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.

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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 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

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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

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.

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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.