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.

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth.  Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.

madamWhile Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.

Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.

Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.

A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:

All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.

Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.

MyBrotherMichaelThe author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.

Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”

airsStewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”

It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”

Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.

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Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred,  passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.

Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for

Thunder on the Right.

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Works Consulted

Hauptfuhrer, Fred. “Novelist Mary Stewart’s a Lady, Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity.” People. September 6, 1976. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Hutchinson, Chris. “Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart: Doctor of Letters.” Durham University Honorary Degrees Speech. July 3, 2009. http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ceremonies/congregation/stewart_mary.pdf. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Page, Katherine Hall. “Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales.” Mystery Scene. mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2354:mary-stewart-teller-of-tales&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Thompson, Raymond H. “The Camelot Project: Interview with Mary Stewart.” Robbins Library Digital Projects. April 14, 1989. d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-mary-stewart. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.”  Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon.  amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.

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Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series. 

What’s in a Book?

 

crystal cave
This is the cover of the copy I had as a teenager. Together with the image on The Hollow Hills, Merlin and his time sang out for me.

As you have likely figured, I love books. Since childhood I have reveled in the feel of a book in my hands and been drawn by the stories within. The Crystal Cave was one such force. Having grown up hearing my mother tell tales from King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, I thought I’d had enough, at least at that point, and stowed the trilogy she’d purchased (anyway) on the shelf in my night table. When dusting one day the book did what you hear about in films: it called to me. I tried to clean around it but the world within was relentless, beckoning, pulling, whispering my fate. I remember still being crouched on the floor next to my bed as I reached the fourth of fifth chapter.

For my money, this is what a book should do–get a hold on you and resist letting go. One author remarked that one of the greatest compliments he can get is when someone says they lost sleep reading his work. Dinner burns; you hang onto the strap in the Metro with one hand, open book in the other; errands fall by the wayside; or you keep thinking about what happened last and when a free moment comes once more, you head for that book. There are a lot of ways to feel the pull and I know many of you share the sentiment when I say it is a wonderfully delicious sensation.

Hollow Hills
The cover I knew way back when. It was as if I recognized the place I was from, and longed to return.

Later, in university, I was so fortunate to enter the classroom of an amazing professor whose classroom style, wealth of information and sheer love of literature–you could feel it in the air and settling on your being–was so infectious that she practically had followers. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I was delighted to discover I was not the only one who had found one day that something was different about our love of reading. It had reached a whole new level. Perhaps we understood about the key she had just handed us, that she was teaching us how to unlock the door to yet more worlds. There’s no way to teach anybody everything there is to know about literature in four years, and I do admit to having been a bit burnt out toward the end, but what I learned about it, what else I can see and gather from what is present in any story–and not–made it all the more rich and rewarding. Many others know more than I do, and so the learning process continues, and will, until I am no more. She gave that to me, to us.

It’s a great honor for me to be able to perform even a fraction of what this gifted professor did. Reading is so important in life, the earlier the better, for practical as well as “leisurely” reasons, and if I am able to open up this world to anyone, even lead them to a fantabulous story they remember for life, I consider that a great success. It reminds me of a poem a friend once gifted me inside a greeting:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.–Ralph Waldo Emerson

So it starts with practicality: great recommendations toward books worthy of the time, money and energy readers invest in them. I only review works that meet this criteria.

That said, what exactly does it take to meet this criteria? Any given reviewer, myself or anyone else, has his or her own tastes, some of which may overlap with others’. Ultimately it comes down to the question Would you tell others they should read this? with a breakdown to the following points:

  • The blurb describes a plot that captures my attention and develops within the book in a well-written, logical and authentic style. It is researched well.
  • The work maintains a reasonable balance between being reader- and writer-friendly. That is to say it doesn’t spoon feed me information or isn’t dumbed down, but also doesn’t rely on referential material the author is withholding or unreasonably expecting me to know already.
  • Characters are developed and meaningful; I grow to care for and remember them long after the book is finished.
  • The language is lovely—the words needn’t be posh or expensive, but they are more than mere vehicles for the transit of information. Instead they touch me in a way that draws me in and makes me think. I also appreciate words that flow like water off my tongue as I read them aloud.
  • I become so invested with the book I don’t want to put it down.
  • Economy: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” As short as Hemingway’s six-word short story is, it tells a tale that even can be interpreted in more ways than one, and that impresses me. It’s a somewhat extreme example of how someone can say a lot with very few words, but it gets the point across rather well, no? I very much admire authors who can do this.
  • Literary techniques are utilized so seamlessly the links they create seem part of the natural landscape

While this is not an exhaustive listing, it covers the major areas where I look for quality. Of course, some books touch each of us on different levels, which is one reason I enjoy reading reviews as well as writing them. This enables me to get a glimpse through the eyes of another onto the world we share, the same books we may experience. Some books find their way to a special spot in my reader’s heart, such as The Crystal Cave and the rest of The Merlin Trilogy. No matter how often I read them, I am transported and the world outside pauses as I join this one, as happened to me first during that long-ago teenage day.

thelastenchantment02.png
By the time I reached this volume in the series, I was losing that feeling of knowing there was still so much more ahead to read. It triggered a quest in me: to find and read every book about Merlin and King Arthur I could find. My mother watched knowingly, willingly chauffeuring me from library to library, bookstore to bookstore.