Skip to main content

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!


Popular posts from this blog

New Math

This word problem was on Mallory's math homework last week:

Lesia has 32 stickers. Diana has a few stickers. Lesia adds their stickers. She has to regroup when she adds. How many stickers does Lesia have? Circle the number.

We puzzled til our puzzlers were sore, but we still couldn't figure out the answer. I wrote a note beside the problem: "Mrs. G., this problem didn't make sense to either Mallory or her parents."

The next day the paper came back with a note from Mrs. G. She circled the last line of the problem and wrote:

"Misprint! This should have said Diana."

Okay! Whew! I was relieved to know that I wasn't, in fact, dumber than a second grader.

Except then I realized that I still didn't understand how the answer could be 3, 5, 6, or 8.*

I can't wait til she gets to algebra.

*Unless what they're calling "regrouping" is what we used to call "carrying the ones." In which case the answer would be 8. I think. Maybe.

Yard Sale. YARD SALE!

Anyone who doesn’t hear Tom-Hanks-as-Woody-the-Cowboy screaming that line…hasn’t spent much time around small children. Or at least around small children who like to watch Disney movies.

We had a yard sale this weekend – we being me, Chris, his sister Amy, and his mom. Yikes, it was exhausting. There was much hauling of boxes and furniture and standing around and chasing Mallory and Phoebe about the driveway all Saturday long. I made a hundred bucks – not too shabby, I guess. Chris made about $75 selling the “dregs” of his toy collection. The main point, however, was to sell our old living room furniture because we’re getting a new sofa and chair today (it’s being delivered as we speak!). We did sell our beat-up love seat for $25, but there were no takers for the beat-up sofa sleeper or the recliner. Alas, but that’s the way it goes.

Most of what I sold was baby stuff – clothes, bouncy seats, playmats, and so forth. It was a relief to see it go. Right after Phoebe was born I had the urg…

Confederation, confederation, confederation

Mallory has a big Social Studies test today. She’s not doing well in Social Studies, this year. When I asked her why her grades were so low, she said, “I don’t like Social Studies. Besides, no one can be good at everything.” I thought this was a fair point, but let her know that it was not acceptable for her to do quite so poorly, whether she liked it or not.

We studied for hours for this test. We read the chapter twice, summarized main points, went over vocabulary words, filled in blanks and did true/false quizzes. There were moments when I despaired – as when I asked, “The villages of the Cherokee people came together to form a...” and she said, “Um...bison?” But I think she knows the material pretty well; honestly I’m not even sure what else we could have done to get her prepared. I told her we would like for her to get at least a B.

I know she’s nervous. I’m nervous for her. I slept poorly all night.

But, I also know more than I really wanted to know about the early peoples of …