A couple of days ago I finished reading "The Crystal Cave", the first book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian quartet. I can't believe how much I enjoyed it. I should have known better than to doubt I would. After all, Mary Stewart has been one of my favorite authors since the mid-1960s, when I was a teenager.
However, I had become angry and disappointed with Ms. Stewart and refused to read her anymore when I found out she had, in beginning her Arthurian saga, changed her literary direction.
Let me explain. I first discovered Mary Stewart when one of my friends and her mother recommended "a great book" called "The Moon-Spinners". After I finished it, I wanted to read more of Ms. Stewart and looked for her books wherever I could find them.
This was not so easy at the time. I usually only had access to the small Crosby public library and the Crosby Rexall drugstore, which sold some paperbacks. Twice a year our family traveled to the "big city" of Minot, ND, where I was usually able to snag a couple of her books.
"The Moon-Spinners" was not Stewart's first book, but it was the one that made her so popular with Americans, because Walt Disney made it into a movie starring Hayley Mills and a movie tie-in edition of the book was released. (Please, please do not watch this awful movie. Poor Hayley Mills was terribly miscast in the role.)
For all its failings, however, the movie did expose Stewart to a wider audience, and the publishers brought out paperback editions of her previous books for American readers eager for more Mary Stewart.
As I grew older and joined book clubs, I was able to purchase her books in hardcover as they were released.
How I loved these modern mystery-suspense-romances. They were almost always written in first person from the point of view of a plucky, intelligent, capable heroine. These English ladies were no Gothic governesses, no wilting wildflowers dependent on a man to rescue them. However, there was always a man in the picture. He and the heroine would slowly fall in love while together solving the mystery. (These were certainly not bodice rippers.)
The one mystery which remained an enigma, and which I have never figured out no matter how many times I read "The Ivy Tree", was whether or not Annabelle was an imposter or the long-lost biological daughter!
Equally important to the story and the characters were the surroundings. Stewart took us to such exotic locales as the Pyrenees of France, the Lippizaner stables in Austria and the rugged Isle of Skye in Scotland. Some reviewers have said that her descriptions of the landscapes were so good that they overshadowed everything else. I never had that impression but do feel that this overwhelmingly evocative sense of place lent a great deal to the books. In fact, I was so intrigued by the magical Greek Isles of "The Moon-Spinners, "My Brother Michael" and "This Rough Magic" that my husband and I decided to honeymoon in Greece.
So, I continued to snap up every Mary Stewart book that came along, until "The Crystal Cave". For some reason, at the time I felt she had betrayed us faithful readers by delving into the great myth of Camelot: of Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Why did she feel the need to re-work such old ground? I never even bothered to pick up one of these history/fantasy books and give it a try.
Eventually, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, Stewart again wrote books in the genre of her early novels, set this time closer to home in the British Isles: "Thornyhold," "The Stormy Petrel" and "The Rose Cottage". They were quite a disappointment to me, as I felt that Stewart had lost her edge.
"The Rose Cottage" was especially frustrating because it left the story hanging. Later I learned that my book club's edition had inadvertently left out the ending!! They did send me a revised copy, but I wasn't interested enough to re-read it.
As years went by without any taste of Mary Stewart, I decided to give the Arthurian saga a try, looking in used bookstores for copies. Recently, I finally found the last one I needed, which happened to be the first in the series.
Now I wonder why I had waited so long, for Pete's sake. "The Crystal Cave" is as good as any early Stewart novel. I should have known better. A good storyteller is a good storyteller no matter the subject.
"The Crystal Cave" focuses on Merlin, up to the time when Uther Pendragon rejects his bastard son Arthur. I can't wait to begin "The Hollow Hills", which, I assume, will start up with Merlin taking in the young Arthur.
Checking the web today, I was surprised to find that Mary Stewart is still alive. Born on Sept. 9, 1916, she will soon be 93 years old. Mary Stewart is not a literary pseudonym but her real name. Born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow, she was a university English language and literature professor until she married Sir Frederick Stewart of Edinburgh University in 1945. Now Lady Stewart, she taught school for about 35 years until retiring.
Having lost all the Mary Stewart books I had purchased in a home fire in 1982, I scoured used bookstores until I found them all again, either in hardcover or paperback. Looking at her bibliography today, I discovered two books I did not know about: "The Prince and the Pilgrim", which some lists group with her Arthurian saga, and "The Wind off the Stormy Isles", which was not published in the U.S. (And which I will not be getting anytime soon, as there are only two copies available, at outrageous prices.)
I highly recommend you look for some of Stewart's books too, either in used bookstores or on amazon.com. Aside from her children's books and poetry book, here's the list:
The Arthurian Books:
"The Crystal Cave"
"The Hollow Hills"
"The Last Enchantment"
"The Wicked Day"
"The Prince and the Pilgrim"
Romance-suspense-mystery novels and their locales:
"Madame, Will You Talk?" (France)
"Wildfire at Midnight" (Scotland)
"Thunder on the Right" (France)
"Nine Coaches Waiting" (France)
"My Brother Michael" (Greece)
"The Ivy Tree" (England)
"The Moon-Spinners" (Greece)
"This Rough Magic" (Greece)
"Airs Above the Ground" (Austria)
"The Gabriel Hounds" (Damascus)
"The Wind off the Stormy Isles"(The Canary Islands)
"Touch Not the Cat" (England)
"The Stormy Petrel" (Scotland)
"The Rose Cottage" (England)