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

Update: Not Exactly Spring, But It’s Coming

Well, it’s another week in which I’m a bit late for my regular posting, and I’ve been meaning since several days to write an update regarding this, but have been rather slammed. Lots of this has been for great reasons, though, such as children going back to school. This meant I had to temporarily tweak my schedule to accommodate morning rides, which will end when the snow and ice go away, and the feel of that is definitely in the air, but still a ways away here in the Great Land. In Los Angeles they have 80° and lots of Lower 48 states are already playing frisbee, though we get to go snowshoeing for a bit more. (It’s fun, you should try it!)

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Traditional snowshoe ~ Image courtesy Wikimedia

This weekend I’ll be hard at work cleaning up a project I’m finishing – more on that to come – and then I’ve got a big schedule next week. So I will probably be absent then as well, but have been making notes for lots of other posts, including the Image of the Month, some quirkage, book and product reviews, food, lovely-smelling magazines, music and more. I think I will be able to peep into Twitter and post a few archival links and reminisce a bit, plus check out what others are creating and talking about.

I’ll  leave you here with a selection from some of the music I’m currently listening to, plus links to a couple of my favorite blogs (including at least one book review). Hope you all are doing well and thanks so much for coming to check us out. See you soon!

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More from Before the Second Sleep….

17 Books Behind Schedule, But Who’s Counting?

I just got a rather sad look at my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge:

I didn’t do so well in 2019 either, as I mentioned earlier this year.

In the past I’ve said I didn’t care, that a book challenge shouldn’t be about the number of books I read. I should be trying out new genres, have a go at my TBR shelf, re-read old faves – something of more substance and intellectual curiosity than achieving high numbers. And yet here I am getting all mopey because my number is low.

I suppose there is something to be said for a number, perhaps an indicator that things are moving along for you – or not, if the numbers start to fall. For instance, I used to read roughly 60 books a year, which I am quite content to admit isn’t really all that impressive, but it was me. It was me moving into other worlds, learning about history, being told a story the way humans are always wanting to be told a story.

And I will also admit, it was kind of cool to be greeted with phrases such as, “5 books ahead of schedule.”

And now ~

17 books behind schedule.

OK, I’ll be honest. I’m not losing sleep over this. It does give me pause to know I’m not engaging in something I typically adore and have all my life. But I love sleep. I often fall asleep reading. I can’t blame it all on Covid, because this downturn was occurring before Novel Corona was a thing (it didn’t help, though, I agree).

Normally I’m not adversely affected by the cold and dark of our winters, but I will admit I do feel something wonderful with the onset of nicer weather, and my deck is definitely calling my name. Also, I picked up a research book I’d been reading, one I’d finished at least half of before I had to return it to the library, which then closed and stayed that way for months. I did finally find a decently-priced copy online; when I reached for it recently, I realized I should just start over, and that didn’t feel burdensome or unhappy in any way.

That must mean something sunny, mustn’t it?

Just for fun…

I leave you with a cover image of my favorite book in the whole wide world.

 

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.

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.

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

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

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

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

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

You, who brought Uther beget the son of the earth

Enchanter, who, with the stars had an alliance

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

O, bard, ensconced in the absence of Time

By the Lady of the Lake

But whilst, for you, the bluebells chime

Are you nevermore to wake?

Excerpted from “Whither Merlin” by Lisl Madeleine ©2016