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:
- The Crystal Cave
- The Hollow Hills
- The Last Enchantment
- 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.”