Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory

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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: Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

I first read Thunder on the Right at a fairly early age (11) and recall enjoying the book quite a lot. Shortly before my recent re-read, however, I had to confess I remembered very little of the plot. As I settled in for my re-visitation I wondered how much would catch my attention in “drifts of memory” beckoning from the pages.

thunder on the rightI was surprised to learn that the one utterance I thought I recalled, on the part of the protagonist, did not actually occur—although I could pinpoint the spot I must have been thinking of and which settled into my brain erroneously. Apart from that, none of it seemed familiar, actually a positive circumstance because it enabled me to approach the novel from an almost-first-time reader’s perspective with very little bias.

The caveat I will throw out here, though, is that while I deliberately avoid reviews of books I plan to write about, I hadn’t planned or avoided in this case—not last year when I had been wading through books read in the past and threads regarding what others made of them. Lucky for me, I read reviews with a grain of salt, given how utterly opposite so many predictions have been as regard actual outcomes.

As it turns out, I enjoyed Thunder on the Right as much or more than I did as an eleven-year-old child. In truth, likely more, owing to greater understanding of certain references—“Velasquez getup” and “Roland’s great sword Durandel,” e.g.—and ways of the world. As our story begins to roll, within the “Academic Overture” Stewart utilizes to position the acting out of a dramatic performance, readers are given to understand that protagonist Jennifer Silver’s mother embodies the traits of a parent who today might be labeled “helicopter.” “[W]ith [an] unswerving devotion to the standards of a fading age,” she restricts her only child from much life has to offer under the guise of speaking what she believes Jennifer is too timid to do. For her own part, Jennifer is easygoing and quietly reserved. Together “[m]other and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding.”

At 22, the well-educated but inexperienced Jennifer makes a sojourn to post-war France, where she plans to meet up with her cousin Gillian, who for a time lived with the Silvers following the deaths of her parents in one of the first air raids. She meets up with Stephen, a suitor rejected by her mother just before a two-year study stint, now come to “claim” her, a circumstance Jennifer is unaware of, though not Professor Silver, her father.

Jennifer finds herself enlisting Stephen’s aid subsequent to her first visit to the convent in the Pyrenees, where the widowed Gillian had been staying—and possibly planning to join. Having met with one of the resident orphans and the convent’s bursar, Doña Francisca, the young visitor learns that Gillian had indeed been there, though as a patient following a motor vehicle accident and pneumonia, and had died two weeks earlier. The strangeness of the place, Doña Francisca’s odd demeanor and dodgy response to Jennifer’s appearance, and the sum of reported events not adding up all combine to spur the suspicious Jennifer to investigate.

Initially skeptical, Stephen plays along until events wind up and the fate of poor Gillian is at last confirmed. In Stewart’s groundbreaking style, mystery is joined by romance as the pair become close, noted even by our protagonist, who chides herself for repeatedly “running into Stephen’s arms.” Nevertheless, strong and determined, Jennifer performs her sleuthing as she follows, eavesdrops, noses around and pays attention, eventually drawing a conclusion that now requires the hardest part: follow up. As danger intensifies, so too does the thematic thunder of the title, initially present but aloof. The tension rises as the self-aware nature of the two main characters sparks fears that this play will ultimately end as a tragedy.

One critique of Thunder on the Right is that it has adjective overload and that at least portions of its plot are predictable. In truth, Stewart probably could have made her prose less descriptive heavy and it still would have come out a marvelous story. However, I wouldn’t agree the adjectives add too much weight, and in fact find her descriptive prose stirring and sometimes magical. At her first visit to the convent, Jennifer waits in the unmoving heat of a silent moment:

A grasshopper, leaping across her shadow, spread parasol wings of palest powder-blue and the tiny lizard that flicked across the baked stone seemed part of the same enchantment that hung around her in the stillness.

thunderI would concede the possibility of a predictable reveal, though Stewart did keep me guessing as there was at least one other eventuality to consider. Moreover, there are many more instances of intrigue, action and circumstance that potentially throw up roadblocks to assumptions, and the shifting nature of the thunder’s presence, with characters seeking its location on the right—nod to an ancient omen and the eastward positioning of a tempest now past—leaves readers wondering, with perhaps not a few jitters, what danger it might really be signaling.

As Stewart moves her narrative along readers get a sense of musical accompaniment to pair with “Tragic Overture: stringendo,” or “Danse Macabre” and other chapter titles reflecting events within. As murder becomes a tool to enable continued criminal activity, the thunder is mirrored in betrayals, facial expressions, dangerous waters … a memento mori for all involved, no matter how, in the chilling underworld of the darkly ambitious.

One of my favorite passages in the book serves as part of this linkage, in many instances so subtly placed:

It was a swift beat, accelerando, that thudded behind her, up the turf of the valley track, bringing with it that faint crawling sense of excitement, that slow apprehensive prickling of the skin that is our inheritance from countless long-dead men to whom the sudden sound of galloping hooves spelled danger.

Here Stewart brilliantly captures an involved, collective response sharply, concisely, the rhythm of our own blood beating in time with the musical pieces she summons as we “watch” this story play out, simultaneously becoming part of it. She masterfully manages the multiple threads running throughout, all the while keeping the suspense element dominant over a developing romance. An end result is a thrilling race against time as Jennifer searches for the questions to ask and the answers to lead her forward.

While not the most well-received of Stewart’s novels, I still find this one drew me in and consider it an overlooked gem in Mary Stewart’s legacy. For those new to the author or who haven’t picked up her work in some time, Thunder on the Right is a spectacular choice with the twists, surprises and intrigue that will keep readers up far past bedtime.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for Nine Coaches Waiting.

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Update: This post has been corrected to reflect its series title and add links to related entries.