Mary Stewart Stewart, Mary (Vol. 117) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary Stewart 1916–

(Full name Mary Florence Elinora Stewart) English novelist, poet, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents an overview of Stewart's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 35.

Stewart is credited with bringing higher standards to the genre of romantic suspense novels, and with adding a fresh perspective to the tradition of the Arthurian legends. In her novels of mystery and historical romance, Stewart has provided carefully developed characterizations and vivid recreations of locales such as Delphi, Corfu, and various sites around Great Britain. Her retelling of the story of King Arthur's court are considered highly respectable additions to that genre.

Biographical Information

Born in 1916 in Sunderland, Durham, England, Stewart received her B.A. in 1938 and her M.A. in 1941, from the University of Durham, where she went on to teach English literature until 1955. In 1945 Stewart married Frederick Henry Stewart, a renowned geologist who was knighted in 1974 for his devotion to science. In 1956 Stewart moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where her husband accepted a professorship at the University of Edinburgh. It was then that Stewart decided to give up her own university career to concentrate on writing full-time. Beginning with her first published novel, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955), Stewart was a best-selling author. Stewart has continued to produce widely acclaimed novels, juvenile stories, and most recently, poetry.

Major Works

Stewart's works of suspense and historical romance usually center on a charming young woman inadvertently caught in extraordinary, sometimes life-threatening, events. With the aid of the hero, her love interest, Stewart's heroine solves a mystery or survives an adventure. According to Stewart, her characters "observe certain standards of conduct, of ethics, a somewhat honorable behavior pattern." All of Stewart's novels in this genre follow similar plots, and all are set in exotic or romantic locations around the world. This "predictability," rather than diminishing the success of the novels, is the key to their popularity. Readers find Stewart's char-acters and plots familiar and her themes—which never diverge from the conventional—comforting and stabilizing. In 1970 Stewart began a series of novels retelling the Arthurian legend. The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979) are notable for several variations from standard versions of the legend: they are told from the viewpoint of Merlin the magician rather than from that of King Arthur; they are set in the more accurate fifth century, rather than the twelfth, where most writers place them; and Stewart adheres to historical fact in describing places, customs, and clothing, unlike many chroniclers of the Arthurian legend. In The Wicked Day (1983), the fourth book in the series, Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son, is depicted as a sensitive, ill-fated youth instead of the purely evil figure of traditional legend who singlehandedly destroys his father.

Critical Reception

Although Stewart's novels usually fall into the category of popular fiction, they almost consistently receive praise from reviewers. Particularly acclaimed is Stewart's ability to evoke the proper moods for her settings, describing them as she does in great detail, and always historically accurate. But it is Stewart's Arthurian cycle that has received the highest acclaim from critics. Her authentic fifth-century setting has been widely considered a welcome variation from earlier versions of the story, and the shift of focus from King Arthur to Merlin—as well as more strongly defined characters from Mordred to Queen Guenevere—is also seen as a enhancement to the traditional versions of this story.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Madam, Will You Talk? (novel) 1955
Wildfire at Midnight (novel) 1956
Thunder on the Right (novel) 1957
Nine Coaches Waiting (novel) 1958
My Brother Michael (novel) 1960
The Ivy Tree (novel) 1962
The Moon-Spinners (novel) 1962
This Rough Magic (novel) 1964
Airs above the Ground (novel) 1965
The Gabriel Hounds (novel) 1967
The Wind off the Small Isles (novel) 1968
The Crystal Cave (novel) 1970
The Little Broomstick (juvenile) 1971
The Hollow Hills (novel) 1973
Ludo and the Star Horse (juvenile) 1974
Touch Not the Cat (novel) 1976
The Last Enchantment (novel) 1979
A Walk in Wolf Wood (novel) 1980
The Wicked Day (novel) 1983
Thornyhold (novel) 1988
Frost on the Window and Other Poems (poetry) 1990
The Stormy Petrel (novel) 1991
The Prince and the Pilgrim (novel) 1995
Rose Cottage (novel) 1997

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 February 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of My Brother Michael, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, February 1, 1960, p. 107.

[In the following review, the critic praises My Brother Michael as an improbable but well-written and fully absorbing mystery.]

[My Brother Michael is a] fast moving suspense novel set against the background of Delphi, which affords the reader even more hair-raising nightmarish adventures than in earlier novels. Mary Stewart has hit upon a successful basic pattern:—a young Englishwoman, escaping herself in travel, becomes involved in a succession of tense experiences, skirting death, and playing with dangerous characters who stop at nothing. This time the sense of inevitable disaster colors every incident:—her first rather hair-brained acceptance of the challenge of delivering a car, ordered by an unknown woman for an unknown man in Delphi, where she wants to go; her facile meeting with the Simon to whom the car was assigned—only he knew nothing about it—and his involving her in his own mission, to run down the truth of his brother Michael's violent death some fourteen years earlier, when he was in the Greek underground. Just how the mystery is solved—what the explanation of a curious letter received after Michael's death—and how Cemilla finds herself a pawn in a dangerous game build up to an incredible but absorbing climax of passion and death. The Delphi setting is unique, and the story takes on the echoes of the classic tragedies centuries ago. Mary Stewart writes vividly, she conveys an extraordinary sense of place, she tells a first rate story.

Mary Byerly (review date Spring 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lucy in Corfu," in The North American Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1965, pp. 55-6.

[In the following review, Byerly offers a favorable appraisal of This Rough Magic, noting in particular Stewart's wide range of subject matter synthesized into a single plot.]

[In This Rough Magic,] Lucy Waring, whose first major appearance on the London stage is cut short by an early closing, comes to the beautiful isle of Corfu to visit her wealthy sister. Almost immediately her disappointment is forgotten, as she is caught up in a series of puzzling and alarming events: the carefully secluded presence of the great English actor, Sir Julian Gale; mysterious shots at a playful dolphin in the bay; the drowning of two island boys within a week; and, finally, discovery of the true nature of Godfrey Manning's photographic expeditions.

Mary Stewart spins a good yarn, and this one is no exception, magically woven as it is from such diverse elements as the contemporary London theater and the intelligence of dolphins; the benevolence of Corfu's patron, St. Spiridion, and the political climate of Albania. Shakespeare's The Tempest is skillfully blended into both setting and plot, while vivid description, suspense, and lively tempo, with just the right touch of romance, are combined to provide the kind of excellent entertainment Miss Stewart's readers have come to expect.

R. F. Grady (review date 1 October 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Gabriel Hounds, in Best Sellers, Vol. 27, No. 13, October 1, 1967, p. 253.

[In the following review, Grady offers a favorable assessment of Stewart's complex and colorful plot and writing in The Gabriel Hounds.]

Christabel Mansel, a spirited and pretty English girl on a tour of the Near East (Syria and Lebanon) had planned to leave the tour group in Beirut to do a little sightseeing on her own before returning home. In the back of her mind was an intent to try to see her Great-Aunt Harriet who for years had lived in splendor in the former sultan's palace called Dar Ibrahim, built on a promontory in the gorge of the El Saq'h river, an eccentric woman who modeled herself on historic Lady Hester Stanhope, wore the clothes of an Arab prince and hunted at times through the countryside mounted on a handsome chestnut horse with two saluki dogs. Aunt Harriet now was over eighty and supposed to be more or less a recluse, but still in complete control of her faculties.

Quite by chance Christabel mets her second cousin Charles Mansel in the bazaar in Damascus and he quickened her interest in Aunt H. (as he called her) promising to meet her in Beirut so that both could call on their ancient relative, Charles having been Aunt H.'s favorite great-nephew. She had, in fact, promised him two porcelain dogs of considerable value which were called "the Gabriel Hounds" only...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Sara Blackburn (review date 16 August 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wizard Briton," in Book World, August 16, 1970, p. 2.

[In the following review, Blackburn presents a brief outline of the plot of The Crystal Cave and praises the book as a "colorful romance."]

Fifth-century Britain is the setting of Miss Stewart's new novel [The Crystal Cave], and its hero is the magical Merlin, seen here from his youth as a court bastard in Wales through the far-flung adventures that lead to his hand in the birth of King Arthur, whose destiny he is to guide as he rules Britain. It is as the author notes, not a work of scholarship, but "a work of the imagination," and its hero offers Miss Stewart fine opportunity for building the kind of colorful romance that has made her books so widely read in this country.

In Miss Stewart's version, Merlin is a solitary but game little boy whose Sight is kept secret during the difficult childhood he spends in the court of his grandfather, the King of Wales, where he is recognized as the result of a dark coupling between the King's daughter and the devil himself. After clandestine seminars in the cave of an old and learned wizard, and the acquisition of five languages, he escapes by necessity to "Less Britain" and the protection of kindly Count Ambrosius, where he not only learns his true and proud identity, but becomes a trusted participant and even initiator in the struggle which is to unite all of Britain. There is an impressive cast of characters and many of them are drawn in considerable dimension, so that Miss Stewart makes it easy for us to imagine that this is what life might have been like in a still-divided Britain as it moved to free itself from the effects of Roman rule. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that the novel is peppered throughout with the regulation political intrigues, formidable nunneries, fierce battle scenes and secret ceremonies—there is even a bit of Druid rite and human sacrifice—so necessary to the atmosphere of such romances. But Miss Stewart brings them off with an easy talent for making them real elements of the plot, not mere sideshow devices, and her Merlin makes a narrator quite worthy of the large audience that will doubtless be following his adventures this summer. She is no Zoë Oldenbourg, nor does she pretend to be.

Mary Cadogan (review date 18 July 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Spells that Bind," in Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 1980, p. 806.

[In the following review, Cadogan questions several inconsistencies in the plot of A Walk in Wolf Wood but praises the novel overall for its subtlety and cleverness.]

In A Walk in Wolf Wood Mary Stewart continues her preoccupation with issues that have been central to her recent Arthurian novels for adults. The eerie events that overtake two down-to-earth twentieth-century children become the vehicle for an incisive exploration of magic, savagery and the mis-uses of power.

On holiday with their parents in Germany, John and Margaret Begbie are suddenly...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Harold J. Herman (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Women in Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy," in Interpretations: A Journal of Idea, Analysis, and Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 101-14.

[In the following essay, Herman argues that Stewart's portrayal of women in her Merlin trilogy is the most sympathetic and groundbreaking in Arthurian legend because of her rejection of feminine stereotypes.]

With the publication of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment Mary Stewart has made a significant contribution to the development of the Arthurian legend, for her trilogy is not merely a retelling but a reworking of earlier Arthurian material. Claiming that, though...

(The entire section is 6479 words.)

Jeanie Watson (essay date Spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mary Stewart's Merlin: Word of Power," Arthurian Interpretations, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 70-83.

[In the following essay, Watson examines the ways in which Merlin symbolizes the "word of power" in that he is a visionary who is privy to the knowledge and wisdom of the gods.]

The Merlin of Mary Stewart's trilogy—The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment—is a man of many roles: prophet, prince, enchanter, king-maker, teacher, engineer, physician, poet, and singer. But in all of these, he is first and foremost a man of power. Merlin's power is the power of knowledge, knowledge revealed progressively through active...

(The entire section is 7654 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Stormy Petrel, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LIX, No. 14, July 15, 1991, p. 887.

[In the following review, the critic praises Stewart's ability to evocatively portray the setting of her novel The Stormy Petrel.]

By the English author of Thornyhold (1988), etc., more atmospheric romance, but here in a slight, mere wisp of a novel [The Stormy Petrel] set in Scotland's Western Islands. The scenery, however, is grand.

Rose Fenemore is a tutor of English at one of the Cambridge colleges; she also writes poetry and now needs an "ivory tower" retreat. Brother Crispin promises to join her for a holiday on the Scottish...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Christopher Dean (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis of Merlin: An Examination of the Protagonist of The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hill," in Comparative Studies in Merlin from the Vedas to C. G. Jung, edited by James Gollnick, 1991, pp. 63-75.

[In the following essay, Dean argues that a successful literary representation of the character Merlin requires that modern readers be able and willing to suspend their skepticism and accept Merlin as half human and half divine.]

In medieval times, the problem of presenting the supernatural was easier than it is today. The dominant form of medieval fiction was romance, and there, the naturalistic existed very comfortably side by side with...

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Marilyn Jurich (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mithraic Aspects of Merlin in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave," in The Celebration of the Fantastic: Selected Papers from the Tenth Anniversary International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse, Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha, 1992, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Jurich explains Stewart's use of the ancient figure Mithras, from the Zoroastrian religion, in the creation of her Merlin.]

The figure of Merlin is a fascinating palimpsest of myth, legend, and history; this sage-magician-trickster prophet, wild man of the forest, and protector of kings has spanned fourteen centuries. He has performed his sleight of...

(The entire section is 4501 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Rose Cottage, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXV, No. 16, August 15, 1997, p. 1255.

[In the following review, the critic assesses Rose Cottage as familiar Stewart material—"mild doings in enchanting surroundings."]

For the frazzled Anglophile, the countryside-enamored reader, here's a bit of romance, light mystery, and the reassuring stability of a timeless English village—in short, another Stewart comforter.

Here, [in Rose Cottage], a young widow returns in 1947 to her childhood home and the enigma of her parentage. Kate Herrick, née Welland, who lost her husband in the war, is summoned to Scotland by her beloved...

(The entire section is 392 words.)