Mary Stewart

Start Free Trial

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 February 1960)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 573 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

Mary Byerly (review date Spring 1965)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 because they seemed, as did the salukis, to be associated with an old legend that the Gabriel Hounds ran with Death (although Gabriel was not the angel of death) and would be heard howling above a house if someone were going to die there. Much like the Irish legend of the banshees, or similar legends of hounds baying at the death of someone nearby.

Christabel decides to make an attempt to visit her aunt on her own before Charles arrives, succeeds in having an interview at midnight and stays the night in the seraglio quarter of the sprawling and rundown castle, only to be forced to prolong the stay when a heavy rainstorm swells the river and its tributary into flood conditions. The household is small—gone are the many servants The Lady of Lebanon had formerly employed; there are now only the English John Lethman, presumably a psychologist attending Aunt H.; the Arab girl Halide and her brother Nasirulla; and a very old and almost mute gateman named Jissom. There are, however, the two saluki dogs which are supposed to be fierce guardians of Dar Ibrahim, let loose only at nightfall.

This is but the background of the story, the beginning, one might say; for adventure piles on adventure and it would be unfair to outline the entire story. But this is every bit as fine a piece of writing and plotting as Mary Stewart's previous and best novels. That it will also, like them, be a best-seller is easy to predict. The setting and color is fabulous, probably attributable to Mrs. Stewart's travels with her husband who is head of the Geology Department of Edinburgh University.

Sara Blackburn (review date 16 August 1970)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 projected from the drowsy stillness of a perfectly ordinary summer's afternoon into a stark world of medieval sorcery and intrigue. They are in the Black Forest and their slip backwards in time takes place when curiosity and concern prompt them to follow a distressed man into the woods. He is "weeping bitterly"—and with good cause. The children discover that the stranger, Lord Mardian, is in the grip of a terrible enchantment put upon him by a rival at the ducal court. By day he is a sensitive, tormented and guilt-ridden man who lives in hiding from his sorcerer enemy, and at night he has to roam the forest, transformed into a slavering, bloodlusting wolf.

At first John and Margaret think that they are acting out a dream, but they are soon made aware of being caught up, although only peripherally, in the spell that binds Mardian. They come to the awesome realization that by voluntarily grappling with great and unspecified dangers they may be able to release him from his enchantment. Of course they do not hesitate; they prove, as so many other fictional heroes and heroines have done, that two plucky and resourceful children can be a match for the most malevolent of medieval sorcerers. But A Walk in Wolf Wood is not by any means all magic and moonshine. Once the basic premise has been accepted the characters are skilfully manipulated through a series of challenges, and from one level of apparent reality to another, without irritating or mind-bending complexities. The trappings of another time like jousts and hunts, terraces and towers, are vivid and atmospheric but not overdone. They are harnessed with other energized effects to create a convincing buildup of suspense, and at the right moments the gothic mood of dark green forest gloom is lightened by wit and warmth.

This is, in a sense, a holiday-adventure story and appropriately the main narrative movement is vigorous and direct. There are also, however, satisfying descriptions of natural beauty and of resonances between the children's inner experiences and the externals that they observe. (A bird's sudden flight out of a clump of trees, for example, heightens a not quite definable sense of psychological unease and menace.)

There is no doubt about the power and persuasiveness of A Walk in Wolf Wood, but it is slightly flawed by inconsistencies in the time-shift from which the action of the story derives. John and Margaret accept this startling process in a low-key and very practical manner. They are concerned about the kind of clothes they should wear to enable them best to fit into their new surroundings; after some initial shocks they take werewolves, sinister magicians and palace settings in their stride; they adopt the speech and manners of the time without conscious effort, although they are a little surprised at their fluency in a foreign tongue—and a medieval one at that. They occasionally discuss the anomalous aspects of their adventures, but explain these away by concluding that they are all part of the spell. It is possible, however, that some readers may not so easily be able to dismiss some of the inconsistencies—although these in themselves suggest several stimulating areas of speculation and enquiry.

Harold J. Herman (essay date Spring 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 firmly based in both history and legend, her novels are works of the imagination, she has nonetheless provided explanatory notes for the benefit of those readers who wish to "trace for themselves the seeds of certain ideas and the origins of certain references." Because she has specified some of her sources, one may also examine them to see how she used earlier works to create her trilogy on Merlin. Obviously many of the changes, deletions, and additions were necessitated by her concept of Merlin as basically a human being with the god-given gift of sight.

The focus of this study, however, is not Merlin but Mary Stewart's female characters. A student of the Arthurian legend is struck by her vivid portrayal of women who are not frightened, submissive creatures content to satisfy their men's lustful appetites and blind to everything except bearing and rearing children. Rather than being toys of men, for use or abuse, they themselves often select the men they wish to bed and wed. They frequently dominate the men around them, for they are stronger and cleverer than most men, and they are ambitious, demanding more out of life than marriage and children. It is this concept of women that distinguishes Stewart's trilogy from the earlier Arthurian works she used as her sources.

Stewart's ideal woman is Igerne, Duchess of Cornwall, whose portrayal in two of Stewart's major sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, is here examined. According to Geoffrey, Uther orders all his barons to assemble in London to celebrate his coronation. Among those gathered there is Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, a loyal supporter of Ambrosius and Uther, with his young wife Igerne, the most beautiful woman in the realm. Uther falls in love with Igerne and openly displays his affection for her, whereupon Gorlois, in anger, takes his wife and retires from the court. Enraged, Uther commands Gorlois to return and appear in his court so that he may take lawful satisfaction for the affront. When Gorlois fails to obey the summons, Uther with his army invades Cornwall and besieges Dimilioc, the castle Gorlois occupies after placing Igerne in the invincible castle of Tintagel. A week later, Uther, overcome with the love of Igerne, declares to Ulfin, one of his familiars, that he will die if he cannot possess her. At Ulfin's counsel, Merlin is summoned; and, moved by the sight of Uther's suffering, Merlin declares that to fulfill Uther's wish, he must call upon acts new and unheard of in their day. Through the use of "mendicaminibus" (i.e., "leechcraft" or "mendicaments"), he transforms the king into the likeness of Gorlois and Ulfin and himself into those of Jordan and Brithael, Gorlois's retainers, in such a manner that none could tell them from the originals. In this transformed appearance, they are admitted to Tintagel Castle; Uther enjoys the love of Igerne, who believes him to be her husband, and that night Arthur is conceived. Meanwhile, Uther's men attack Dimilioc; Gorlois, with his comrades, sallies forth and is killed; messengers arrive at Tintagel to inform Igerne of Gorlois's death and are amazed to see the duke sitting beside the duchess. Smiling at their tiding, Uther, as Gorlois, declares that he is very much alive, but is fearful that the king will overtake them there and make them prisoners in the castle. Hence he resolves to make peace with the king. Leaving Tintagel, he puts off the semblance of Gorlois and joins his army. Grieved at the death of Gorlois but glad that Igerne is released from the bonds of matrimony, he returns to Tintagel, takes the castle, and makes Igerne his wife. Geoffrey says that Uther and Igerne are thereafter linked together in no little mutual love. In short, Geoffrey's Igerne is a beautiful but passive woman, obedient to her husband, duped into having sex with Uther, and eventually united with the king in wedded bliss.

Malory begins his Book I, "The Tale of King Arthur," with Uther as King of England and the Duke of Tintagel as Uther's enemy, who warred against the king for a long time. Summoned by Uther, Gorlois and his wife, "a fair lady and a passynge wyse," arrive at court, and Uther lusts after Igerne, who, as a "passing good woman," rejects him. As a faithful wife, she tells her husband of Uther's lust and suggests that they quickly depart from the court and ride all night to their castle. Angered, Uther invades Cornwall. The story continues as in Geoffrey, but Malory's Merlin is already on his way to the king when he, as a beggar, meets Ulfin, for Merlin has foreknowledge of Ulfin's mission. Shortly after Ulfin has ridden back to Uther, Merlin is magically there, promising to fulfill Uther's desire on the condition that the child who will be conceived that night should, upon birth, be turned over to him. Uther agrees and, magically transformed into Gorlois, beds Igerne. The child is conceived, and the next morning Merlin, transformed as Brithael, arrives and takes "Gorlois" away. When Igerne hears that her husband was killed three hours before Uther came to her, "she merveilled who that myghte be that laye with her in lykenes of her lord. So she mourned pryvely and held hir pees." With the assent of all the barons, Uther makes Igerne his queen. When, six months later, Uther asks her to name the father of the child within her body, the queen truthfully explains, and Uther tells her it was he who came to her in the likeness of Gorlois and "the cause how it was by Merlyns counceil." Then the queen "made grete joye" when she knew Uther was the father of her child. At this point there is no mention of Uther's telling his wife of his promise to turn over the child to Merlin; rather, we are merely told that when the child is born, it is delivered to Merlin, who takes it to Ector and has it christened Arthur. Later in the tale, when Igerne is brought to court to meet her son for the first time, she is accused by Ulfin of falseness and treachery because she did not proclaim Arthur as her and Uther's child and thus prevent the civil war. Igerne defends herself, saying that when the child was born Uther commanded it be given to Merlin, that she did not know the child's name, and that she never saw him thereafter. When Merlin declares that Igerne is Arthur's mother and Ector testifies that he fostered Arthur according to Uther's order, Arthur embraces his mother. Thus, Igerne is portrayed by Malory as the faithful wife, first to Gorlois and then, in spite of the duplicity, to Uther; her only concern is to serve her lord and husband. Indeed, Ulfin speaks the truth when he says to Merlin, "Year than more to blame than the queene."

Mary Stewart's treatment of this episode is vastly different from Geoffrey's and Malory's because of her different concept of Merlin and of Igerne. Unlike Malory's Merlin, Stewart's Emrys has no foreknowledge of Uther's love for Igerne; he learns of it from Cadal, who reports the gossip at the inn. And it takes four days for Merlin to get to the king in London. When Uther asks him to bring Igerne secretly to him and make her love him, Merlin replies that his magic cannot do what the king desires. Significantly, he does not magically transform Uther into Gorlois. Stewart's Merlin, of course, has prophetic sight, but unlike Malory, whose Merlin states outright that a child will be conceived when Uther lies with Igerne, Stewart parcels out this particular prophecy bit by bit in the form of Merlin's vague visions. In fact, it is not until Merlin is outside Tintagel waiting for Uther disguised as Gorlois that Stewart has Merlin clearly explain to Cadal and to the reader that Merlin is merely an instrument of fate, Uther a tool, and Igerne a vessel to bring forth the "past and future king." Moreover, Merlin's prophetic sight is not complete, for although he earlier saw Cadal's death, he has no foreknowledge of his own physical injuries or of Uther's anger and refusal to acknowledge the "bastard" he begot that night. Such a treatment of Merlin's sight, especially the earlier vague visions, is necessary to enable Stewart to create suspense, but it also enables her to focus on the human side of Merlin's character and to develop other characters, especially Igerne.

Unlike Geoffrey's and Malory's Igerne, who is a weak, unsuspecting, innocent dupe of Uther and Merlin, Mary Stewart's Igerne is a proud, strong-willed, politically astute, clever woman. It is she who, feigning illness, gets her husband to fetch Merlin to her. And, unlike other women, she is not in awe of Merlin, although she does believe he can see the future. To her, he is a wise, cold person who loves no woman, is committed to no man, and thus is a good judge of her situation. So to Merlin she declares that she loves and desires Uther but that she is a proud woman. She is the daughter of a king, married at sixteen to the Duke of Cornwall; and, although she does not say that she loves the old duke, she declares that Gorlois is a good man whom she honors and respects. Until she saw Uther, she was half content, she says, to starve and die in Cornwall. She knows what she must have, but it is beyond her. So she waits and is silent, for upon her silence hangs not only the honor of herself, Gorlois, and her house but also the safety of the kingdom that Ambrosius died for and that Uther sealed with blood and fire. She is no trashy Helen for men to fight, die, and burn down a kingdom for, she declares. She cannot dishonor Gorlois and the king in the eyes of men, and she can not go to him secretly and dishonor herself in her own eyes. "I am a lovesick woman, yes. But I am also Ygraine of Cornwall," she concludes.

I [Merlin] said coldly: "So you intend to wait until you can go to him in honour, as his Queen?"

"What else can I do?"

"Was this the message I had to give him?"

She was silent.

I said: "Or did you get me here to read you the future? To tell you the length of your husband's life?"

Still she said nothing.

"Ygraine," I said, "the two are the same. If I give Uther the message that you love him and desire him, but that you will not come to him while your husband is alive, what length of life would you prophesy for Gorlois?"

Still she did not speak. The gift of silence, too, I though.

Igerne intends to be queen, and she certainly has the qualifications. Indeed, throughout this scene Merlin refers to this fact. For example, standing over Igerne in bed, he notes that though she is only a woman and young, she acts as if she is a queen giving an audience. Looking at the lovely duchess, he notes her proud mouth, perceives that she is no man's toy, and concludes that if Uther wants her he will have to make her his queen. She is clearheaded, for, getting up from her "sick bed," she does not walk in front of the window to be seen from the courtyard. When Merlin asks her if she will go to Uther on the condition that he will tell her how she may have the king's love on her terms, with no dishonor to herself, Uther, or Gorlois, she takes time to think before answering. Moreover, she refuses to promise to obey Merlin until she knows what she is committed to. Merlin remarks that for the first time he has met a woman with whom he does not have to choose his words, to whom he can speak as he would to another man. Moreover, Igerne's concern is not only for herself and Gorlois and her family name but also for Uther and the kingdom: When Merlin outlines his plot—for her to inform Gorlois that she is pregnant and then to flee with him to Cornwall without the king's leave—Igerne interrupts and, with acute political insight, declares that the angry king will follow and there will be war, when Uther "should be working and mending, not breaking and burning." She then declares that Uther cannot win, for even if he should be the victor in the field, he would lose the loyalty of the West. Merlin observes at this point that Igerne indeed will be queen; though she desires Uther as much as he desires her, she can still think—is cleverer than Uther, clearer of mind and stronger too. Even her final speech to Merlin—if he brings bloodshed to Cornwall through her or death to Gorlois, then she will spend the rest of her life praying to any gods there are that Merlin shall die betrayed by a woman—reveals her concern for her people. So Igerne is not duped into having sex with Uther transformed as Gorlois, and there is no need of Merlin's magical transformations; for it is Igerne who arranges for the admission to Tintagel of the king, merely disguised as the Duke of Cornwall.

This portrayal of Igerne as a strong woman is maintained throughout the trilogy. In The Hollow Hills Merlin, secretly meeting with the pregnant queen, finds her as direct as a man, with the same high pride and fire as before. Unlike Uther, who blames himself, Merlin, and even the child for Gorlois's death, Igerne pragmatically dismisses the matter with What's done is done, for her immediate concern is her child. Uther refuses to acknowledge the child as his heir, planning to send him to King Budec of Brittany to be reared. But the queen (unlike Malory's Igerne) wants Merlin to take the child, rear him as a king's son, and bring him back fully grown to take his place at Uther's side. She, of course, wants Merlin to reassure her of the prophecy concerning her child and of the possibility of her having more children. When Merlin takes leave of Igerne, he reveals that when the time comes, the child will be taken not from a regretful, weeping woman but from a queen who is content to let him go to his destiny. In The Last Enchantment Igerne is present for the funeral of Uther; and although mourning the loss of her beloved husband and terminally ill herself, she plays the role of a queen, richly furnishing her quarters as an appropriate setting for her to meet her son. Also, there is evidence of her ability to judge people and of her political astuteness: She is aware of the ambitions of Lot and of the political necessity of betrothing her daughter Morgan to him. Later she sees the political advantage of marrying her to Urbgen. Moreover, she truly understands, though she dislikes, Morgause, Uther's illegitimate daughter, who tried to teach black arts to Morgan. And she marries Arthur to her lady-in-waiting, the first Guenevere, who unfortunately dies in childbirth.

And so here is Mary Stewart's Igerne, the finest portrayal of this character in the entire body of Arthurian literature. Stewart's remaking of Igerne, as already noted, is partly due to her concept of Merlin as basically a human being with the gift of sight, but it is also a manifestation of her basic concept of women, for her trilogy on Merlin abounds with strong females. Note, for example, Niniane, Merlin's mother, who in Geoffrey's Historia is the nameless daughter of a king of Demetia, a nun at St. Peter's who informs Vortigern that Merlin's father was an incubus. Stewart's Niniane is not a lifeless character but a headstrong woman who refuses to tell her father the name of the man who fathered her child, even though she is beaten so badly that the women believe she will miscarry. Refusing to marry Gorlan, she cooly withstands her father's anger and later bravely confronts her brother Camlach, the new King of South Wales, because of her determination to go to St. Peter's as a nun, even suppressing her gift of sight because the church is opposed to soothsaying.

Moravik, Merlin's governess, is another strong-willed woman. When Merlin's grandfather orders the women to leave the room so that he and Camlach can talk to Niniane, Moravik stands her ground, puffed up with bravery like a partridge, and then leaves with a sniff. Though Merlin is merely a bastard, she obviously regards herself to be superior to the other servants; and when Olwen's baby and Camlach's son are born, she firmly establishes herself in the royal nursery as its official ruler. After Vortigern's sacking of Maridunum, Moravik returns to Brittany and marries Brand, a retired army man who runs her father's tavern. As Merlin tells Hoel, Brand will do as Moravik bids him: "I never knew a man who didn't except perhaps my grandfather." Later, when Merlin arrives at the inn with Ralf and Branwen, there is Moravik, fists on her hips, a creature of bulk and commanding voice, surrounded by an aura of authority. She quickly takes command of Branwen and the child and throughout this scene treats Merlin not as a man, the renowned son of King Ambrosius, but as the wayward small boy from her nursery.

Similar to Moravik is Maeve, another innkeeper and a dominant, earthy woman. When Merlin and Ralf, disguised as an eye doctor and his assistant, arrive at the inn, Maeve eyes them up and down, assessing their sexual potential, until she realizes who they are. Maeve assures Merlin, who is to stay at the inn until Uther leaves Tintagel and the pregnant queen sends for him, that they will be safe there and that they should have no fear of her husband Caw, who is loyal to Igerne and always does as his wife tells him except "some things he don't do near often enough for my liking." Later when Marcia, Ralf's grandmother, riding as straight as a man, arrives at the inn, Maeve chases everyone out of the room, including her husband, so that Marcia can speak privately with her grandson.

Even Marcia, Igerne's maid and confidante, is a strong woman. Because Uther regards Ralf's service to him as a betrayal of his master the Duke of Cornwall, Marcia is concerned about her grandson's safety and sends him to serve Merlin and later Igerne's child, for she believes Merlin's prophecy to Igerne about the crown and the sword standing in an altar. When Merlin leaves the pregnant queen, Marcia, aware of her mistress's plans, confronts Merlin and demands reassurances that he will take possession of the child and keep him safe. Obviously claiming the birth of Arthur as her province of concern, she resents any interference, complaining to Merlin that Gandar, an army surgeon, is to deliver the baby and worrying about wet nurses and related matters. Note that it is she who delivers the baby to Merlin.

Even Keri is a strong woman. The daughter of a prostitute, Keri is brought up at St. Peter's. It is she who pursues Merlin, waiting outside his mother's room to talk to him, pretending to have a toothache, placing his hand against her cheek to effect a cure. Later, fleeing from the nunnery, she goes to Bryn Myrdin, lures Merlin into her arms, and, when he is unable to complete the sex act because of his fear of losing the sight, demands payment for the torn gown. She is no common whore, for she knows that Merlin is a prince, and among her clients she can boast of Uther.

Obviously, with the exception of Marcia, an aged woman who nonetheless bears herself as straight as a young girl, none of these strong-willed women is a man's toy, content merely to satisfy a man's lust. Igerne, married young to old Gorlois, is fortunate to have a kind man as a husband. Yet when she meets Uther, she refrains from sex with Gorlois and physically desires Uther as much as he desires her, so that it is only with her consent that Uther beds her. Even Niniane, according to Merlin's vision of her last meeting with Ambrosius, initiates the sex act by declaring that they must not waste their last two hours together and by heading toward the cave. And one can be certain that Cerdic the groom would not have been permitted to sleep with Moravik without her consent, for Moravik, as does Maeve, dominates the men with whom she wishes to bed.

Indeed, Mary Stewart has little sympathy for women who are willing victims of sexual lust and childbearing. Such a one is Olwen, who, within a month after the death of Merlin's grandfather's second wife, has taken the dead queen's place in the royal bed. This young, dark, silent, "rather stupid" girl can sing like a bird and do fine needlework but little else. She is afraid of her husband, and although she secretly teaches Merlin to play the harp when his grandfather is not around, Merlin says that she was always kind to him in her "vague, placid way." Another is Branwen, Arthur's wet nurse, whose devotion to the baby, following the loss of her own, blinds her to all else. According to Merlin, she is the kind of woman whose life is in the bearing and rearing of children, and she is described as "weak and biddable to the point of stupidity." One should also note that she is of little interest to her companion Ralf, who later falls in love with and marries another girl.

This disdain for women whose lives are devoted solely to the bearing and rearing of children is evidenced elsewhere in the trilogy. In fact, Merlin declares to Ector that Igerne is not a woman for a family, any more than Uther is a family man. Their concern is for each other, and outside their bed they are king and queen. Also, one cannot imagine Morgause's being blind to everything except the bearing and rearing of her sons. And Niniane, who protects her son by remaining silent about his father's identity and later by lying to Vortigern, nonetheless turns him over to Moravik's care and pursues her own desire to become a nun at St. Peter's.

Rejecting the traditional role of women as merely sex objects and mothers, Stewart admires strong-willed women who seek other positions in society to fulfill their lives. Obviously, lower class women, like Moravik, Marcia, Maeve, and Keri, have limited opportunities, but Moravik is a governess, firmly established in the nursery as a figure of authority; Maeve is in charge of a clean, well-run inn; Marcia is not merely a maid but Igerne's closest servant confidante; and Keri rejects the convent to enter the oldest profession. Women of nobility have greater opportunities and are more ambitious. Granted, Niniane rejects the world to become a nun, but Igerne is determined to be queen, and she gets what she wants.

Morgause and Morgan are also ambitious women who end up as queens, but unlike Igerne, they and Rowena use their power for selfish, often destructive, purposes, and consequently there is no sympathy in Stewart's portrayal of these women. Let us first look at Rowena, Vortigern's Saxon queen. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern, upon first meeting Rowena, lusted after her, and Hengist gave his daughter in marriage to him in exchange for Kent. Hengist later demanded and received more concessions of land from his son-in-law, but eventually Vortigern turned against Hengist, Rowena remaining faithful to her husband. This account is absent from Mary Stewart's work, whose unsympathetic treatment of Rowena includes her large, milk-white breasts bulging above a tight blue bodice and her beringed fingers thick and ugly like a servant's. She apparently shares her husband's power, for she is seated beside the high king in a chair which, though smaller, is as elaborately carved as Vortigern's. She questions the head magician about Niniane's story, and it is she who orders Ambrosius's messenger's hands to be severed and tied in a bloody cloth to the belt at his waist. Clearly the Saxon witch deserves to be burned alive along with her traitorous husband.

Uther's illegitimate daughter, Morgause, fully aware that the youthful Arthur is her half-brother, lures him to her bed, so that she will conceive a child and thereby retain her position of power at court after the demise of Uther. When her plans are foiled by Merlin, she turns to Lot and marries him, usurping the place of Morgan, the daughter of Uther and Igerne. Realizing that Lot will know her child is not his, she substitutes a newborn bastard of Lot's for Modred, whom she sends away. She then taunts Lot into murdering his own child and ordering his soldiers to kill all the newborn babies in the town, on pretense of orders from Arthur. Morgause and Lot then go to bed laughing and sate their sexual appetites. At the wedding festivities for Morgan and Urbgen, Morgause drugs Merlin's wine—the cause of his insanity and his wandering for seven months in the woods with a pig for companion. Morgause is Stewart's prime villainess, Merlin's and Arthur's enemy, a powerful, evil woman. Indeed, Morgause's only good act is withholding from Modred who his real father is. Arthur has her confined in a religious house, perhaps for her own good but definitely for the good of others.

Unlike Morgause, Stewart's Morgan is not vividly portrayed, her actions being reported rather than directly presented. Morgan, betrothed in her youth to Lot, is happy to be freed of him when Morgause becomes his wife. Not to be outdone by Morgause, Morgan marries the King of Rheged, though, interestingly, it is not until Morgan shows an interest in Urbgen that Igerne and Arthur acknowledge the political advantages of the match. Whether Morgan desires or merely uses the love-struck Accolon is not clear in Stewart's work, but Morgan is obviously in control of him. In the belief that her brother will be killed, she has Accolon steal Arthur's sword Caliburn, substitute a copy, and then challenge Arthur to a fight. Morgan believes that because of her possession of Caliburn her husband will be crowned high king and she queen, but her plans are foiled. Arthur's fake sword breaks, but he kills Accolon, and Urbgen confines his wife in the same nunnery that houses Morgause.

The three queens are contrasted with Igerne, for Morgause and Morgan seek positions of power for purely selfish reasons, and they, along with Rowena, misuse their power for destructive purposes. In this respect they are like their counterparts, Vortigern and Lot, who are contrasted with Ambrosius, Merlin, Uther, and Arthur, who serve the higher goals of ridding Britain of the traitorous Vortigern; containing the Saxons; repelling the Picts, the Scots, and the Irish; establishing peace and stability in Britain and freedom and prosperity for her people. And it is because Igerne shares in and selflessly contributes to the fulfillment of these ideals that she is an admirable woman.

Another such is Nimuë. As Mary Stewart points out in her "Author's Note" to The Last Enchantment, Nimuë's betrayal of Merlin springs from the need to explain the death or disappearance of the all-powerful enchanter. According to Malory, Nimuë is one of the ladies of the lake brought to the court by King Pellinore. Doting on her, Merlin will let her have no rest. She makes Merlin "good chere" until she has learned from him all that she desires. Warning Arthur to take care of his sword and scabbard because they will be stolen by a woman he most trusts (Morgan). Merlin tells the king that his own days are numbered, that he will be buried alive, and that he cannot circumvent his fate. When Nimuë leaves the court, Merlin follows; and because Merlin would have transported her away privily by his subtle craft, she makes him swear not to use any enchantment on her. They travel abroad, Merlin showing her many wonders. Upon returning to Cornwall, she is tired of him and his desire to have her maidenhead, but she is afraid to act against him because he is the devil's son. Nonetheless, when Merlin shows her a marvelous rock under a great stone, she asks him to go under the stone—ostensibly to let her know of the marvels there but really to confine him forever "with her subtle working." Freed of Merlin, she marries Pelleas and serves Arthur, saving the king's life three times. Needless to say, this portrayal of Merlin as a dirty old man lusting after a young, beautiful girl is degrading.

Such a portrayal of Merlin was unsuitable to Stewart, and although Tennyson, whom Stewart mentions, is more sympathetic in his treatment of Merlin as a man of intellect overcome by sexual passion, the poet laureate's Vivian is such a vile harlot that Stewart rejected Idylls of the King and turned to another source, "Summer Country," in which Merlin, growing old, wants to pass on his magical powers to someone who can be Arthur's advisor after his death. For this he chooses as his pupil Nimuë. As Stewart says, this tale not only allows Merlin his dignity and a degree of common sense but also explains Nimuë's subsequent influence over Arthur, who would otherwise have hardly kept her near him or accepted her help against his enemies. Stewart prepares for Nimuë's (Niniane's) appearance in The Last Enchantment by having Merlin recognize in Ninian, Beltane the goldsmith's boy slave, the qualities of a prospective disciple who can carry on his work; Ninian, however, is drowned, much to the sage's grief. Ten years later, returning to Applegarth after Guenevere is rescued from Melwas's lodge, Merlin mistakes Nimuë of the Lake (Niniane), one of the ancillae of the goddess, for the boy Ninian and begs "him" to come along and be tutored. When Nimuë, disguised as a boy, finally arrives, Merlin accepts the youth as god-sent. Nimuë quickly learns, and even though Merlin realizes that his powers are being diminished as they are transferred to the "boy," he is content. He knows that because of the recurrent falling sickness his days are numbered and that Nimuë must be prepared to serve as Arthur's prophet. Moreover, Merlin is in love with him. Not until nine months after Nimuë came to live with Merlin does he learn from Arthur that Nimuë is a girl. Although he has foreseen his end, he knows that love cannot be gainsaid and believes that if Nimuë has any part in his end, it will be merciful. So, toward the end of his life Merlin finds a new beginning in love, a love for both of them. He takes her on a trip to visit the places where he passed his life. At Galava, where he tells her of Macsen's treasures of the grail and spear, he has another spell of passing sickness and, pronounced dead, is entombed alive in his cave. He recovers, escapes with the aid of his servant Stilicho, and is reunited with Arthur and later with Nimuë, now established as the king's enchantress. The meeting between Merlin and Nimuë absolves Nimuë of any guilt in Merlin's "death" and entombment and shows that, while they truly cared for one another, they now realize that the love they once shared is gone. At the end of their meeting, Merlin kisses her, once with passion and once with love, and then lets her go—to Pelleas, her husband, who later tells Merlin that Nimuë belongs first to the king and then to her spouse.

Nimuë is, of course, another of Stewart's strong women. She has no fear of Merlin, and she is not in awe of the king. And she is ambitious. She is not content merely to be another servant of the goddess but is driven by the god to serve Merlin and to acquire his powers. Merlin willingly teaches her, for he loves her and she loves him. Granted, she exults in her newly acquired powers, and one may even say that she is ruthless: as Merlin is slipping into the deathlike sleep, she takes the last of his strength by forcing him to yield the last of his powers to her. But even this action is defensible, for Merlin has instructed her to learn all that he had to tell her, to build on every detail of his life, because after his death she must be Merlin. Moreover, Merlin's "death" is attributed not to Nimuë but to Morgause, for his malady is an aftereffect of the drug that Morgause put into Merlin's wine during Morgan's wedding. And unlike Morgause, who uses her power for selfish and destructive purposes, Nimuë, by taking Merlin's place, uses her power for the higher goal of faithfully serving Arthur and Britain.

But what of Guenevere? Because she is the wife of Arthur and the beloved of Lancelot (Bedwyr in Stewart's The Last Enchantment), one can best examine Guenevere in terms of the various writers' attitudes toward this love affair. At the one extreme is Chrétien de Troyes, who in accord with the dictates of Marie de Champagne, his patroness, glorifies Lancelot and Guenevere as ideal courtly lovers and portrays Arthur as an uncaring husband and an incompetent fool. At the other extreme is Malory, who, although he declares that Lancelot and Guenevere are one of the two greatest pairs of lovers in the world, nonetheless characterizes her in unflattering terms. As T. H. White remarks, Malory has no love for Guenevere. And neither does Tennyson, who places the blame for the moral decay of Arthur's court clearly on Guenevere.

Mary Stewart is more sympathetic. Melwas does abduct the queen, and Bedwyr, with Merlin's aid, does rescue her before Arthur's arrival; but it is Arthur, not Bedwyr, who defeats Melwas in singlehanded combat and is thus avenged. Arthur's dignity is restored, and the queen is blameless. That Guinevere was not blameless was Merlin's original deduction, but several days later he realizes his mistake when he learns from Arthur of Guenevere's true account of what happened. Pointing out that Merlin has declared several times that he knows nothing of women, Arthur, in his defense of Guenevere, offers a strong defense of women: "Does it never occur to you," Arthur remarks to Merlin, "that they lead lives of dependence so complete as to breed uncertainty and fear? That their lives are like those of slaves, or of animals that are used by creatures stronger than themselves, and sometimes cruel? Why, even royal ladies are bought and sold, and are bred to lead their lives far from their homes and their people, as the property of men unknown to them." Merlin recalls that he has seen women suffer from the whims of men, even those women who, like Morgause, were stronger and cleverer than most men. He also notes that, except for the lucky ones who find men they can rule or who love them, women suffer from men's use.

Arthur truly loves Guenevere, but unlike the majority of Stewart's female characters, Guenevere is not a strong woman. Although she is not afraid of her husband, she is afraid of the people around her, afraid of Melwas, and especially afraid of Merlin. Indeed, Arthur tells Merlin that at times he thinks Guenevere is afraid of life itself. When Merlin goes to Ynys Witrin to escort the queen back to Arthur, he realizes that Arthur has been right about her; for he sees that Guenevere, although a queen in composure and courage, is really a timid, lonely, frightened girl and that her youthful gaiety is merely the mask of an exile's eager search for friendship among the strangers of a court vastly different from the homely hearth in her father's kingdom. Because Arthur is frequently away from court on state affairs, she has no husband to stand between her and the flatterers, the power-hungry schemers, the enviers of her rank and beauty, and the young men ready to worship her. Moreover, being barren, she is tormented by those who tell her of the first Guenevere, who conceived the first time Arthur bedded her and for whom he grieved so bitterly. Consequently, Merlin—like the reader—pities the queen.

Guenevere and Bedwyr, of course, are lovers, but, again, Stewart is sympathetic. Because of their love for Arthur, both Guenevere and Bedwyr struggle against their desires. Moreover, Arthur is aware of this love affair long before Merlin informs him of it; he accepts it as fated and leaves Bedwyr with Guenevere when he travels north to Strathclyde in order "to let them have something, however little." Arthur explains that he is a king, not a cottager with nothing in his life except a wife and a bed to be jealous of, like a cock on a dunghill. His life is that of a king, whose principal concern is the safety and well-being of his people. Guenevere is queen, but because she is childless, her life is less than a woman's. Because of his duties he cannot be there at court with her, and, realizing that Guenevere is a young woman who needs companionship and love, he is thankful that of all the men she could have taken as a lover she chose Bedwyr. He refuses to say anything; to do so would be to no avail, for, as Merlin has noted, love cannot be gainsaid. And. most important, Arthur does not wish to destroy the trust and friendship that he and Bedwyr share. Merlin is overwhelmed by Arthur's wisdom, and thus Stewart has achieved two purposes: to increase Arthur's stature and to defend the queen in one of the most sympathetic treatments of Guenevere in Arthurian literature.

In conclusion, even in the case of Guenevere, a weak woman, Mary Stewart has both Merlin and Arthur defend and forgive her. Such a treatment of Guenevere is consistent with Stewart's overall theme of strong, dominant women who reject traditional feminine roles.

Jeanie Watson (essay date Spring 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 preparation and wise waiting. "Power," says Merlin, "is doing and speaking with knowledge; it is bidding without thought, and knowing that one will be obeyed". This kind of knowledge and power is of the spirit, coming from the god, as the god wills, and resulting in the word of prophecy. In addition to embodying this word of power, Merlin also represents a kind of "bidding without thought" that comes from the confidence of acquired knowledge.

Merlin's word of power in the historical and naturalistic realm and the word of power that comes from the god—the nature of the word, its source, limitation, consequences, and progressive revelation—are intrinsic themes in Stewart's books. Each of the progressions toward truth in the trilogy emphasizes a general movement from partiality to wholeness: the unity of one God and one King, the truth of lineage, and the androgynous wholeness of the word of power.

Mary Stewart's trilogy is historical fiction, set, not in the usual, romantic Middle Ages of Malory, but in the historically more accurate Dark Ages of fifth-century Celtic Britain. Characters, place names, and events in the story carefully accord with actual historical facts. Similarly, Stewart's Merlin is not a mysterious magician inhabiting the misty peripheries of action; he is, instead, in this story, a real man, who narrates his own role in the Matter of Britain as he sees the events unfold. Because he is a man, Merlin experiences ordinary human emotions. For instance, as a child, he suffers the taunts and humiliation aimed at a bastard child, and he teams to live by his wits. As an old man, he learns about love in his relationships with Arthur and Nimuë. And Merlin is capable of being mistaken, especially in his interpretations of the actions of women. Morgause's intentions toward Arthur, for example, escape him entirely until it is too late:

I have said men with god's sight are often human-blind: when I exchanged my manhood for power it seemed I had made myself blind to the ways of women. If I had been a simple man instead of a wizard I would have seen the way eye answered eye back there at the hospital, have recognized Arthur's silence later, and known the woman's long assessing look for what it was.

In the course of the trilogy, Merlin tells us his personal history, from the night Ambrosius and Niniane conceive him in the cave at Bryn Myrddin to his burial alive in the same cave by Nimuë.

Because Stewart's Merlin is a man very much grounded in the natural world, much of his knowledge is knowledge of the physical world, a knowledge that makes him the best of engineers and physicians. Although the range and depth of Merlin's knowledge in these areas are so far beyond that of most people that his accomplishments seem supernatural, there are, in fact—as Merlin is always at pains to point out—perfectly natural explanations for these feats of power. The primary example of such a feat is the raising of the Hanging Stones of the Giant's Dance outside Amsbury. Ambrosius tells Merlin he wants "the chaos of giant stones in a lonely place where the sun and the winds strike" to become a monument to the "making of one kingdom under one King." For this it is necessary that the stones be raised. Ambrosius tells Merlin:

"I have talked of this to Tremorinus. He says that no power of man could raise those stones."

I smiled. "So you sent for me to raise them for you?"

"You know they say it was not men who raised them, but magic."

"Then," I said, "no doubt they will say the same again."

His eyes narrowed. "You are telling me you can do it?"

"Why not?"

He was silent, merely waiting. It was a measure of his faith in me that he did not smile.

I said: "Oh, I've heard all the tales they tell, the same tales they told in Less Britain of the standing stones. But the stones were put there by men, sir. And what men put there once, men can put there again."

"Then if I don't possess a magician, at least I possess a competent engineer."

"That's it."

And it is the engineer who goes to work to raise the stones and make the Dance. Using his knowledge of engineering, the guidance of the songs learned from the blind singer of Kerrec, and the strength of two hundred men, Merlin raises the stones and fits them together:

I heard it said, long afterwards, that I moved the stones of the Dance with magic and with music. I suppose you might say that both are true. I have thought, since, that this must have been how the story started that Phoebus Apollo built with music the walls of Troy. But the magic and the music that moved the Giant's Dance, I shared with the blinder singer of Kerrec.

Mathematics and music work the magic that once more links the circle of the Giant's Dance, symbol of the unity and harmony of the kingdom.

Much earlier, when he is still a boy living as a bastard at his grandfather's court, Merlin has the power that comes from listening and observing. His first "cave" of knowledge is in the tunnels of the unused underground heating system, a "secret labyrinth" which the six-year-old finds "a curiously strong pleasure in exploring", mostly because it provides him a place "to be alone in the secret dark". But it also provides him a hiding place in which to learn information that gives him power over events that affect his life. At this early age, Merlin learns the value of letting others believe his knowledge comes from magic, even though there is a reasonable, natural explanation:

One night, creeping beneath his bed chamber on the way to my "cave," I chanced to hear [Dinias] and his pack-follower Brys laughing over a foray of that afternoon when the pair of them had followed Camlach's friend Alun to his tryst with one of the servant-girls, and stayed hidden, watching and listening to the sweet end. When Dinias waylaid me next morning I stood my ground and—quoting a sentence or so—asked if he had seen Alun yet that day. He stared, went red and then white (for Alun had a hard hand and a temper to match it) and then sidled away, making the sign behind his back. If he liked to think it was magic rather than simple blackmail, I let him. After that if the High King himself had ridden in claiming parentage for me, none of the children would have believed him, They left me alone.

Later, the twelve-year-old Merlin is able to escape to Ambrosius because he tells Ambrosius's men, "Oh, yes, there's a lot I could tell you". He offers Ambrosius "valuable information and five languages" and, eventually, dreams and prophecies. When Merlin is seventeen, Vortigern, the High King opposed to Ambrosius, is trying to build fortifications against Ambrosius at King's Fort; however, the foundations keep collapsing. Vortigern's soothsayers tell him that only the sacrificial blood of one who is no man's son will hold the foundation. Hearing the story of Merlin's demon ancestry, Vortigern intends to sacrifice Merlin. However, from his own exploration of the caves at King's Fort when he was a boy, Merlin knows the answer to the problem:

If I had no power to use, I had knowledge. I cast my mind back to the day at King's Fort, and to the flooded mine in the core of the crag, to which the dream led me. I would certainly be able to tell them why their foundations would not stand. It was an engineer's answer, not a magician's. But, I thought, meeting the oyster eyes of Maugan as he dry-washed those long dirty hands before him, if it was a magician's answer they wanted, they should have it.

King Vortigern, following Merlin's bidding to the cave within the hill, hears the engineer's answer. But as Merlin and the king and the king's people stand at the edge of the pool, the cave becomes like Galapas's crystal cave "come alive and moving and turning … like the starred globe of midnight whirling and flashing" as Merlin speaks the word of power that comes from the god:

I stopped. The light had changed. Nobody had moved, and the air was still, but the torchlight wavered as men's hands shook. I could no longer see the King: the flames ran between us. Shadows fled across the streams and staircases of fire, and the cave was full of eyes and wings and hammering hoofs and the scarlet rush of a great dragon stooping on his prey….

A voice was shouting, high and monotonous, gasping. I could not get my breath. Pain broke through me, spreading from groin and belly like blood bursting from a wound. I could see nothing. I felt my hands knotting and stretching. My head hurt, and the rock was hard and streaming wet under my cheekbone. I had fainted, and they had seized me as I lay and were killing me: this way my blood seeping from me to spread into the pool and shore up the foundations of their rotten tower. I choked on breath like bile. My hands tore in pain at the rock, and my eyes were open, but all I could see was the whirl of banners and wings and wolves' eyes and sick mouths gaping, and the tail of a comet like a brand, and stars shooting through a rain of blood.

Pain went through me again, a hot knife into the bowels. I screamed, and suddenly my hands were free. I threw them up between me and the flashing visions and I heard my own voice calling, but could not tell what I called. In front of me the visions whirled, fractured, broke open in intolerable light, then shut again into darkness and silence.

What Merlin prophesies is the victory of Ambrosius and the coming of Arthur. Several things about the power are made clear in this incident. First, there is mystery in power. The god comes when and as it will, in its own time and its own way. Second, there is a price to be paid for the word of power; pain and suffering are necessary accompaniments. Third, Merlin is the word of power, the medium, the vehicle for the god. Often, he does not know the meaning of what he has said at the time of speaking, and the revelation must be a gradual unfolding. Finally, when Merlin becomes the word of power, what he speaks is truth. As he says to Cadal after the Vortigern prophecy:

There will be something there. Don't ask me what, I don't know, but if I said so…. It's true, you know. The things I see this way are true … I'm not on my own. Remember that; and if you can't trust me, trust what is in me. I have learned too. I've learned that the god comes when he will, and how he will, rending your flesh to get into you, and when he has done, tearing himself free as violently as he came. Afterwards—now—one feels light and hollow and like an angel flying … No, they can do nothing to me, Cadal. Don't be afraid. I have the power.

Throughout the three books, the presence of the god is imaged as the wind. After Merlin enters the crystal cave of vision for the first time, he tells Galapas, "I feel all right, only a headache, but—empty, like a shell with the snail out of it. No, like reed with the pith pulled out." "A whistle for the winds. Yes", responds Galapas. And as Merlin leaves to go home, he says, "I'm still in the god's path. I can feel the wind blowing". The blowing wind of the natural world is often the foreshadowing of the word of power. As in one of the scenes with Vortigern, there will be a gust of wind and then another gust until, in this case, Vortigern's banner streams out "like a sail holding the full weight of the wind" and then tears free to sink into a pool of water at the king's feet. The wind dies, and Merlin says, "Can any doubt the god has spoken?". Another time, planning for Arthur's safe-keeping after his birth, Merlin says, "Something was moving; there was a kind of breathing brightness in the air, the wind of God brushing by, invisible in sunlight. Even for men who cannot see or hear them, the gods are still there, and I was not less than a man." The wind is blowing the night Arthur is born, and Merlin says to Ralf that in Arthur's crowning, "We whistled up a strong wind".

There is, in addition, a cluster of images that denote the presence of God. Like the "breathing brightness" of the wind of God, references to wind are often accompanied by references to fire and to music, particularly harp music. It is this cluster of images that authenticates Arthur's role when Merlin takes Arthur to Ector. "And this is the one," says Merlin to Ector.

"Your stars tell you this?"

"It has been written there, certainly, and who writes among the stars but God?"

"What's that? That sound?"

"Only the wind in the bowstrings."

"I thought it was a harp sounding. Strange. What is it, boy? Why do you look so?"

"Nothing." He looked at me doubtfully for a moment longer, then grunted and fell silent, and behind us the long humming stretched out, a cold music, something from the air itself. I remembered how, as a child. I had lain watching the stars and listening for the music which (I had been told) they made as they moved. This must, I thought, be how it sounded.

It is the breath and light of God that made the harmony of the world.

And it is this harmony for which Merlin is the hollow reed, the medium for the Word. As Merlin speaks the word of power from the god, he becomes the Word. Speaking to Cadal, Merlin is explicit: "I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of God blowing through it." In The Last Enchantment, Merlin explains to Nimuë that when one becomes a word of power, one is "merely a seer, an eye and a voice for a most tyrannous god." The god is tyrannous; it comes and goes as it will. Merlin says, "I would not importune God for the smallest breath of the great wind. If he came to me, he came. It was for him to choose the time, and for me to go with it." God often chooses the least expected time, and where Merlin goes in vision is into the Otherworld of spirit. When Guinevere disappears with Melwas, Merlin looks into the fire and finds himself suddenly carried away: "I did not hear him go. I was already far from the firelit room, borne on the cool and blazing river that dropped me, light as a leaf loosened by the wind, in the darkness at the gates of the Otherworld." In the Otherworld, Merlin finds himself in caves that go "on and on for ever," dreaming of the "legendary hall of Llud-Nautha, King of the Otherworld". Then this dream dissolves, and Merlin sees Guinevere where Melwas has her hidden away.

Caves of one sort or another abound in the trilogy. Merlin is conceived in the cave at Bryn Myrddin; he is buried alive in the same cave; and it is there that he first visits Galapas and later makes his home for much of his life. Within that cave is a smaller crystal cave, the crystal cave of vision. The cave represents the mind, the power of thought and sight and insight. The crystals of the cave throw light into darkness and bring the god-vision. Truth is often hidden, underground, invisible, and there is some form of cave present in almost every instance of vision in the trilogy. For example, there are the "caves" of the hypocaust and the mining cavern at King's Fort—which Merlin sees once in vision and twice in actuality. As the boy Merlin wakes outside Ambrosius's military camp to see Mithras (who was born in a cave) and the bull, he first sees that "the brilliant arch of stars about [him] was like a curved roof of the cave with the light flashing off the crystals". Again, in a temple of Mithras which is below ground, cave-like, Merlin finds Macsen's sword and the grail. As Merlin replaces the grail, the plaster from the apse tumbles down and buries it, and the wall shows "blank, like the wall of a cave". The sword he takes and hides in a deep cavern on Caer Bannog, the Castle in the Mountains "said to be haunted by Bilis the dwarf king of the Otherworld. It was reputed to appear and disappear at will, sometimes floating invisible, as if made of glass". The place is called the "isle of glass," and the cavern is another crystal cave:

The place was a temple, pillared in pale marble and floored with glass. Even I, who was here by right, and hedged with power, felt my scalp tingle. By land and water shall it go home, and lie hidden in the floating stone until by fire it shall be raised again. So had the Old Ones said, and they would have recognized this place as I did; as the dead fisherman did who came back from the Otherworld raving of the halls of the dark King. Here, in Bilis' antechamber, the sword would be safe till the youth came who had the right to life it.

The Old Ones, "keeping faith in their cold caves with the past and the future", live in the hollow hills of faery, speak the Old Tongue, and are the guardians of the knowledge of the sword. They live in the woods, so much a part of nature that they come to look like the trees around them. Almost entirely at one with the natural world, they consider themselves descended from the Gods. They, like Merlin, eat the offerings people leave for the gods, and, again like Merlin, they know that knowledge is power. Their leader says, "There are things we must know. Knowledge is the only power we have". When Merlin, gone crazy from Morgause's poison, wanders the woods, the Old Ones look after him. Merlin speaks the Old Tongue, as does Arthur. The hollow hills in which the Old Ones live are the gates to the Otherworld, and "it is not possible to keep secrets from the Old Ones". The Otherworld is the world of dream, myth, and spirit. "Magic," explains Merlin, "is the door through which mortal man may sometimes step, to find the gates in the hollow hills, and let himself through into the halls of that other world".

One does not enter the halls of the Otherworld with impunity; there is a price to be paid: "There is no power without knowledge, and no knowledge without suffering". "Moments of vision have always to be paid for, first with the pain of the vision itself"—what Merlin calls "Nails of pain"—then "afterwards in the long trance of exhausted sleep". Those who have had to do with the Gods know that when those Gods make promises they hide them in light, and a smile on a God's lips is not always a sign that you may take his favor for granted. Men have a duty to make sure. The Gods like the taste of salt; the sweat of human effort is the savour of their sacrifices. Merlin knows he is "not immune from the God's fire", and he likens the physical "whirling pain" to the last pains of childbirth, the pain necessary to complete creation: "Prophecy … is like being struck through the entrails by that whip of God that we call lightning. But even as my flesh winced from it I welcomed it as a woman welcomes the final pang of childbirth". The vision and the suffering are one. After Arthur has taken the sword of Macsen from the stone, Merlin remembers "How my body ached, and how at length, when I knelt again, my sight blurred and darkened as if still blind with vision, or with tears.

At its deepest level, the suffering that comes from knowledge is not physical, but spiritual. Merlin learns this as a child, when, coming to Merlin in the garden, his uncle offers him, in seeming innocence, a piece of fruit, an Edenic apricot filled with poison. Camlach urges Merlin to eat it, but Merlin says, "I don't want it. It's black inside." Camlach hurls the apricot against the wall where

… it burst in a golden splash of flesh against the brick…. I stood where I was, watching the juice of the apricot trickle down the hot wall. A wasp alighted on it, crawled stickily, then suddenly fell, buzzing on its back to the ground. Its body jack-knifed, the buzz rose to a whine as it struggled, then it lay still. I hardly saw it, because something had swelled in my throat till I thought I would choke, and the golden evening swam, brilliant, into tears. This was the first time in my life that I remember weeping.

The knowledge that there is evil which would betray innocence brings suffering. The major betrayal of innocence in the story, with its attendant and inevitable suffering, is, of course. Morgause's seduction of the innocent Arthur. The rosegold Morgause carries the poison:

This morning she wore red, the color of cherries, and over the shoulders of the gown her hair looked rosy fair, larch buds in spring, the color of apricots. Her scent was heavy and sweet, apricots and honeysuckle mixed…. But death was here, in a form and with a smell I did not know. A smell like treachery, something remembered dimly from my childhood, when my uncle planned to betray his father's kingdom, and to murder me.

Modred is the seed of suffering engendered by the betrayal of innocence. Morgause is even able to use her treachery on Merlin, poisoning his wine at Morgan's wedding feast:

I must have drunk far more than I was accustomed to, because I well remember how the torchlight beat and swelled, bright and dark alternately, while talk and laughter surged and broke in gusts and with it the woman's scent, a thick sweetness like honeysuckle, catching and trapping the sense as a lime twig holds a bee. The fumes of the wine rose through it. A gold jug tilted, and my goblet brimmed again. Someone said, smiling "Drink, my lord." There was a taste of apricots in my mouth, sweet and sharp; the skin had a texture like the fur of a bee, or a wasp dying in sunlight on a garden wall…. And all the while eyes watching me, in excitement and wary hope, then in contempt, and in triumph.

The result is that Merlin spends seven months "stark crazy," wandering in the woods, his words garbled. Poisoned magic brings madness, not vision.

No one is exempt from suffering, nor is it clear what the price will be. "It is God who keeps the price secret, Uther, not I," Merlin tells Uther. It is God who exacts the price, and he does so for his own purposes. Men are merely vehicles through whom the purpose is accomplished. "The gods sit over the board, but it is men who move under their hands for the mating and the kill". As Merlin explains to Moravick: "'I don't know if I can make you understand, Moravick: Visions and prophecies, gods and stars and voices speaking in the night … things seen cloudy in the flames and in the stars, but real as pain in the blood, and piercing the brain like ice. But now …' I paused again. '… Now it is no longer a god's voice or a vision, it is a small human child with lusty lungs, a baby like any other baby, who cries and sucks milk, and soaks his swaddling clothes. One's visions do not take account of this'". Merlin speaks of himself as one "who had been used by the driving god for thirty years" for the god's own purposes. What those purposes are is usually revealed only gradually.

The progressive revelation of Truth, or the searching after final truth, can be seen in a number of ways throughout the course of the novels. In each of the progressions, there is a movement from division to unification, from partiality to wholeness. Merlin's personal search is for the source of his power. He says his power comes from the god, but there are many religions and many gods in Merlin's world: "And dreamed again … a dream half-waking, broken and uneasy, of the small gods of small places; gods of hills and woods and streams and crossways; the gods who still haunt their broken shrines, waiting in the dust beyond the lights of the busy Christian churches, and the dogged rituals of the greater gods of Rome". Mithras, the druids, Roman gods, the Christian God—Merlin says, "I believe in giving due honour to whatever god confronts you…. That's common sense in these days, as well as courtesy. Sometimes I think the gods themselves have not yet got it clear". Merlin explains to Ambrosius: "My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places. Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth. If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun. There is nowhere I will not look, to find him"). One of the first gods Merlin traffics with is Mithras, Mithras, who, as Ambrosius says, is another face of Christ: "'For.' said my father to me afterwards when we were alone, 'as you will find, all gods who are born of the light are brothers, and in this land, if Mithras who gives us victory is to bear the face of Christ, why, then, we worship Christ"). Mithras is:

the soldier's god, the Word, the Light, the Good Shepherd, the mediator between the one God and man. I had seen Mithras, who had come out of Asia a thousand years ago. He had been born, Ambrosius told me, in a cave at mid-winter, while shepherds watched and a star shone; he was born of earth and light, and sprang from the rock with a torch in his left hand and a knife in his right. He killed the bull to bring life and fertility to the earth with its shed blood, and then, after his last meal of bread and wine, he was called up to heaven. He was the god of strength and gentleness, of courage and self-restraint.

But Merlin is neither a worshipper of Mithras nor a Christian. Galapas tells Merlin in their first meeting: "[Myrddin] lends me his spring, and his hollow hill, and his heaven of woven light, and in return I give him his due. It does not do to neglect the gods of a place, whoever they may be. In the end, they are all one"). And this is also Merlin's belief: "I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the blood stained shadows where men like Belasius wait from them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end"). Throughout the story, Merlin respects each of the individual gods, but the word of power which he speaks in from the one God, the god who is the light: "I only know that God is the source of all the light which has lit the world, and that his purpose runs through the world and past each one of us like a great river, and we cannot check or turn it, but can only drink from it while living, and commit our bodies to it when we die".

Merlin's word of power and his movement toward one God parallels the word of power spoken by a king. The Matter of Britain is a movement from many kings to one King, from divided kingdoms to one, unified Kingdom within which there can be harmony. The idea of one country and one king is first instilled in Merlin by Galapas: "He spoke as if it were all one country, though I could have told him the names of the kings of a dozen places that he mentioned. I only remember this because of what came after". It is Merlin's role to establish Arthur as the one King, and just as there is one God of light and truth, so, prophesies Merlin at Ambrosius's burial, there will be in Britain one King:

And while the King lies there under the stone the Kingdom shall not fall. For as long and longer than it had stood before, the Dance shall stand again, with the light striking it from the living heaven. And I shall bring back the great stone to lay upon the grave-place, and this shall be the heart of Britain, and from this time on all the kings shall be one King and all the gods one God. And you shall live again in Britain, and for ever, for we will make between us a King whose name will stand as long as the Dance stands, and who will be more than a symbol; he will be a shield and a living sword.

When this has been accomplished, God's purpose for Merlin is also accomplished, and Merlin says, "The god, who was God, has indeed dismissed his servant, and was letting him go in peace".

There are two other progressions in the novels that emphasize the general movement from partiality to wholeness. The first has to do with the issue of lineage, and the second involves the role of Nimuë. Just as there is a succession of gods, each heirs of the former, and just as one king succeeds another in search for one King, so do individual characters search for the truth of their origins. There are a good number of bastard children in the novels: Merlin. Morgause, Modred, and—for much of his life—Arthur. The search for legitimacy is an overriding one for Merlin and for Arthur, and the two cases have many parallels. Neither is conceived in wedlock, but each is finally proclaimed the legitimate heir by a father who is king. They are enough alike that Arthur for a time believes that Merlin is his father. And Merlin is Arthur's father in spirit and in love, a fact which Arthur never forgets. He calls Merlin "the man who was more to me than my own father"; and when Merlin tells Arthur the truth about his parentage and of his own role in bringing Arthur to the throne, Arthur responds: "'You,' he said quietly, 'you, from the very beginning. I wasn't so far wrong after all, was I? I'm as much yours as the King's—more; and Ector's too'". Cador says to Merlin of Arthur: "Did you know he was more like you than ever like the King?". There are many kinds of fathers. Galapas and Ambrosius are father to Merlin; Merlin and Ector and Ralf and Uther are father to Arthur; and Merlin is father to Niniane.

Ninian, as Niniane is called when Merlin thinks she is a boy, or Nimuë, once she becomes the King's enchantress, is first the "son" Merlin could have had in no other way and then the only lover he could ever have had. And, finally, Nimuë becomes the heir of Merlin's word of power. That Merlin comes to see her as that heir denotes a movement from partial to whole truth on his part. Merlin begins by making a clear distinction between the magic of women and his own power. His mother, Niniane, has the Sight and something of power, but she loses it. Merlin explains to Ambrosius that he gets his Sight from his mother, "but it is different. She saw only women's things, to do with love. Then she began to fear the power, and let it be". When Merlin sees his mother after a five year absence, he says: "I found her much changed. She was pale and quiet, and had put on weight, and with it a kind of heaviness of the spirit that she had not had before. It was only after a day or two, jogging north with the escort through the hill, that it suddenly came to me what this was; she had lost what she had had of power. Whether time had taken this, or illness, or whether she had abnegated it for the power of the Christian symbol that she wore on her breast, I had no means of guessing. But it had gone". Morgause also has something of the power, but when she asks Merlin to teach her his arts, he refuses:

I've told you it isn't possible. You will have to take my word for that. You are too young. I'm sorry, child. I think that for power like mine you will always be too young. I doubt if any woman could go where I go and see what I see. It is not as easy art. The god I serve is a hard master…. He only lends his power for his own ends. When they are achieved, who knows? If he wants you, he will take you, but don't walk into the flames, child. Content yourself with such magic as young maids use.

While it is true that if Morgause knows nothing of the god and wants to use the power for her own ends rather than being used by the god, she could never speak the word of power, it is also true that at this point, and for most of his life, Merlin doubts that any woman could go where he goes and see what he sees. He believes in women's magic—distinct from his own power—and in women's power over men because of their ability to incite physical desire. He himself, "knowing what a girl could do to rob a man of power", avoids relationships with women: "I had known, that day at twenty when I fled from the girl's angry and derisive laughter, that for me there had been a cold choice between manhood and power, and I had chosen power". Merlin is eager to teach Niniane because he believes her at first to be the drowned Ninian returned:

The boy Ninian—so young and quiet, and with a grace in look and motion that gave lie to the ugly slave-burn on his arm—he had had about him the mark of coming death. This, once seeing, any man might have wept for, but I was weeping, too, for myself; for Merlin the enchanter, who saw and could do nothing; who walked his own lonely heights where it seemed that none would ever come near to him. In the boy's still face and listening eyes, that night on the moor when the birds had called, I had caught a glimpse of what might have been. For the first time, since those days long ago when I had sat at Galapas' feet to learn the arts of magic, I had seen someone who might have learned worthily from me. Not as others had wanted to learn, for power or excitement, or for the prosecution of some enmity or private greed; but because he had seen, darkly with a child's eyes, how the gods move with the winds and speak with the sea and sleep in the gentle herbs; and how God himself is the sum of all that is on the face of the lovely earth.

Merlin is lonely; the very power which is the force of his life also isolates him, separates him from others. What Nimuë brings him is wholeness. She allows him to love, to be a lover, and to share his knowledge and power. They become one in body and in spirit: "At last I was free to give, along with all the rest of the power and effort and glory, the manhood that until now had been the god's alone. The abdication I had feared, and feared to grudge, would not be a loss, but rather a new joy gained". The similarities between Merlin and Nimue become apparent as Arthur questions Nimuë about her desire to study magic and Nimuë says of that desire, with "a look straight at [Arthur], equal to equal. 'You must have known it. I was still unborn, hammering at the egg, to get out into the air'". The "burning to be free," the desire to be bound by no man, is something both Arthur and Merlin understand.

What Merlin learns is that freedom is finally not a matter of isolation and separation but a matter of unification and wholeness. Merlin and Nimuë have chosen to live outside the traditional masculine and feminine roles which they view as confining to their spirits. Thus, both have become, not sexless, but androgynous. The two remain individuals, yet the two become one:

So, toward the end of my life, I found a new beginning. A beginning it was in love, for both of us…. Between myself and Nimuë was a bond stronger than any between the best-matched pair in the flower of their age and strength. We were the same person. We were part of each other as are night and daylight, dark and dawn, sun and shadow. When we lay together we lay at the edge of life where opposites fuse and make new entities, not of the flesh, but of the spirit, the issue as much of the ceaseless traffic of mind with mind, as of the body's pleasure.

We did not marry. Looking back now, I doubt if either of us even thought of cementing the relationship in this way; it was not clear what rites we could have used, what faster bond we could have hoped for. With the passing of the days and nights of that sweet summer, we found ourselves closer and yet more close, as if cast in a common mould: we would wake in the morning and know we had shared the same dream; meet at evening and each know what the other had learned and done that day. And all the time, as I believed, each of us harboured our own private and growing joy: I to watch her trying the wings of power like a strong young bird feeling for the first time the mastery of air; she to receive this waxing strength, and to know, with love but without pity, that at the same time the power was leaving me.

And so, Merlin gives Nimuë the sum of his life on which to build her own. She will inherit the word of power which is Merlin's word and the word of the god. The quest for the sword and the grail, the quest for the truth of one Kingdom and the quest for the one God are all one in the end: "It is time the gods became one god, and there in the grail is the oneness for which men will seek, and die, and dying, live". Successful in his own quest, Merlin can echo the words of Christ's fulfillment: "I said to the ghosts, to the voices, to the empty moonlight: 'It was time. Let me go in peace.' Then, commending myself and my spirit to God who all these years had held me in his hand, I composed myself for sleep".

There is a final thing to be said about Merlin as word of power. Merlin explains that he is "a spirit, a word", a voice through which the god can speak. In the course of the novels, however, Merlin, who is the word of power, becomes so closely associated with the Word that is God that he also becomes that Word and, thus, is a maker, a creator of the story of history. The identification of Merlin with divinity begins with his name and comes for the first time in the revelation scene between Merlin and Ambrosius:

"Emrys, she called you. Child of the light. Of the immortals. Diyine. You knew that's what it meant?"


"Didn't you know it was the same as mine?"

"My name?" I asked, stupidly.

He nodded. "Emrys…. Ambrosius; it's the same word. Merlinus Ambrosius—she called you after me."

I stared at him. "I—yes, of course. It never occurred to me." I laughed.

"Why do you laugh?"

"Because of our names. Ambrosius, prince of light…. She told everyone that my father was the prince of darkness. I've even heard a song about it. We make songs of everything, in Wales."

Merlin Emrys, "Child of the light. Of the immortals. Divine," has from the beginning been the occasion of song and legend. Merlin lives in a cave of legend, Bryn Myrddin, a hollow "hill sacred to the sky-god Myrddin, he of the light and the wild air", a hill the people associate with Merlin "rather than with the god, calling it Merlin's Hill"), a hill Merlin is willing to share with the god, becoming "their god made flesh" and taking the people's offering to the god as his own:

I know that the wine and bread, like the thrown coins, had been left as much as an offering to the god as to me; in the minds of the simple folk I had already become part of the legend of the hill, their god made flesh who came and went as quietly as the air, and brought with him the gifts of healing.

Merlin, like Myrddin, is associated with the light and the wind. Merlin once says of a dog that barks at him that the dog is wise since "he's one who can see the wind". And, again, Merlin observes: "So the year went by, and the lovely month came, September, my birth-month, the wind's month, the month of the raven, and of Myrddin himself, that wayfarer between heaven and earth". As the word and the Word, Merlin can say to Ninian, "'You will be welcome.' I added, softly, as much to myself as to him: 'By God himself, you will be welcome'". Because he is the Word of power, Merlin can say to Morgause—when she curses him, saying, "In the end you will only be a shadow and a name"—"I am nothing, yes; I am air and darkness, a word, a promise. I watch in the crystal and I wait in the hollow hills. But out there in the light I have a young king and a bright sword to do my work for me". As Word of power, Merlin uses Arthur to build the one Kingdom, a kingdom whose legend will last forever.

A legend is itself a word of power, a story which has the power to capture the imagination of the listener. Mary Stewart's Merlin is a man very much aware of his own legend in the making and of his part in creating and fostering that legend. Throughout the trilogy, Merlin carefully explains the "supernatural" events in which he participates. His explanations revise and reinterpret the stories of Mary Stewart's sources, while becoming in that very process the source of his own legend. Who could be a more authoritative narrator of the events than Merlin himself? Because he is seer, he knows how the stories will be passed down in the future, but because he is Merlin, word of power, he is the word of truth, telling us the truth of the legend—a legend which, over time, assumes its own truth and power. The stories of Stewart's sources—Merlin's demon origins, the red and white dragons beneath Vortigern's tower, the magical transformation of Uther into the shape of Gorlois, the story of the hanging Stones of the Giant's Dance, the sword in the stone, Nimuë's betrayal and Merlin's death-in-life—all have, as Merlin testifies, perfectly natural and reasonable explanations based on boyhood escapades, mathematics, the superstitious credulity of the general populace, and the emotion of human love. At the same time, there is still mystery in each of these "truths," so that the explanation is not, nor ever can be, the whole truth. There is mystery in truth; and it is out of this mystery, which is ultimately the god, that the word of power comes. And it is for this power that Merlin is the word.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 July 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 island of Moila but is delayed. Alone in her cottage, Rose is at first terrified, then angry and puzzled, by the night arrivals—separately—of two men. Both are strangers to her. Ewen Mackay, who lets himself in with a key, claims that the cottage was his childhood home and hints that he was the love-child of the now-deceased Colonel Hamilton, owner of the nearby "Big House." But the man who calls himself John Parsons turns out to be the Hamilton heir. There are curious break-ins at the Hamilton house, and odd movements of Ewen's boat, the Stormy Petrel. As Rose puzzles, and enjoys the scenic wonders of the island, others arrive—including two of her students: Crispin; a Mr. Bagshaw (ex-con and developer!); and, at the finale, two policemen. Before the crowd thins, the island is saved from development, and a romantic interest is hinted. But all this is a mere puff beside the cries of birds, boom of sea, and ancient artifacts.

For Stewart's many followers, a pleasant armchair holiday in a wild and lovely landscape.

Christopher Dean (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the supernatural. Have-lock the Dane, for example, who earns his living by day in the most humdrum manner, catching fish and selling them in the market town of Lincoln, goes to sleep at night and has a light as bright as a sunbeam play magically about his head as an indication of his royal rank.

It is the newly respectable genre of fantasy literature which carries on this tradition today. Ursula Le Guin begins A Wizard of Earthsea with the disarmingly frank statement: "The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards." Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings has gone no more than five pages before we meet "an odd-looking waggon … driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods … [and] an old man … [with] a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf … the old man was Gandalf the wizard."

But most of our fiction today is realistic and deals with the people and the facts of the everyday world about us. The supernatural cannot easily appear in such a context. If realistic fiction takes Arthurian themes as its subject matter, the supernatural should not enter the story. It can be hinted at or invoked as superstition, but in the end, there always has to be a rational explanation. Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset is a good illustration of the point.

When the birth of Guenhumara's daughter comes on unexpectedly at the height of a great storm, Arthur in desperation finds her a place of safety in the village of Druim Dhu, the leader of the Old Race, the Little Dark Ones. Guenhumara begs not to be left in the Fairy Hills, and later when her baby dies, she accuses the Dark People of having drawn the life out of it to save a weak child of their own. But Arthur will not accept this, protesting that her fear was nothing but an "ill dream." In the same way, when Arthur lies with Ygerna, he talks of "the magic mist," he finds the air filled with the "bloom of enchantment," and he calls her "a witch," but the rational explanation is clear enough. Ygerna drugged his wine, and it was under the influence of that that the seduction took place. Sword at Sunset is realistic fiction albeit that it is set in the distant past. There is no magic in it.

The original question that I intended to address in this paper was: How must modern writers adapt the supernatural side of the Arthurian legend in order to make it acceptable to contemporary readers? I proposed in particular to see what happened to Merlin as he passed from the middle ages to our own times, hence the paper's title. But the task is obviously far too big for a single paper.

Consequently, I have limited myself to seeing what a single writer, Mary Stewart, in her first two Arthurian novels The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills does with Merlin, for it seems to me that of all the current writers, she has gone the farthest in trying to make Merlin as realistic a character as possible. A study of her methods and her degree of success will be a significant step in answering the question I originally posed.

In both novels, Stewart's emphasis is totally on the realistic. She begins by placing the events of her narrative as firmly as she can into what is known of the historical framework of the period. Thus, for example, we have an account of Magnus Maximus that is near enough to the truth to be quite convincing:

The facts were these. Maximus, a Spaniard by birth, had commanded the armies in Britain under his general Theodosius at a time when Saxons and Picts were raiding the coasts constantly, and the Roman province of Britain looked like crumbling to its fall. Between them the commanders repaired the Wall of Hadrian, and held it, and Maximus himself rebuilt and garrisoned the great fortress at Segontium in Wales … Then in the year that Ector had called the Flood Year … 'Prince Macsen' … was declared Emperor by his troops … and marched on Rome itself. He never came back … He was defeated there, and later executed.

In the same way we have references to Stilicho, who restored order in Britain at the end of the fourth century, to the practice of using foreign mercenaries in Britain to keep back the Picts, to the recognition and settlement of independent Saxon kingdoms in the south and east of the island—what Stewart calls the Federated States—and even to the British settlement on the continent in what is now Brittany.

Next, Stewart makes her background authentic by describing the ordinary people of the novels in a detached, almost scientific, way. Here, for example, is her account of the people who lived in the low-lying marshes that surrounded the River Severn and the tributaries that run into it:

The marsh folk always needed medicine, living as they do at the edge of the fetid bogland, with agues and swollen joints and the fear of fever. They built their huts right on the borders of the scummed pools, just clear of the deep black mud at the edge, or even set them on stilts right over the stagnant water. The huts crack and rot and fall to pieces every year, and have to be patched each spring, but in spring and autumn the flocks of travelling birds fly down to drink, in summer the waters are full of fish and the forest game, and in winter the folk break the ice and lie in wait for the deer to come and drink … So the folk of the marshes cling to their stinking cabins, and eat well and drink the standing water, and die of fever….

Most important of all, however, is the almost tangible texture of all the settings in which the actions take place. This is achieved by a meticulous use of concrete details that are both photographically exact and at the same time poetically evocative.

Merlin describes his return to Bryn Myrddin:

In the lower reaches of the valley the woods were thick; the oaks still rustled their withered leaves, chestnut and sycamore crowded close, fighting for the light, and hollies showed black and glinting between the beeches. Then the trees thinned, and the path climbed along the side of the valley, with the stream running deep down on the left, and to the right slopes of grass, broken by scree, rising sharply to the crags that crowned the hill. The grass was still bleached with winter, but among the rusty drifts of last year's bracken the bluebell showed glossy green, and blackthorn was budding.

The same technique equally makes man-built structures vividly real. This is Dimilioc, where Gorlois' body lies in state:

The place was cold, silent but for the sounds of wind and sea. The wind had changed and now blew from the north-west, bringing with it the chill and promise of rain. There was neither glazing nor horn in the windows, and the draught stirred the torches in their iron brackets, sending them sideways, dim and smoking, to blacken the walls. It was a stark, comfortless place, bare of paint, or tiling, or carved wood … The ashes in the hearth were days old, the half-burnt logs dewed with damp.

Just as important, however, are the people of the story. They are made of real flesh and blood and they feel the passions and emotions that we do, and they know the same happinesses and disappointments. We understand, for example, the anger and resentment of Ralf, dismissed from the court of the queen and banished, as he thinks, unfairly to the services of Merlin in his cave. We watch his faithful, loyal service as the vigilant keeper of Arthur as a boy, but all the while chafing to get back to the mainstream of action at the court, and we experience his joy and delight when Arthur is ultimately acknowledged as the next High King. Igraine is another character vividly portrayed as she sacrifices everything—her first husband and then her baby—as the price she must pay for her love of Uther. And then there is King Lot, crafty and scheming, untrustworthy and ambitious, a dangerous rival to Arthur and playing desperately for high stakes.

It is into this entirely convincing, realistic world that Mary Stewart places Merlin. How does she go about making him acceptable at the realistic level too?

From the earliest times, tradition had made Merlin the son of the devil; it had made him move the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain by magic; and it had made him bring about Arthur's conception at Tintagel by means of enchantment. Stewart cuts away all this medieval supernatural inheritance.

From the opening pages of The Crystal Cave we know that Merlin is a man begotten in the usual manner. In the very first vision reported to us, we see his father, "a young man, sword in hand, at the edge of the trees". His actual identity is concealed until late in the book, but there is never any question that he had existed. The idea of the devil as Merlin's father comes in only where we might realistically have expected it. It is either used as an oath, such as when Camlach, after his attempt to poison Merlin has failed, says, "Keep away from me after this, you devil's brat" or it is used to indicate in a contemptuous way Merlin's difference from other children, "Your sister's bastard," said the king. "There he is. Six years old this month, grown like a weed, and no more like any of us than a damned devil's whelp would be". Or it is the occasion of a deliberate lie such as when Niniane fabricates the story of the incubus as the father of her child.

Stewart emphatically makes Merlin's building of Stonehenge no more than a feat of skillful engineering. When Uther says that Merlin has power because he did what Tremorinus could not do, Merlin could not have poured colder water on the idea. "My mathematics are better, that is all". The superstition that later surrounded the event is dismissed by Merlin as "a lot of nonsense".

On the third matter, the bringing of Uther to Igraine's bed, Merlin is equally emphatic. It is true that he does say to the agitated duchess, "This is where we come to magic" but this is nothing more than his pacifying her apprehension at that moment. Later he tells us:

My plan was simply to disguise Uther, Ulfin and myself to pass, if we were seen, as Gorlois and his companions and servant.

The means were saddle cloths, suitably blazoned, a cloak belonging to the duke, a grey dye for Uther's beard, a bandage over his face, a ring for his finger and a knowledge of the password. Months later, when Merlin talks to the queen, he says clearly that there was no magic in the ruse that brought the king to her.

Leaving aside for the moment the crucial question of what supernatural powers, if any, Merlin has, let us ask ourselves how an author would go about passing off a purely human figure as an enchanter or wizard.

The first requirement would be to construct a world in which a man of supernatural power would seem at home. In other words, Stewart needs a world that seems to be filled with the supernatural. Hence, in her novels, there is a multiplicity of gods of all kinds, ranging from the institutionalized one of Christianity, Mithraism, Druidism and the classical deities down to the local gods such as the god of Merlin's hill and the "old goddess of the crossways, the Nameless One, who sits staring from her hollowed log like the owl who is her creature". And because the people of the story believe in these gods, it is not surprising that they are ready to accept and believe in anyone who claims to be a servant of any of these gods.

Stewart's world has a second supernatural strain to it. It is filled with superstition and ignorance which again leads to a ready acceptance of magicians. Thus, we meet stories about "the spirit in the shape of a huge white bird that flies in men's faces if they venture too far up the track". We are told about "the white owl haunting the place as if it waited to convey his spirit home", and we hear of the power of the druids to "send a knife after you that'll hunt you down for days, and all you know is the whistling noise in the air behind you just before it strikes". The well-known belief that "enchanters can't cross water" has its place in this superstitious world. At a more mundane level even than this, we have love potions such as "every old woman swears she can concoct" and spells for protection in childbed.

How does this kind of background establish Merlin, a naturalistic man, as an enchanter? It does so because the people who live in such a credulous world genuinely believe in magicians and will of their own accord build stories about anyone who seems at all unusual. The reputation of such a man will grow and eventually take over from the reality. The legend will supplant the man behind it. And such is the case with Merlin. Much of his power comes from what people believe about him whether there are grounds for those beliefs or not.

Some, such as Hoel, can laugh when saying, "Oh, the usual stories that follow you as closely as your cloak flapping in the wind. Enchantments, flying dragons, men carried through the air and through walls invisibly", but for others the awe and the fear is very real. Crinas' men, for instance, are in mortal fear of Merlin when they waylay him in his cave; Llyd's men have heard that "he is a giant, with eyes that freeze you to the marrow".

As a consequence, even when the facts of the situations are capable of rational explanation—even when Merlin tells people what the explanation is—it is the magical account that is remembered. Thus a legend grows independently of the events. This happens in the matter of Uther coming to Igraine:

Arthur told me once himself, the story that was current about the 'rape at Tintagel.' The legend had lost nothing in the telling. By now, it seemed, men believed that Merlin had spirited the King's party, horses and all, invisibly within the walls of the stronghold, and out again in the broad light of the next morning.

'And they say,' finished Arthur, 'that a dragon curled on the turrets all night, and in the morning Merlin flew off on him, in a trail of fire."

In a like manner, Crinas and his men believe that the music they heard in Merlin's cave was magically made:

'Music all around us,' said the man. 'Soft, like whispering, running round and round the wall of the cave in an echo. I'm not ashamed, my lord, we came out of that cave, and we did not dare go in again.'

Merlin knows this, of course, and deliberately plays up to it, encouraging his reputation to grow. Thus, even as a young boy, he deceives Dinias in order to stop his bullying:

When Dinias waylaid me next morning I stood my ground and—quoting a sentence or so—asked if he had seen Alun yet that day … If he like to think it was magic rather than simple blackmail, I let him.

On a more serious occasion, when his life is threatened by Vortigern unless he can convince the king that he knows why the castle keeps falling down, he says:

I could tell them the truth, coldly. I could take the torch and clamber up into the dark workings and point out faults which were giving way under the weight of the building work … but what Vortigern needed was not logic and an engineer; he wanted magic.

And so he leads them underground to the cave and points to a rock shaped like a dragon in the water:

This is the magic, King Vortigern, that lies beneath your tower. This is why your walls cracked as fast as they could build them. Which of your soothsayers could have showed you what I show you now?

At other times he plays up to the people's credulity and claims by silence powers that he does not have. So, after visiting Queen Igraine, when trapped by the king's messengers who are seeking him, he pretends that he knew their mission and was already riding to meet them. The officer speaks:

You—you knew the King was travelling north to Viroconium? How not? I asked him. From the edge of my eye I saw the nods and head-turning among the men, that also asked How not?

The element of coincidence also comes into play. Merlin seems to have been led to the crystal cave the first time by a bird, and he similarly finds the cavern that lies under the crag upon which Vortigern will later build his castle when he follows a falcon that attacks a ring dove. He discovers the island where Belasius is because a wild boar dashes across his path and throws him from his horse.

At other times, Merlin deliberately capitalizes on these coincidental happenings. The heavy rain stops and the sun comes out at the very moment when he makes his prophecy to Vortigern:

As I spoke, like the turning off of a tap, the downpour stopped. In the sudden quiet, men's mouths gaped. Even Maugan was dumb. Then like the pulling aside of a dark curtain, the sun came out.

On another occasion, he blatantly turns a natural event to his own advantage:

I jumped off the platform in front of them all and threw up my arms.

"Can any doubt the god has spoken? Look up from the ground, and see where he speaks again!"

Across the dark east, burning white hot with a trail like a young comet, went a shooting star, the star men called the firedrake or dragon of fire.

"There is runs," I shouted. "There it runs! The Red Dragon of the West."

But a little later, Merlin laughs at Cadal for being impressed by this event saying, "Cadal … It was only a shooting star".

What I have tried to show is how in a world of superstition and ignorance any man who is quick-witted enough and a bit of a charlatan to boot could pass himself off quite convincingly as an enchanter. And to some extent, this is the way that Mary Stewart portrays Merlin. But it is even easier for him to pass as an enchanter because he has so much more than just quick wits. Stewart has made him genuinely skillful in surgery and in the use of drugs. He has mathematical and engineering skills, he has real ability with languages, he is a gifted musician and he has travelled widely acquiring an impressive amount of general knowledge. But all of this is within the power of any real man who has ability and a devotion to studying.

Does Merlin have anything else? Does he have powers that excel the capabilities of a realistic human being? More than anything else, he claims to be a prophet. But we should notice that even his prophecies are of two different kinds. There is first the wild kind of frenzy that Cadal tells Merlin he cried out in the presence of Vortigern:

All wrapped up, it was, with eagles and wolves and lions and boars and as many other beasts as they've ever had in the arena and a few more besides, dragons and such—and going hundreds of years forward, which is safe enough.

This kind of prophecy is not specific; it is capable of many interpretations; it can even be forgotten if it does not turn out to be true. It does not need to be accounted for because it is the very kind of thing that an imposter would try when his back was to the wall.

But there are other visions that are not put on in order to deceive a gullible audience. They are private, and they turn out to be true. A typical example is Merlin's foreknowledge that he will be given Arthur to care for:

Someone was coming softly down the stairs; a woman, shrouded in a mantle, carrying something. She came without a sound, and there had been neither sound nor movement from Ulfin. I stepped out onto the landing, and the light from the guardroom came after me, firelight and shadow.

It was Marcia. I saw the tears glisten on her cheeks as she bent her head over what lay in her arms. A child, wrapped warm against the winter night. She saw me and held her burden out to me. "Take care of him," she said, and through the shine of the tears I saw the treads of the stairway outline themselves again behind her.

Similar to this is his knowledge of things that have happened far away—his awareness while still in Galapas' cave that Cerdic was dead, his knowing the moment that his mother died, and, even more startling, his premonition of danger when Camlach handed him the poisoned apricot.

This kind of knowledge cannot be dismissed as coincidence or as a lucky guess. It has to be accepted as genuine revelation. Certainly Merlin believes that it is and this, in part, convinces us too that it is real. Merlin has a ready explanation. He has what he calls the Sight, and he believes that he is the agent through whom the god speaks: "The voice that had said so now in the musty dark of Camlach's room, was not mine; it was the god's. He uses the analogy of "an empty shell with something working through him", and later, he calls himself "a reed" with "the wind of God blowing through it".

Here Stewart seems to be getting the best of two worlds. She has found a way to work the supernatural into her story without making Merlin himself anything but human. She makes him a human agent for something else that is genuinely supernatural.

For people who fully accept the idea of a god co-existing with their everyday real world, Stewart's answer solves the problem. Even her refusal to name the god does not matter because, as Merlin explains to Cadal, all the gods in the end are one and the same.

In this way, therefore, Stewart can pretend to stay within the genre of realistic fiction and maintain that Merlin is no more than a man, albeit a special kind of man, by postulating a god who acts through Merlin. And if this were the end and full extent of Merlin's powers, we might perhaps settle for this kind of uneasy reconciliation.

But Merlin has one more power which goes beyond prophecy and foreknowledge. Two examples will suffice:

Areth had managed to set the damp stuff smouldering, but it gave neither heat nor light, only an intermittent gusting of smoke, acrid and dirty … It was time, I thought, that I made an end … I said … 'Stand back from the fire, Areth.'… And as easily as a breath taken … the power ran through me, cool and free.

Something dropped through the dark, like a fire arrow, or a shooting star. With a flash, a shower of white sparks that looked like burning sleet, the logs caught, blazing.

And again:

I stretched out my hands. From the air the pale fire came, running down the blade, so that runes—quivering and illegible—shimmered there. Then the fire spread, engulfing it, till, like a brand too brightly flaring, the flames died, and when they had gone, there stood the altar, pale stone, with nothing against it but the stone sword.

For this kind of power, there can be no word but 'magic.' We have no sense here of a god acting through Merlin. These are actions that he decides to do and it is he who has the power to do it. This is magic, pure and simple. It is very much akin to the action of Gandalf of Mount Caradhras when the fire will not catch and he thrust the end of his staff into the midst of it. 'At once a great sprout of … flame sprang out, and the wood flared and sputtered'.

Narratively, of course, Stewart's episodes are right. They are appropriate dramatic climaxes to the incidents in which they are related and readers are swept up by them in the excitement of the moment. But later, when we look at the novels analytically, we recognize that Stewart has overstepped her boundaries and left the realistic novels that she seemed to be at such pains to write.

To return then, finally, to the question with which we started. Accepting that modern readers demand characters who are explicable in human terms, who are swayed by human emotions and who are psychologically plausible, what metamorphosis does Merlin have to undergo to be credible to twentieth-century readers, while still retaining those fundamental qualities that are part of his very nature?

Different critics have suggested different answers to account for his powers. Raymond Thompson in his recent The Return from Avalon talks of credible magic, but I see 'credible magic' as a contradiction in terms. Beverley Taylor and Elizabeth Brewer in The Return of King Arthur say that Merlin's powers 'are derived from the application of exceptional intelligence' and that 'magic is introduced under the naturalistic guise of psychic phenomena or even ESP.' But this at best covers only Merlin's prophetic powers. It does not account for the crucial kind of case where Merlin brings fire from the air.

The reality is otherwise. In order to be presented to modern readers, Merlin needs no metamorphosis. He can be the same figure he has always been—half human and half divine, exercising magic powers in his own right. What the modern reader has to do is accept that a realistic presentation of him is not possible. There has to be a sense of mystery to him, and everything cannot be explained.

From the beginning, Merlin has been a creature of fantasy, and the genre to which he belongs is fantasy. Realism and Merlin are contradictory ideas. Realism in novels about Merlin, therefore, exists only to make credible that which is patently unrealistic. Mary Stewart's novels may have been intended to be historical fiction, but in the end, became an epic fantasy trilogy which, in its own way, out-rivals the greatest of all epic fantasies, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Marilyn Jurich (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 hand and necromancy in poems, novels, and plays, enchanting both children and adults in his many roles. Nowhere, however, except in Mary Stewart's fantasy The Crystal Cave has Merlin been cast as a Mithraic figure—as the force of light and truth, the messenger of Zoroastrian Ahura-Mazda, Mithras who came to Britain with the Romans and whose more ancient roots go back to Persia and India. In her brief note on historical sources that follows her novel, Mary Stewart says little of Mithraism, a religion whose practice in the Roman Empire can only be surmised from bas-reliefs, sculptures, and objects discovered in the grotto chapels or "caves" where Mithras was worshipped by Roman men, soldiers, and business men. Stewart's statement is cagey or better "cavey": "Mithraism has been (literally) underground for years. I have postulated a local revival for the purpose of my story…." She postulates that Merlin's father, Ambrosius, has Roman leanings and favors the worship of Mithra, the god most favored by Roman warriors during the first four centuries A.D. Yet if it be, as Stewart tells us, that King Arthur's birth occurred around 470 A.D., the practice of the Mithraic religion had already been prohibited in the Roman Empire some seventy years before. While historically Mithraism is perhaps somewhat anachronistic in the novel, artistically it forms a crucial layer of The Crystal Cave as Mithras illumines two alluring possibilities: Mithras may represent the god who guides Merlin, and he may also signify Merlin himself. After all, what god can be more appropriate for the mythic dimension of a fantasy about Merlin—Mithras, born in a cave, bringer of light?

To understand the subtleties of Mithra and Mithraism in relation to the novel, some religious background is valuable. Mithra, originating in the mythological Mitra in the fourteenth century B.C. Vedas of India, is the servant of the sky god, Varuna, whose great power is "binding". This quality the Persian god Mithras will inherit, to enforce the "binding" of contracts and, more generally, justice, in the Rig-Veda, Mitra is also considered one of the twelve Adityas, gods of the months of the year headed by Aditya, the Hindu sun goddess. Later, as Mithras, as the supreme God in the "Mazdean Pantheon," he is considered to be "boundless Time"; his statue may display the signs of the zodiac engraved on his body. In particular, Mitra is a deity of light in the Vedas, connected to fertilizing warmth, as well as to truth and to oath keeping. These qualities are suggested in etymology: Mithras derives from the Assyrian metru meaning "rain" and the Sanskrit metru meaning "friend". Thus, the god Mithras is the light that nurtures both earth and man—and can these functions, perhaps, also be ascribed to Merlin?

The ritual re-enactment in Mithraism of the slaying of the bull by Mithras confirms the god's role in assuring fertility. Whereas in ancient Indian texts Mitra is sometimes depicted as the unwilling participant in the sacrifice of the god Soma, the god of Immortality depicted either as a bull or as the moon, it is the Mithras of the Hellenistic period (331 B.C. to 324 A.D.) who is predominantly known as Tauroctonus, the Slayer of the Primeval Bull. The older Persian Mithraism had declined in the time of Zoroaster (c. 550 B.C.) who, objecting to the Persian polytheism, sought to restore the one god, Ahura Mazdah, but by 8 B.C. the Iranian Mithras was known as "a celestial soldier at Ahura's side": like Ahura-Mazda, god of light and justice, Mithras was "undeceivable and omniscient". Mithra's ascendancy relative to Ahura-Mazda seems to have derived literally from Mithras' "taking the bull by the horns," for after wrestling the bull down, Mithras drags the exhausted animal into a cave, and after deliberately allowing the bull to escape and recapturing it, in the cave he ritually plunges a dagger into its throat.

By the first century B.C. these rituals of Mithraism were prominent among the Romans. By the second century A.D., even though a religion confined to males solely, Mithraism was stronger in the Roman Empire than was Christianity ("Mithraism,"; in the third century A.D. it became so prominent as to be regarded a world religion. Mithraism at mid-third century had reached its apogee of power before Theodosius I (r. 379-395 A.D.) assured its decline by his edict prohibiting it, though some worship seemed to have persisted into the fifth century in remote parts of the Alps and Vosges mountains.

Why did Mithraism have such appeal to its followers and offer such imaginative possibilities to Mary Stewart, who incorporates its mythology, ritual, and the qualities of its divinity into The Crystal Cave? The answer, of course, must derive from some understanding of Mithraic beliefs and practices and from the particular sense of how the god, Mithras, was perceived and understood.

Like all gods and heroes, Mithras had a miraculous birth. Emerging mysteriously from a rock, he came as "the new begetter of light." Even at his birth, he is fully attired with a Phrygian cap (that worn during the ritual bull sacrifice) and is holding a dagger and a torch. Often flames are shown blazing from the rock from which he appears and his cap is studded with stars. The parallel to Merlin as depicted in The Crystal Cave is clear—Merlin Emyrs is conceived in a cave, and recognizing his destiny through fire and light, frames a "new cosmogony" with Arthur as the unifying force. This application has even greater resonance when bas-reliefs of Mithras' birth are viewed where the god is shown holding a globe in one hand as he touches the circle of the zodiac with the other.

The bull has a place in the cosmic scene as well. Often considered a god, especially among the Aryans, and often related to kings, the bull was considered the bringer of new life. The Mithraic bull sacrifice closely resembles the bull sacrifice of the Phrygians commemorating the resurrection of Attis in the spring. Dionysus often took the shape of a bull to embody vegetation or the spirit of the corn. The reader of The Crystal Cave may find in Merlin qualities associated with the Mithraic bull, and perhaps more distinctly qualities associated with Mithras the slayer of the bull.

Mithras is assigned the sacrifice of the bull by Sol, who appoints the raven as messenger to tell Mithras what he must do. In the novel Merlin often serves as spokesman, that is, messenger, of the god and is named for a bird, the corwalch falcon: often directed by qualities of birds, the dove's wariness, the merlin's aggressive persistence, Merlin must transform himself from being like a dove to being a merlin, the bird of his name, for he will have to participate in violent acts; like a soldier, he will have to slay his bull.

Stewart's fantasy makes use of animals as symbolic and transforming agents, especially the bull, in some other ways. In Mithraic ritual at the death of the bull the cloak of Mithras becomes the vault of heaven covered with planets and stars; the bull himself is transformed through this "holy deed," in some versions becoming the moon, while the tail (or spinal chord) changes to ears of corn and the blood rises to form a vine. A seed issues from the bull, which generates all of life. Thus, the sacrifice influences earth as well as the heaven. Such a sacrifice Merlin, too, will have to make to secure the birth of Arthur.

Those initiated into the Mithraic mysteries descend into a pit, the taurobolium, where they are baptized in the blood of the bull sacrificed above them, a "blood bath". If the sacrifice of the bull relates the forces of light overcoming darkness (in earlier myths Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian Antagonist, afflicts the bull) the purification of the initiate through blood rite symbolizes man's overcoming his dark instinctual drives. Now he will be able to transcend to a higher sphere of being. Yet, by participating in this "ritual killing," it seems evident that the initiate loses "light" even as he gains it. The Mithras figure often appears regretful, expressing compassion or remorse. In The Crystal Cave Merlin, an initiate in the Mithraic faith, later takes on the function of Mithras himself; he, too, experiences simultaneous joy in the coming of Arthur and loss in having to bring about the deaths of guiltless others, in the loss of his own "innocence."

Other elements in Mithraism are significant in the fantasy for supplying historical background as well as for enhancing the fantasy elements and deepening the mystery in the narrative. The sanctuary in which Mithraic rites were observed was a "mysterious" place. Worshipers congregated underground in caves that resembled the Mithraeum at Camuntum near Vienna, an oblong sanctuary approached by a stairway through a square hall. At the center of the sanctuary the bull ritual is sculpturally depicted. On either side of the central aisle is a row of benches, while at the beginning of the aisle are paired pillars, each extending a torch bearer. Sometimes the vault of the sanctuary represented the sky and various lighting devices might be manipulated to create "fitful flashes of light"—like in Stewart's "crystal cave." The celebrants in costumes symbolizing their grades sat on the benches. Just as the chapel had seven steps and seven altars, so the worshipers represented seven planets, each defined by a designated animal or other symbolic mask and assigned a special hierarchy. While authorities disagree as to the planet represented by each animal (for example, [M. J.] Vermaseren sees the Raven as air, while [Joseph] Campbell identifies it with the moon), most agree on the order prescribed for the celebrants. The servitors comprised the lower grades in this ascending sequence: Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier. The upper grades were known as Participants and included in ascending sequence Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun, and Father. In addition, [Mercia] Eliade regards the participants as climbing on a seven-runged ladder, each rung of a different metal associated with the particular planet—such as gold for the sun. Thus, the initiate gains the empyrean by going through "the seven heavens". (Perhaps we derive from this the expression "I'm in seventh heaven"?)

The central mystery performed by the initiates was the journey of the soul from birth to immortality. At birth, according to this doctrine, the soul passes through the seven planetary spheres: at each planet the soul becomes tainted with the vice associated with the planet (for example, at Mars, anger). Once arrived on earth, the soul has the opportunity to cast off these impurities, aided by Mithras, who reveals a special moral discipline. After the person dies, Mithras has yet another function; he is arbiter in the struggle between the devas (demons) and angels for the soul. If the soul's good qualities outweigh the bad, it rises again, this time passing the planets in reverse order and shedding all of its impurities. If, as some authorities believe, Mithra once formed a link between Ahura-Mazda (light) and Angra-Mainyu (darkness), his capacity for acting as mediator has another relevance in his role as the Roman soldier's god. In acting for the good of the emperor, in regulating the conduct of the army, in sanctioning oaths among the brotherhood of believers, the soldier, like Mithras, brings divine sanction to the nation. Such, too, is Merlin's role in The Crystal Cave.

During Roman times Mithras represented the power of the emperor, and emperors were actually represented as Mithras in statuary and coinage, also identified as Sol Invictus, the invincible Sun god. Aurelian (r. 270-275 A.D.), seeking to find a new power that would unite the Eastern and Western Empires, built in Rome in 274 A.D. a magnificent temple to the Sun god. On the side of the angels and the Roman emperors, Mithras is a more complex mythic hero in his relationship to the sun. "A sun hero will always present … a 'dark side,' a connection with the world of the dead". The destruction of the bull here occurs in a new context as Mithras, the sun hero, succeeds in opening up a new era, in fact "a new organization in the universe". For when Ahriman (spirit of darkness, evil) will succeed in destroying life, suddenly a marvelous bull will appear on the earth and Mithra will descend again, this time to awaken the dead. He will immolate the divine bull to provide the righteous with a substance that confers immortality and will lead the resurrected into paradise. Merlin's affinity to Mithras, the sun hero, is unmistakable; as arbiter and faithful supporter of the sovereign, Ambrosius, his father, as commentator on moral codes, and finally as the mentor he will become for Arthur—in all these roles, he will guide men on a spiritual journey and recreate Britain as an earthly paradise.

Mithraism functions in several ways in The Crystal Cave: as historical background, as a religion defined by ritual and ethical codes affecting Merlin and others, and as a mythology. The presence of Mithraism and the hero Mithras in Stewart's fantasy creates a texture and tonality that make the narrative glow and its hero Merlin a radiant figure, both realistic and luminous, pragmatic and prophetic.

In the novel Mithras first appears as a figure carved on the wooden chest that holds Merlin's clothing at the palace in Maridinum. The child Merlin is intrigued by the representation of a cave scene in which appear a bull, a man with a knife, someone holding some corn, and in one corner "some figure, rubbed almost away, with rays round his head, like the sun…." When Merlin is twelve and hiding in a cow shed near Ambrosius' headquarters, he has vision of that same scene. In the winter landscape the sky is a "black dome" and the arch of stars "like the curved roof of the cave with the light flashing off the crystals, and the passing shadows flying, chased by the fire." When the shadows lift, Merlin sees the god himself dressed in the ritual costume—cross-bound trousers, thongs, low-girded tunic, Phrygian cap, and wide cape. Then, from the charging of the bull to the final plunge of the knife into its neck, Merlin observes the great sacrifice. This powerful vision Merlin, in a situation of peril in which his identity cannot be established, describes to Uther and his followers, and to Ambrosius; and because the vision reveals secret Mithraic knowledge the listeners are persuaded not to arrest, not to harm the ill-dressed unknown youth who tells it, for he apparently has supernatural powers.

Later Ambrosius explains the vision to Merlin as of "the soldier's god, the Word, the Light, the Good Shepherd, the Mediator between the one God and man." Mithras, says Ambrosius, represents courage and self-restraint, is both strong and gentle. Ambrosius describes Merlin's birth in a cave and interprets the ritual sacrifice. Merlin, who comes to be characterized by the qualities of Mithras, had also been conceived in a cave; and he, too, must commit a form of ritual sacrifice. The parallels between god and prophet become increasingly evident.

When Ambrosius becomes King of all Britain, Merlin is almost eighteen. The taking of York marks a special victory for the king, and it is in York on June 16, the feast day of the god, that Merlin is initiated into Mithraism. Stewart describes the cave sanctuary—with the long benches to either side of the central aisle, the torch bearers, the star studded roof of the cave, the masked believers—a historically accurate description. Mithras on the bas-relief is correctly depicted by Stewart as an unwilling participant in the bull slaying, his head "turned away in sorrow." Eight days after Merlin's initiation as Raven (the first level of Mithraic initiation), Ambrosius celebrates a Christian ceremony, reconciling Christ with Mithras: "As you will find, all gods who are born of the light are brothers, and in this land, if Mithras who gives us victory is to bear the face of Christ, why, then, we worship Christ."

Like those Christians who become members of religious orders, some devout believers in Mithraism practiced absolute continence. Merlin, a vessel of the god, must remain a virgin if he is to keep his power. When the young temptress Keridwen entices him to lie with her, he feels strangled in her embrace; he sees terrifying images and feels crushed inside a cave where the breathing walls take away his breath. But he tears himself away from her and saves his power. The cave symbol is used here by Stewart to image the dark fear of sexuality experienced by the dedicated celibate hero. Mithraic or Christian, bound to the code of the brotherhood of male warriors or priests.

The Mithraic aspects of Merlin are most clearly demonstrated in his special relationship to caves and in his magical ability to use fire and light. Often he is clairvoyant. Yet his powers begin naturally enough. In childhood, while he still lives in his grandfather's palace, his first "cave" serves as retreat where, unknown to others, he can listen to people conversing, learn their feelings, gain information about the adult world that would otherwise be held back from him. This boy seems to be supernaturally knowing, although he has gained his knowledge by going down into the tunnels under the palace floor, the system of tunnels once use for heating called the hypocaust, and there listening to conversations above. He is "alone in the secret dark, where a man is his own master, except for death." A particular area within the hypocaust, where a chimney shaft had once crumbled, the six year old calls his "cave." From a vantage point there he can look up at night to see the stars, to sense the magical design in the universe.

As a young boy, Merlin experiences a spiritual rebirth in "Myrddin's cave," the cave of Galapas, the seer, a sanctuary overhung by oak and rowan where water springs from the rock. Merlin's birth had been that of a hero-god, in his mother Niniane's legend the son of a "Virgin" (Niniane) and a supernatural being ("demon"), in reality the son of princess Niniane and prince Ambrosius. But Galapas is his first true father, teacher, and role model. From him Merlin learns natural science, geography, healing, and spells; he learns how to use "the sight." Finally in this special cave of Galapas he is provided with the moral convictions and spiritual courage to put himself in the path of the gods.

Through a gap in the rock of Galapas' cave, Merlin discovers the "crystal cave," torchlight refracted from a mirror of bronze that creates a conflagration of flames and the illusion of a "whole globe" floored, roofed, lined with crystals. In the "crystal cave" he sees burning diamonds, "rainbows and rivers and bursting stars and a shape like a crimson dragon clawing up the wall, while below it a girl's face swimming faintly with closed eyes." The light drives into Merlin's body as if it would break him open. The phantasmagoric splendor Stewart ascribes to the "crystal cave" must hold either promise or peril depending on how the seer makes use of his vision. In this setting Merlin views the events following his grandfather's death and gains knowledge that will ultimately save his life as well as lead him to Ambrosius and the discovery of his real identity as no "devil's whelp" but the son of Ambrosius.

While in the crystal cave, Merlin has a vision of another cave, that beneath the King's Fort at Segontium which, the vision reveals, has a crack on the rock face; he will use this knowledge later to escape the priests of his father's enemy, Vortimer, who would have Merlin's blood to pour into the foundations being built for the King's Fort, blood to strengthen mortar. To prove that his magic is greater than the soothsayers', Merlin descends into the cave where he plans to contrive some "magic" to convince the King that Merlin can strengthen the Fort better than the priests, but once in the cave he is overwhelmed by flame and light that glitter like crystals—it is "the crystal cave come alive," the starred globe of the cosmos. Through the dazzling haze he sees images of wings and wolves' eyes, "stars shooting through a rain of blood." In a great voice, he prophesies the combat between the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius. A bear shall come out of Cornwall. These visions are so impressive, his delivery so thrilling that even the sceptics are convinced; and he becomes known as "Vortigern's prophet," commanding awe and respect. Later he appears as the great cloaked figure atop the rocky crag at Caerleon, the symbol and assurance of certain triumph to Ambrosius' soldiers.

More than the place that gives him birth and later contributes to his reputation, the cave is for Merlin a retreat, his true home; even after he is acknowledged as prince, he chooses to live not in a palace but in Galapas' cave. The cave, Merlin knows, will also be the site where he dies. To Cadal, his servant and friend, he confides that Belasius, the menacing Druid, cannot harm him, for Merlin sees another death. "I shall come to the cave in the end…." Yet, as Merlin recognizes, the cave is also "birth or a gate of vision or a dark limbo of sleep…." Thus, the cave becomes a cosmos, the very globe Mithras holds when he is born, as well as the dome that the soul ascends on the way to its ultimate rebirth.

While the cave defines and influences Merlin, as well as suggests his Mithraic affinity, it is light itself in the form of crystals, fire, and stars that gives Merlin his magical power and that, once again, realizes his proximity to Mithras, god of light. When as a child Merlin first met his uncle Camlach who asked his name, he had responded with "'myrrdin Emyrs,'" Camlach retorted, "'Emyrs? Child of light, belonging to the gods …? That hardly seems the name for a demon's whelp'." Scarcely "the demon's whelp," Merlin comes to have the supernatural power that can blind. Merlin admits to Cadal that his visionary experiences often frighten him, for when he is in a trance-like state, he is detached from his body, has no control over what he says, becomes only "a horn being blown through to make the sound carry." Yet one day Merlin knows for certain that he "shall command this part [of himself] that knows and sees, this god, and that really will be power." For the truth this God sends is shadowed—is incomplete. To use it fully, it is imperative that Merlin discover God's identity. Ambrosius once suggests that Mithras might be the god who guides him. The reader sees Merlin himself as Mithras, who is "all-seeing," knows the moment of Niniane's death, can perceive Ambrosius' death, recognizes that Arthur's coming will be a "shield and a living sword for a united Britain," however fraught with danger and death. As Mithras, the god of "binding," Merlin, while he recognizes perils, must keep his oath to the memory of Ambrosius, must assure the union and prosperity of Britain.

Mithras-Merlin is an ambivalent figure, for the sun is only light against the dark, and Mithras is the "divinity who formed a link between the Ahura Mazda and the Angra Mainyu of Zoroaster." In this sense, Merlin regulates the cycle of light and darkness, comes in darkness to Tintagel disguised as Brithael, Gorlois' captain and friend. His mission is "dark"—he is an accomplice in an act of betrayal, the betrayal of the loyal Gorlois, and the deviser of adultery, for he must make possible Uther's adultery with Gorlois' wife so that Arthur may be conceived. Yet for Merlin these dark deeds are not immoral, only essential. Merlin asserts to Cadal that on this night when Uther lies with Ygraine, Gorlois' wife, Uther is no King—only a ruler in a procession of rulers and "even less than that: he is a tool, and she is a vessel and I … I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness…." In order to safeguard Uther and Ygraine, he must kill his "other self," the real Brithael who unexpectedly comes to the castle to report Gorlois' death at Dimilioc. Cadal, who is with Merlin at Tintagel, also dies on this night, having been mortally wounded by Brithael. Merlin has endangered Uther and has drenched himself in the blood of many others.

To Uther's accusations that he has brought disaster through this night's contriving, Merlin replies that he could not have known the price of the night's work, for God keeps his price secret. When Uther demands to know the identity of this God, Merlin responds by naming many gods—"Mithras, Apollo, Arthur, Christ…." The name is irrelevant, Merlin concludes. It is "what men call the light…." It is this light that all men must live by or die. Yet Merlin might have added that light does not exist without shadow, and the god who uses man to consummate divine intention also corrupts his vessel, as indeed Mithras was tainted when he killed the bull. Slaying the sacred bull, however, was necessary for fertility, for human consciousness, for the possibility of moral evolution and eternal life. In the view of Stewart's novel, Merlin's "sacrifice" of others accomplishes the same mission—the growth of human civilization through a united Britain and the possibility for spiritual immortality through another deity of light, a Christian King.

As The Crystal Cave ends, Merlin, still steeped in blood, watches the star directly overhead become enveloped in gold. Then as the pale sky brightens, a wave of brilliant light bursts forth. The "young sun" covers the heavens. To secure cosmic order and the promise of its continual renewal, Merlin as mediator, Logos, and savior sacrifices a portion of himself. Like Mithras, he intercedes for the good of Britain. By murdering the innocent Brithael whose coming into Uther's chamber would have prevented the conception of Arthur, Merlin suffers for his people to attain for them a life where moral sanctions are upheld, where death need not be final—can, indeed, be the promise of spiritual regeneration.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 grandmother, formerly a cook in the household of Sir James Brandon. She asks Kate to return to their native village in the north of England, where Kate was raised by Gran and severe Aunt Betsy. Kate's mother Lilias, who'd become pregnant while serving at the Brandons' estate, had left Kate at six, never to return. Gran had told Kate that she had "gone with the gipsies," but some years later Kate learned that her mother and new husband had been killed in Ireland in a bus accident. Now, Kate is to come again to Gran's Rose Cottage, long shuttered, charged with shipping some of Gran's belongings to her in Scotland and with locating a neatly hidden safe containing family items of sentimental value. But someone has broken into the cottage, ripped out the safe, and removed its contents. Then there are strange rumors of odd appearances, generated mainly by the "Witches Corner"—comprised of two gossipy ladies, as well as a feathery individual who's sure she has "the sight" and has seen a dead woman digging in the cottage yard and piling flowers on the grave of mean Aunt Betsy. With the help of young Davey, son of old family friends, and scraps of information from neighbors, Kate will at last discover an absent mother and a name for an unknown father.

Soothing as a warm brew on a cold night are Stewart's satisfying denouements—and environs: "… willows and wild roses, cuckoo-pint and king cups, and a wood pigeon crooning in the elm." Mild doings in enchanting surroundings.




Stewart, Mary (Vol. 7)