Merlin Made Real: The Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills

Mary Stewart's Arthurian Trilogy

Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy

Nicola at the Alpha Heroes blog is hosting the Bookworms Carnival next week, and the theme is the Arthurian story. And the question Nicola asks us to post about is this: do you prefer the more fantastical versions of the story, or the more realistic? What role does Merlin play in your favorite version?

My answer is summed up in one author’s name: Mary Stewart.

I remember being sceptical, long ago, when I learned that Mary Stewart had written a set of novels about Merlin. My mom had all of Stewart’s mystery-romance novels, and I’d grown up reading them. I couldn’t imagine how an author who wrote in that genre could possibly start writing about a mystical enchanting/enchanted figure like Merlin. I knew she was a good writer; I just didn’t think she could cross genres like that.

Boy, was I wrong.

I always have wished that magic and myth were real. This was why I loved Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia and similar books as I grew up. I wanted the mundane world to be lit, on occasion, with those moments of breathless wonder that made the hair on your arms stand up. I wanted to round a corner and catch a dangerous glimpse of deity, a split second before it disappeared.

I liked the Arthurian story, but even though the magical elements were there, they seemed subsumed under the much more human story of the royal love triangle and betrayal, and Mordred’s enmity. The magic of Camelot wasn’t much more than the rather jolly atmosphere presented in the broadway musical and the movie. I never really connected this story with my yearning for myth and magic.

Mary Stewart changed all that. And the odd thing was that she did it by making Merlin very much a part of the real world. As far as I know, Stewart researched the history of post-Roman Britain quite thoroughly, and found a historical niche into which Merlin, Arthur, and their literary contemporaries plausibly fit. So we saw the everyday details of Merlin’s difficult childhood, and then more of the politics of his day as he became involved in them.

And this made those moments of magic even more powerful, because they were set into the thoroughly mundane world. These really were out-of-the-norm moments that sent the frisson of awed fear down your back and lifted the hairs on your arms. Merlin, paradoxically, became all the more magical for being, first of all, a normal human being.

I still didn’t know, at that time, that the entire Arthurian story really had Celtic origins; I was only familiar with the elements that had come down through much later Christian reworkings. It wasn’t until even later, after reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, that I finally learned about Celtic myth and legend, and realized where Arthur had come from. But I know now that it was that Celtic background that gave Mary Stewart’s Merlin, and her Arthurian story in general,  the power I’d never felt in other versions.

Until I read these books, the primary figures for me in the Arthurian saga had been Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. (I was only dimly aware of the Grail stories, for some reason.) But after reading Stewart’s books, Merlin sprang to vivid life. And as the story unfolded through his eyes, somehow it made more sense and seemed more plausible.

Both the history and the magic became more real and more potent because they were grounded in this very human yet power-ridden person.

So if I were made to choose which version of any Arthurian tale was my favourite, it would be this set of Mary Stewart books, hands down:

  1. The Crystal Cave
  2. The Hollow Hills
  3. The Last Enchantment
  4. The Wicked Day

And the answer to the second part of Nicola’s question, do you prefer the more fantastical versions of the story, or the more realistic?, would therefore be, “YES.”

Mary Stewart - The Wicked Day

The Wicked Day, Mordred's story

    11 comments

    1. Stephanie says:

      I loved these books; they are also my favorite Arthurian books of all time. In fact, I didn’t know she wrote anything else! I guess I’ll have to check out her other work.

      Every time I read a different book of Arthurian legend, this is my yardstick and, to date, none have measured up.

      I’m entirely with you on this one. Lovely books and on my “read well and read often” shelves.

      • Phyl says:

        She really did write good mystery-romance novels. (I think there wasn’t always romance, even.) Many of them took place in different countries, like “Airs Above the Ground,” which heavily involved the Royal Lippizzaner stallions of Austria. And one, whose title I can’t remember, took place in Greece or on one of the Greek islands. You learned a lot about the region and some of the customs.

        So obviously she was very good at research. When I think about it, in fact, two of my very favourite authors are Scottish women who did amazingly thorough research. 🙂

    2. Linda Austin says:

      I loved these books long ago when I was a teen, and also did not know until later that Mary was known for other works first. I need to read the Merlin books again, and take a look at the others. I remember I liked Airs Above the Ground.

    3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kashicat, Linda Austin. Linda Austin said: @kashicat re Merlin Made Real: The Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills http://bit.ly/dfS47X -Mary Stewart oldies but goodies! […]

    4. I had my first contact with Arthurian tales reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s series: The Mists of Avalon, which is Morgana centered.

      Her portrait of the fairy, the magic (lots of it in the books) remains deeply carved in me. She has detractors, I’ve heard, but I love everything I’ve read of hers, with various degrees. Hmm, must read in the original, I gather. ;P

      Here’s a link to her profile: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/b/marion-zimmer-bradley/

      As to your question, the answer is obvious: the more magic, the better! heh

      • Phyl says:

        I’ve got that book too! I loved the emphasis there as well, though I wasn’t sure I entirely liked her portrayal of Lancelot. I need to read the book again, since it’s been so long, to see if I still feel that way. 🙂

        And yes — ultimately, the more magic the better!

    5. I must re-read Bradley, and read your suggestion to compare. Must admit that I didn’t take much notice much of Lancelot on Bradley’s version. Maybe that’s the problem? heh

      • Phyl says:

        I think my objection may have been a bit shallow: I had never pictured him as she described. Heehee! Though I also felt she made him way less powerful than he’d been in other versions of the Arthurian story. But that may have been Bradley’s point — that in her story, it was the women who had the power, and perhaps Arthur and Lancelot were given such power because the story had always been told from a male viewpoint.

    6. Ray says:

      I got the triolgy on talking books (as I am blind) but now the tapes are worn out. Does anyone know where I could buy audio CDs etc of the series. thanks, Ray

      • Phyl says:

        Ray, they might not be too easy to find, but my first suggestion would be to search Amazon. You might also do a web search for “Crystal Cave Mary Stewart Audio CD,” and you’ll get several results from that. Many of them will be online downloads, called “torrents,” which it doesn’t sound like you’re looking for. But there may be some results among those for CDs. If you’ve got an mp3 player, though, maybe those downloads would work for you instead of a CD.

        Another place to check might be your local library. They may not have CDs for this book, but I bet they could help find out how you might find some. They could even, perhaps, order them in from other libraries.

        I hope these suggestions help.

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