My First Wizard

For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.

I was in junior high when I first read Mary Stewart’s version of the Arthurian story – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, the Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day. I devoured the books, one right after the other, and declared myself to be a devotee of all things Arthurian. I did school research projects on Arthur, I wrote (embarrassingly bad) Arthur stories of my own. I tracked down other books about Arthur, the best of those being The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In college, I took a seminar on Arthurian literature, and read Geoffrey of Monmouth and parts of the Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; I wrote a paper on how Arthur, in an epic poem (or opera?) by Dryden, symbolized both King David and Jesus and King Charles I. In a class on Victorian literature, I read The Idylls of the King and wrote another long paper on Merlin’s fate and how it related to…something I no longer remember, but it was that paper that made my adviser say, “You’re good at this; you should go to graduate school.” (Thanks!)

When I went to England, the fall of my junior year, I dragged a friend who would have preferred shopping in London to Glastonbury, so I could see the Abbey where, legend has it, Arthur was laid to rest. I would have dragged her on to Tintagel, in Cornwall, to see the fortress where Uther Pendragon, disguised by Merlin’s magic, went in to Lady Ygraine’s bedchamber and thus begat Arthur, but the bus service was down. I even went to Wales to catch a glimpse of Snowdon, the mountain where Merlin’s cave may once have been. (This involved many long hours on a train. There was very little else to see in Wales.)

My Arthur obsession abated after I left school. I saw a few bad Arthurian movies – First Knight comes to mind – and failed to get through a few bad Arthurian books, and I acknowledged that Le Morte d’Arthur is kind of a slog, as is Idylls of the King except for a few good lines (see above). But a few weeks ago, I was searching my shelves for a book to bring to the beach, and I saw The Crystal Cave. Well, why not? I thought, and brought it along, and after I cracked it open one night while the kids were getting settled in bed, I found it as un-put-downable as ever. As soon as we got home, I dug out the other three books in the series, and read them all in a four-day rush.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really that I like King Arthur and Merlin so much. I just like Mary Stewart’s King Arthur and Merlin – particularly Merlin, who is the narrator of the first three books. It’s true that some parts of the books are a bit slow – there are overlong descriptions of bracken and oak trees – and a bit prim – even her villains never say anything stronger than “For pity’s sake!” – but she turns these legendary figures into characters you can’t help but care deeply about. She makes them human, even though one has supernatural abilities and the other is a High King, and, more importantly, really, she makes their story make sense. The Arthur story has been adapted and used and manipulated throughout the centuries, to represent or illustrate any number of religious and political and societal ideas; and because it’s such an old story, with so many versions, there is much about it that is illogical, bits that don’t fit together. Stewart distills everything down into a coherent narrative; you believe the character’s motivations and personalities, and you also believe that everything really could have happened exactly as she describes it.

The Wicked Day, the last book of the series, is also, I think, the weakest and my least favorite. In part that’s because Merlin isn’t it in; imagine a Harry Potter book without Harry, and you’ll understand the problem. In part it's because Stewart has the maybe impossible task of making a sympathetic character out of Mordred, Arthur's son and his downfall. The book lacks the focus of the first three; it gets a bit bogged down in the antics of wayward knights. One gets the impression that Stewart wrote it because she felt she had to see the story through, not necessarily because she enjoyed the telling of it.

There are many books on my shelf that I keep because I hope that some day my girls will want to read them; these books rank at the top of that list. (Maybe I should lay the groundwork by having them watch The Sword and the Stone.) I'd love for them to be Arthur and Merlin devotees, even for a little while. I'd love for them to know magic beyond Harry Potter and, for pity's sake, The Wizards of Waverly Place. Stewart's Arthur will always be my King Arthur, and her Merlin is my once and future wizard. You should get to know them too.


aimee said...

Wow. I had no idea you were such an Arthur devotee in school and beyond. I honestly, never knew much of Arthur beyone "The Sword and the Stone." Maybe I'll read those books you suggested. Not now though. Dad gave me a whole library on the Civil War I have to get through first.

Anonymous said...

The Stewart series are my favorite Arthur books also. I think that I liked them because I had read other works of hers that I liked so was prepared to like almost anything that she wrote. The other Arthur books, I can take them or leave them, mostly leave them!