23 July 2004

In Love With a Tall, Dark Stranger

Hopefully, my husband will forgive me, considering this man lived, if he lived at all, 1500 years ago. :-)

Many years ago, my mom fed my book addiction by enrolling in the Doubleday Bargain Book Club. These were the miracle of miracles, hardback books, although less expensive club editions, with ragged page edges. The monthly selections were announced in a glossy color booklet with the featured selection receiving illustration and a page or two of plot summary, with the alternate selections behind. I remember a lot of romance/women’s type books, Catherine Cookson, Victoria Holt, that sort of thing, plus nonfiction of mostly the self-help variety: dieting, Dr. Wayne Dyer, etc. I traded off some of them when I moved, but I still have a dozen or so of my favorites including Leon Uris’ QB VII, Marilyn Durham’s Dutch Uncle, Gone With the Wind, and Robert Kimmel Smith’s Sadie Shapiro’s Knitting Book.

But my favorite three have always been Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy*: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.

I’ve never been much of an Arthurian buff. My mother was the one who liked the knights and lords and ladies stuff, movies like Knights of the Round Table with Robert Taylor or Camelot. Frankly, all the thous-thees-and-thosing bored me, as well as the Lancelot-Guinevere- Arthur love triangle. I didn’t even like Disney’s Sword in the Stone very much, and that was as child-friendly as you can get. (I tried reading the T.H. White novel once; it has such good reviews. But again I couldn't get around the medieval setting or the idea of calling the future King Arthur "Wart.")

The most interesting character in these stories may have been Merlin the magician, but the doddering, grey-bearded fellow in all these adaptations left me cold. He was usually extremely eccentric and/or talked in riddles and was so distant that I couldn’t get a handle on the man.

Then came Mary Stewart. The three books mentioned are the story of Merlin’s life, from his childhood in Wales to his old age, and they drew me in irresistibly from the first paragraph of the first book. Stewart’s Merlin is an approachable creature, a real man who knows magic, not some fey glimmer in spangled robes, someone I would have enjoyed speaking with or even being friends with. He eats, sings, works, and tells his story with compelling power. From the moment I open one of the books, I become entangled in Merlin’s world: Great Britain and Brittany of the 5th century. I can see the landscapes of Wales, smell the horses and trails, see the different dwellings and the various characters Merlin interacts with as well as I can sense my own surroundings. Everything is lovingly and vividly described.

I have to admit Stewart has ruined me. I went to see the otherwise realistic John Boorman flick Excalibur, which portrayed Arthur and his retinue as the real 5th century warriors they were rather than the medieval personages in 1940s knight movies, and was repelled by their snake-surrounded Merlin, even though he was portrayed by one of my favorite actors, Nicol Williamson. Not even for the love of Sam Neill could I sit through NBC’s miniseries Merlin, partially due to its jerky “artistic” photography and SFX and the presence of Martin Short, but mostly because their Merlin was another one of these otherworldly, distant incarnations. (Had only Neill been cast in a version of the Stewart story; I smile dreamily just at this intriguing thought.)

I found, eventually, there was one problem with my Stewart books: when I wanted one, I wanted all three, and if I wanted to take them somewhere, I had to carry those three. So, recently, armed with a Borders discount coupon and a $5 off certificate, I bought the trilogy once again, published by Morrow in one hardbound volume. I’m sure some would think me foolish to repurchase books I already own, but I don’t care. After all, it’s not everyday one can carry an entire lovingly crafted world under one arm, to dip into any time one chooses.

Be part of the magic! Buy the trilogy at Amazon.com. (Or just hit a bookstore!)

Here's an interview with Stewart about the trilogy.


Another Review

Yet a Third Review

* As someone once reminded me, this is actually an "Arthurian tetralogy." There is a fourth book, but it's not about Merlin, and while I've read it, it (if you'll forgive the description) doesn't hold the magic that Merlin's story does. It's called The Wicked Day and is basically the end of the story of King Arthur, concerning his bastard son Mordred and the end of Camelot.

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