We’ve reached the point in this recap of Really Like This Book podcast scripts about King Arthur when we really have to talk about Mary Stewart. She died in 2014, which came as a shock to me. I had been living in the same time as one of my favourite authors, and never had the gumption to write her a letter? Fool. I wrote a humble obituary instead.
Mary Stewart wrote a magical series of five Arthur novels, starting with The Crystal Cave, and the life of Merlin. The following four are The Hollow Hills (in which Arthur grows up and comes to his kingdom), The Last Enchantment (the early years of Arthur’s reign, still struggling against the Saxons), and The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred, given a rather sympathetic twist). The fifth novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim, I haven’t actually read, and I didn’t even know it existed until I started researching this pod. I think this must be because I bought the other four novels in one go, and this last one was published after that, and I simply didn’t notice. I’ll have to go and buy it now, * but I do know that it’s about the finding of the Holy Grail.
My favourite is The Crystal Cave, which I first read lying fully dressed in a sleeping-bag, in a tent in mid-Wales, in the March snow, desperately trying to finish the book before the light went, or my torch battery went. That was the first and last time I went on a camping holiday of my own free will, and The Crystal Cave did a lot to make the experience bearable, by taking me away from it completely. It was completely unputdownable, and still is, for me. Part of its attraction is that it isn’t about Arthur as such, but about the events led up to Arthur being born. I’m quite aware that Arthur is a myth and a fantasy in many forms, but for simplicity I’m going to pretend he was a real person, because in the world of this genre he is, and because it saves me writing a lot of conditional ‘might haves’.
Merlin also did not come first: before Merlin and Arthur were King Uther, who was Arthur’s father, and his elder brother the High King Ambrosius, who was Merlin’s father. They are crucial to ground the story of Merlin, because it is so completely unknown. Mary Stewart makes a terrific job of placing him in a historical lineage (Ambrosius is mentioned in something more reliable than Gildas, I think), and within a Roman military tradition.
Merlin doesn’t know who his father is, and nobody else does either, because his mother, a princess in south Wales, has refused to let anyone know. It’s assumed that he must have been the devil, since she comes from a decent household. Merlin grows up in his grandfather’s palace, which is a patched-up ruin of a Roman villa, in Carmarthen. He is bullied and picked on, but is resilient, and clever at getting out of the way. He finds a cave in the hills nearby, and meets its owner, a hermit called Galapas, who becomes his supplementary tutor. The cave releases Merlin’s magic, which he knew he had in a vague sort of way, since he has inherited his mother’s second sight. As Merlin gets older, he becomes more aware of the politics of his world, and the threat of war that is always lurking on the horizon. The usurping High King Vortigern has invited the Saxons in to defend his kingdom, and has to pay them more money each year to keep the land safe from other invaders. A rival force, led by his sons Vortimer and Katigern, is becoming a threat, and the small kings of Wales, Merlin’s grandfather included, have to be wary about which side they choose. Merlin’s uncle Camlach is also a danger, since Merlin is a threat to his inheritance. All this boils up into murder and destruction when the old king dies. Merlin is partly kidnapped and partly helped to escape, and sails to Brittany to find the near-mythical war leader Ambrosius.
The story really takes off when Merlin, a twelve-year old boy, is facing down suspicious troops and a very angry Uther in a barn in a frozen field in France. He’s seen a vision of a bull-killing, which he doesn’t understand at all, but which the reader will spot as a ritual from the worship of Mithras, the Roman soldier’s god, and cognate with Christ. Ambrosius arrives, instantly recognises Merlin as his son (but doesn’t mention this to anyone), and takes him into his service. Merlin trains as an engineer, a military doctor and a singer, and learns a lot about druids. There’s a lot about gods and goddesses in Merlin’s world, and I find it interesting how Stewart slides her meanings about. Goddesses are always evil and dark, which is the kind of traditional and patriarchal thinking that led Marion Zimmer Bradley to rework the theology in Arthur’s world, in her The Mists of Avalon. Merlin serves a god with a small g, who is the source of his visions and his magic. He is received as an initiate into the worship of Mithras because as his father’s son it is politically necessary, and also because it is important to have close connections with other men whom he meets in the Bull Cave. It’s unclear whether Merlin believes in Mithras as a god in his own right, or just a manifestation of THE god. Above all else, Merlin is interested in belief, and investigates it wherever he goes. All knowledge is good, but all beliefs are not so good. He is polite about Christianity, because a God is a god, after all, but it is not where he places his belief.
Ambrosius is creating a new Roman army for the takeover of Britain, his rightful kingdom, since Vortigern killed his elder brother Constantius. When the army finally invades, Merlin goes over first to collect information, and to find his mother. She’s now safe in a nunnery, but they are both collected by Vortigern because Vortigern is having trouble building a fortress that keeps falling down, and wants Merlin, as the well-known son of a devil, as a druidic sacrifice. Merlin prophecies Vortigern’s defeat instead, and the invasion begins. Merlin is a human who has seizures of Sight, but otherwise his influence is derived from common sense, logic, complicated mathematics, and a lot of luck. He is also unafraid, because he has seen his death, far in the future, and so there is nothing for him to fear in the here and now. This makes a big difference to how one regards dangers and threats. Stewart’s storytelling is tremendously exciting because she uses simple, matter-of-fact narration that contrasts with the importance and drama of what is happening.
The important part of the novel, of course, is how Merlin engineers the birth of Arthur. This part is all taken from that truly jaw-dropping fantasy work, a 12thC historical chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth called the History of the Kings of Britain. Many, many poems and stories about Arthur were derived from this, including Malory, until the 19th century, when Tennyson’s poem cycle The Idylls of the King rather took over as the Arthurian source du jour. Geoffrey’s account, or story, because it is not a history but a shameless patchwork of event and myth, is used by Stewart faithfully, embellished where there are gaps, and where she needed to link Geoffrey to the Roman military legacy. So because Merlin knows that Arthur will be the greatest king England has had, he knows that it will all go according to plan. Trouble is, he doesn’t see all the details, so although getting Uther into the bed of the virtuous Ygraine, Duchess of Cornwall, is fiddly and difficult, it is possible. Unfortunately, Merlin doesn’t foresee the death of the Duke of Cornwall, which King Uther sees as Merlin’s failure, and shoves the blame onto him. The king also rejects the baby to be born, leaving him safe for Merlin to take away and hide until he is needed.
But all that is in the succeeding novels. The Crystal Cave is about Merlin, and Merlin’s relations with his servants and friends and relations, and it is a mighty fine story, highly readable, engaging, delightful, thrilling, daring and utterly absorbing. For invention and plausibility alone Mary Stewart would be worth reading, but she’s also completely faithful to the Arthurian story in these novels in a way that gives them new life, and keeps the important, central themes intact.
* I still haven’t bought it. I will, I will.