On my 16th birthday, my best friends pooled their funds and gave me a couple of books, one being Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. This book was my first introduction to Mary Stewart, and it sparked a lifelong admiration for her work. If I had to pick one author who inspired me the most as a writer, without hesitation it would be Mary Stewart.
Over the years, I collected the rest of her stories, including the remaining books of her Merlin/Arthurian series, by haunting second hand book stores and combing through yard sale bins. I have them all, including a rare volume of Wind off the Small Isles which enjoyed a very limited single print run.
For those who have read Mary Stewart, you’ll know that the majority of her work falls into a romantic suspense/mystery genre. These stories spanned decades, but they often featured a clever heroine who is embroiled in a crime while visiting strange and exotic places. One of her best known novels, The Moon-spinners, was made into a movie. To this day, her Merlin series is considered one of the best ever written of the Arthurian legend. Her publishers labelled it “fantasy” but it reads as an example of the very best of historical fiction.
I read the Merlin series countless times, until the binding and cover fell apart. Years went by until I realized that I missed Merlin. Unfortunately the books, at that time, were out of print and I started hunting for a copy in the places I knew best–second hand bookstores. One proprietor laughed when I asked if he had them. He never gets them, he said, as people who have a copy to sell put them straight up on eBay. But the old druids were smiling on me because not long after I had resolved to start haunting eBay, Mary Stewart’s publisher started to re-release the series! The cover wasn’t as beautiful as the original (I really wished they had kept that), but I finally got my hands on the entire set again.
One of the challenges of being a writer is that you become a critical reader. It’s hard to lose yourself in a narrative as you once did before the writing took over your brain. So there I was, finally holding a new copy of The Crystal Cave, a story I hadn’t re-read for over 25 years, and along with the giddy anticipation, I felt nervousness. What if I didn’t like it? What if it wasn’t as good as my younger self remembered? I cracked it open and started reading. I needn’t have worried. The words, her stunning descriptions, stirred tears of gratitude. The story once again came home.
Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, and she would have been 101 years old today. As it was, she lived to the ripe age of 97. I was prompted to remember the day by Mary Stewart super-fan, Allison of the blog Mary Queen of Plots. Check out her website, where she posts excerpts, covers and other fascinating details of Mary Stewart’s life.
In honour of Mary Stewart’s 101th birthday, here is the opening of The Crystal Cave:
I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.
This is true of all old men, that the recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured. Even the scenes of my far childhood come back to me now sharp and high-coloured and edged with brightness, like the pattern of a fruit tree against a white wall, or banners in sunlight against a sky of storm.
The colours are brighter than they were, of that I are sure. The memories that come back to me here in the dark are seen with the new young eyes of childhood; they are so far gone from me, with their pain no longer present, that they unroll like pictures of something that happened, not to me, not to the bubble of bone that this memory used to inhabit, but to another Merlin as young and light and free of the air and spring winds as the bird she named me for.
With the later memories it is different; they come back, some of them, hot and shadowed, things seen in the fire. For this is where I gather them. This is one of the few trivial tricks–I cannot call it power–left to me now that I am old and stripped at last down to man. I can see still. . . not clearly or with the call of trumpets as I once did, but in the child’s way of dreams and pictures in the fire. I can still make the flames burn up or die; it is one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten. What I cannot recall in dream I see in the flames, the red heart of the fire or the countless mirrors of the crystal cave.
The first memory of all is dark and fireshot. It is not my own memory, but later you will understand how I know these things. You would call it not memory so much as a dream of the past, something in the blood, something recalled from him, it may be, while he still bore me in his body. I believe that such things can be. So it seems to me right that I should start with him who was before me, and who will be again when I am gone.
This is what happened that night. I saw it, and it is a true tale.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt. It calls to mind darkness, fire, and a primal magic. Allison from the Mary Queen of Plots blog has posted selections of fans reading from Mary Stewart’s books, and if you care for a listen, you’ll hear me read the above selection. You’ll also hear a reading from Madam Will You Talk? – Chapter Nine, Wildfire At Midnight – Chapter One, and the children’s story, Ludo and the Star Horse – Chapter One. Click here for the post.
If you’re a fan of Mary Stewart, drop me a line and let me know which of her books is your favourite. I’d love to know!