to be. Guinevere, too, her sense of history—personal as well as social—merging with contemplations of those yet to come, envisages a future in which “our lives shall run together. Like a tapestry of human endeavor, woven on a god-held warp, dyed with the glories of each individual’s action[.]”

One of the elements I liked best in this Arthurian novel is likely what many others have as well—the representation of a strong female character. It is important to remember, however, that such individuals, while they surely existed in real long-ago times, are not simply more ancient versions of today’s feminism. Respecting historical women as the individuals they are entails understanding what is important to them, in their context and from their perspectives, and Woolley portrays this magnificently as her Guinevere shares seeds of success, dreams, and toil that benefit all of her people without prejudice, aware that the true test of a leader’s success is how well all of her subjects fare, not only a focus group.

Two major conflicts disturb Guinevere’s progress: loyalty to her homeland, Rheged, where she was groomed to be queen, and the new Christian church, looming large before her, raised as she was in the old ways. As we learn more of her background, she too begins to see with new eyes the childhood that led to these moments. Woolley breathes new life into the tales of this character, often depicted elsewhere as passive and perhaps a bit spoiled, and succinctly portrays why—apart from leaving the only home she has every known—Guinevere is apprehensive about departing Rheged. The links of political allegiances, relationships and past events are expertly fused and the author avoids the common trap of getting lost in the wants of various warlords. The characters’ motives are believable, and how Guinevere embraces change well-balanced: she neither acquiesces easily nor exhibits stubborn refusals.

Cover for Child of the Northern Spring’s original 1987 edition

The book has a rather wide cast of characters, and Woolley manages their appearances proficiently, often naming chapters for the focus of that moment in Guinevere’s journey, with occasional re-appearances. Many, like Morgan le Fay, are familiar, and Woolley’s realistic treatment of them adds to the refreshing nature of this book, originally published in 1987, while remaining true to their mythologies.

Morgan was on her feet and pacing by then, moving with Arthur’s sure stride from one end of the room to the other. One hand nervously twisted the black curl that hung down by her ear, and she was such a contrast to her mother’s fair composure, it seemed likely the title “le Fay” hinted at her being a changeling child. I remembered our first meeting and half-expected her to vanish in a fit of rage, with or without the magic of a Druid’s Mist.

Observing these events and all the layers within them from this different perspective enables readers to contemplate characters in a new way as well, perhaps deconstruct a bit so we might question our understanding of who they are, see their humanity. As Guinevere herself seeks to answer questions pertaining to identity, she must utilize the diplomacy lessons she was reared on to see her through, and find her place as queen to a king attempting to unite a nation.

Looking at the story in acts, readers would see that there is no true arc within, as tension bubbles throughout the story while various events unfold. Moreover, knowing this to be the first part of a trilogy, I tend to see this installment as Act I in and of itself, as most who know the legends are aware of the troubles to come, and readers will be hungry for more of Guinevere as only Persia Woolley could present her.

 

To be in on your chance to win a free copy of Persia Woolley’s Child of the Northern Spring,

please comment below OR at this blog’s Facebook thread, which can be found here.

Drawing will be held in mid-December.

The Guinevere Trilogy:
(click links)

Child of the Northern Spring (Book I)

Queen of the Summer Stars (Book II)

Guinevere, The Legend in Autumn (Book III)

Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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Banner created by and used courtesy Turtle

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: The Prince and the Pilgrim

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.

princeIn 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.

old-prince-and-pilgrim
This is my favorite cover for this novel–for the lovely script and medieval mood of the illustration

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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“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.”

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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.