Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy

Discussion in 'Historical Fiction' started by aarti, Jun 30, 2006.

  1.  
    aarti

    aarti bibliophile

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    I think there were some none too subtle hints over in the Arthurian novel forum about Stewart's books, so I decided to bring it over here, just in case anyone wanted to discuss them in more detail.

    I specifically titled this one Stewart's Merlin Trilogy because I have not read The Wicked Day, which I believe is told from Mordred's point of view. I read them a few months ago, and sadly, I usually don't remember details of books nearly so much as I remember the =sense= I get from them. And I thoroughly enjoyed Stewart's novels.

    One thing she did was to make Merlin much younger than he is usually portrayed as being. He's more of an older brother/father figure to Arthur than an intimidating wizard. Also, we see him through his childhood, etc., so he is much easier to understand than he is in other Arthurian legend.

    I particularly liked this series because the whole Guinevere/Lancelot (or, in this case, Bedwyr) drama took a decidedly backseat. After the kidnapping incident, there wasn't much going on with these two. Probably because it was told from Merlin's POV and he didn't seem to give much notice to most women.

    I thought she developed the relationship between Merlin and Arthur very well, too. I really liked Arthur in these books. Often, I almost think that Arthur is not portrayed as vividly in Arthurian novels as some of the knights and certainly as much as Morgaine or Merlin. But here, he does have a pretty major role.

    Anyway, those are just some opening thoughts :)
  2.  
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    I'm so glad you decided to start this thread. I agree with everything you've said, and I'll add that in many ways these books come closer to the earliest versions of the Arthurian legends -- especially stories dealing with Merlin's boyhood and youth -- yet still Stewart brings something of her own to the tale.

    Another thing that I like is how Stewart manages to bring off the historical approach without sacrificing all of the magic. The magic is subtle and mysterious and you could call it ESP, coincidence, or self-fulfilling prophecies, but it's still there and it's never explained away. Merlin and the people around him believe in it (even if they don't understand it), but the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

    But the story focuses on Merlin, and not on Arthur's knights, so there isn't much emphasis on battles and bloodshed. Readers looking for a lot of hack-and-slash, swords ringing against armor, and severed limbs should look elsewhere. Stewart gives a convincing and often detailed picture of life in Roman Britain, but the realism does not depend on battle sequences.
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    PenDragon

    PenDragon ...has left the building

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    I seem to remember some quite good battle/fight scenes but you're right it's not the main focus. I also like the ambiguity of the magic.

    I like the characterisation and recreation of the Romano-British world. All of the many characters are memorable and vivid and so is her Britain.

    She also does an excellent job of breaching the gap of research and fiction with some really intelligent and plasuible what if scenarios (Merlin working out how song helped with the raising of standing stones for example).

    The details on Mithriasim I enjoyed and the trip to Rome.

    What I really loved though is the Welshness that permeates the voice and prose and to me makes it all just feel so right.

    Bugger, might have to read them again now.
  4.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Oh, I'm definitely going to have to reread them -- 30+ years is too long.

    However, one of the things I liked about the books (though I'd not yet read Mallory at the time), is that, while having a great deal more of Arthur here, it wasn't the Arthur I grew up with, whom I'd found very boring, much the same as I do Superman -- an overgrown boy scout without flaws. Here, as I later discovered in Mallory, Arthur has his weaknesses, his warts, and I love him all the better for it. He's a good man who nonetheless makes mistakes, fumbles the ball, and has his snits. He also deals with inner angst. He's human, and to me all the more heroic for that. Also I liked seeing things through Merlin's eyes more than what I'd experienced at that time.

    The books are an odd blending of Mallory's approach, in which we do see Arthur that way a good bit of the earlier work, then he goes off dealing with the knights and Arthur becomes more of a background figure, or a thread tying the other stories together. I liked the fact that Stewart focused more on "the road less followed", as it were, yet stayed rather true to the earlier stories I had read, as well as ones I read later but were from much earlier sources.

    Just a note on White's Once and Future King: It may be helpful to read both versions of the first two books, as he revised them heavily for their inclusion in the later version, even retitling the second. Though he made some improvements, there are some things he changed that I feel rather detracted from the richness and poignancy of the earlier novels, as well.
  5.  
    PenDragon

    PenDragon ...has left the building

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    The editions I read had big chunks of Mallory's orgignal at the end of the book, ilustrating Stewart had taken key moments direct from Mallory (such as the building of Mortigern's tower) and written them in a modern and feasible way.

    I didn't know there were multiple editions of the Once and Future King. I read a hardback version with all three books in one volume (and a cover that intrigued me years before I could wade through books without pictures).
  6.  
    chrispenycate

    chrispenycate resident pedantissimo Staff Member

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    I read "The sword in the stone" long before I discovered "The once and future king", and missed many things from what I considered "the original". Still, I wasn't aware that the second book (would that be "The ill made knight"? It's been an awfully long time,) had come out separately. I still own TOAFK, (if I can get the person I lent it to to give it back; it's been eight+ years, after all.

    Still, while I'm on this thread, I'd like to state my total approval of the "The crystal cave" tetrology, and it's picture of post Roman Britain.
  7.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    It was The Witch in the Wood (The Ill-Made Knight was the third in the set),which White shortened by quite a bit, and in general strengthening. But at the same time he revised The Sword in the Stone, eliminating some of the best parts, including the battle between Merlin and Madam Mim (much, much better than in that bastardized Disney version), etc. Leiber wrote an interesting article comparing The original three books, the revised Once and Future King (all four), and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; his advice is to read "the first version of The Sword in the Stone, then read the wild-goose and ant sections from that novel as revised, and continue through with the other three novels as revised in the omnibus version." (The Blade of Conan, ed. by L. Sprague de Camp, p.170)

    Speaking of White -- has anyone here read The Book of Merlin? I have the thing, but I never got around to reading it....
  8.  
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    I don't have the Merlin books on hand to check my facts, and I could be completely wrong, but I'm thinking the extracts are not from Malory but from someone earlier -- maybe Geoffrey of Monmouth? I believe that's where the Vortigern story comes from.

    The Book of Merlyn is left out of The Once and Future King for good and sufficient reason. It does nothing to advance the plot, and slows down the pacing of the final scenes. (Besides, White found ways to work the best partsin elsewhere when he revised the earlier books.) It's basically more of the philosophy of war and man's place in the world compared to the animals. I would recommend it only to the most dedicated fan of TOAFK.

    I could say more about The Witch in the Wood etc., but we seem to be running this thread off topic and into the general Arthurian thread with all this talk of T. H. White.

    To return to the Mary Stewart books: The Wicked Day manages to be about Mordred and favorable to Mordred without trashing Arthur and the rest. To my mind, it's quite skillfully done in that respect, besides being up the level of the Merlyn trilogy in other ways. You don't need to read it to round off the story (for one thing, it's not like any of us are likely to be in any suspense about the outcome), but it's a fine book in its own right.
  9.  
    aarti

    aarti bibliophile

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    Yes, exactly. And that kind of ties into the historical fiction/magic discussion going on in another forum. I think Stewart pulled this off very well. Even *Merlin* didn't understand what was going on, and it was going on through him :) And hardly anyone questioned it at all, which was so interesting, too. And, I thought, very true to what I think would have happened historically.

    I think one of my favorite aspects of Arthurian legend is the conflict between native Briton beliefs and the impact of Christianity coming to the country. It is a conflict that happened all over the world, really, and it seems especially poignant in Britain (to me) because there is so much reminder still of the ancient religions in Britain still standing. I think Stewart really brought this aspect out very well, with the scene in which Merlin and Arthur raise Caliburn, and the altar to the old god is shattered, and (I think) there is a cross that appears instead. She doesn't go as far in detail into the religious conflict as Marion Zimmer Bradley does in her books, but she makes it pretty clear that it's important. So melding that coming religion, in which magic seems more feared than accepted, with the old religions in which people believed in magic as if it happened all the time, was done very well. (I have no idea if that sentence makes sense as I don't think it's anywhere near grammatically correct.)
  10.  
    PenDragon

    PenDragon ...has left the building

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    That's the one, Geoffrey and his history of the kings.
  11.  
    Rosemary

    Rosemary The Wicked Sword Maiden

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    I have read The Merlin Trilogy and many other historical novels about Arthur and Merlin. At the time I really enjoyed them and would definately recommend them to those who enjoy Historical novels.
    However, over the last decade I have done a lot of research into British, Celtic, Roman and Anglo Saxon history and their mythology. Now I find it hard to read a book which contains both Merlin and Arthur together!

    Your sentence about the melding of the old religions Aarti...many of todays religious services and festivals are still based on and include part of the old religions as practised by the ancient Britons and Celts...
  12.  
    aarti

    aarti bibliophile

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    Yes, most religions today, I think, are a mixture of any number of older religions. But I meant more the whole "feel" of it. I mean, there was also the practice of witch burning through quite a few centuries. So clearly, some of that old tolerance (though that isn't the right word- they did much more than tolerate) was gone by then, to be replaced by suspicion and superstition.
  13.  
    elvet

    elvet Easily amused

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    I agree with much that has already been said in this thread. The subtlety of the magic, the focus on the the characters rather than the battles, and the background of changing religious times all make this a great read for Arthurian fans. I didn't know about The Wicked Day, and will have to look into getting it.
  14.  
    Sathai

    Sathai Here, but not all there.

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    These were the first books I read that made me see the Arthurian tale in a different light.

    What I liked most about the trilogy was seeing the story through Merlin's point of view. The same for The Wicked Day, seeing the story through Mordred's perspective.
  15.  
    Ragnar

    Ragnar Born Again Pagan

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    I read the first three many years ago & loved them. I've always meant to go back to them as The Wicked Day hadn't been released whe I originally read them. I may have to add them to the (ever growing) list.
  16.  
    Mithfanion

    Mithfanion New Member

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    I'm currently 200 pages in to The Wicked Day after having finished the marvellous Merlin Trilogy in the past few weeks.

    The Merlin Trilogy is an excellent work, a strong narrative coupled to at least good characterization for Merlin, and to a lesser extent Arthur as well. I was really fond of the character of Ambrosius, but also of his first teacher Galapas, and Cavall his servant.

    There are so many things I liked about this telling that I don't know where to begin.

    I'll start with what I didn't like.
    • I thought the second book was a deal weaker than the excellent opening and closing volumes. It made me think that this trilogy wasn't as good as I always hoped it would be. Fortunately book 3 was all one could ask for.
    • I thought Merlin in the second book had moments of too much self-doubt. With his status and immense reputation I felt that he should sometimes have more faith in himself, especially when he had long since proven himself. When you see later on in The Wicked Day, or hear during the Merlin Trilogy from other characters, how deeply impressed they actually are by Merlin, his doubts seem sometimes to be silly. Yes it makes him more human, but still.
    • Ever since watching him in the Prince Valiant cartoon with that falcon/hawk I wished to read a book in which he had one. I always figured the cartoon must have gotten the idea from some book. So in The Crystal Cave this Merlin actually gets one, and I was wild with excitement. But to my disappointment Stewart does very little with this and despite the Peregrine's apparant lotalty to Myrddin, suddenly that is all over. I wished for more.
    What I did like was the atmosphere of the story, the intense feeling you get for Merlin because it is first person narrative, and that this is actually about Merlin rather than Arthur; Merlin has always been teh most interesting character to me in all of literature, let alone Arthurian Legend ( a bold claim but I mean it). I think the only story where I felt more for one sinbgle main character was Fitz and the Farseer Trilogy.

    Sad to say The Wicked Day is decidedly lighter a read though, with lesser characterization,. It is good what she does with Mordred in concept, but he is nowhere near as strongly characterized as Merlin. And I'd rather that Stewart would have had at least some scenes with Merlin in this sequel even if it is from Mordred's POV. Now there is nothing.
  17.  
    murphy

    murphy New Member

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    OT: That's the problem with reading the Chronicles, your list of books you must have grows and grows.
  18.  
    The Ace

    The Ace Aye fur Alba

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    I never read, "The Wicked Day," but I have to admit, the treatment of the Dark ages was excellent. On the rare occasions when Stewart discusses armour and weapons, she does seem to touch on the late Roman period rather than the classical approach seen in some recent dramatisations (the pilum, gladius, scutum, strip armour and imperial helmets were long gone by this time.) There is also the fact that they were set against fifth-century Britain and the Saxon invasion and not in an idealised medieval setting so beloved of lesser authors.
  19.  
    Mithfanion

    Mithfanion New Member

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    It's also interesting how Stewart deliberately pays little attention to the battles Arthur fought to establish his reign. She says that because the story is Merlin's, this was neither the time nor the place to go into them.

    I did get the feeling she was happy to not have to go into them and that she preferred to write about more intimate things.

    For battles people can obviously turn to Cornwell or Lawhead.
  20.  
    littlemissattitude

    littlemissattitude Super Moderator

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    I'm glad to see this thread. I haven't read these books yet, but I picked up the three at a used book store earlier in the year and keep meaning to get to them. Perhaps this thread will be a motivation for me to get to them sooner than I ordinarily would. :)

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