Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Reviews: The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills

The Crystal Cave © 1970 by Mary Stewart

The Hollow Hills © 1973 by Mary Stewart

One of my more perverse literary habits is to periodically revisit memorable books from my past. My distant, idealized, youthful past. Books that thrilled me and chilled me as a child, books that colored my black-and-white world, books that breathed pneuma into the sails of my life, sweeping me beyondward to distant lands and distant peoples.

I say “perverse” because, more often than not, such revisits often rebound with regret. The book does not live up to my memories of it – a strict function of the fact that I am now solidly adult, and see the world through the pragmatic and dour eyes of a mature man. The awe and glee of a child’s glance rarely sits with me during today’s literary wanderings, and it is the hope of recapturing such awe and glee that prompts me ever to the next book.

However, not all is personal, private tragedy when I return to a Book from my Childhood. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twice now since tweenhood, and each time it has grown stronger and brighter and more meaningful to me. Same can be said for Watership Down and some Asimov novels recently re-read. In fact, off the top of my head, I’ll throw out the guestimate that one in three books I revisit from my youth exceeds my starry-eyed memories. It’s those other two-thirds that populate my literary masochistic streak.

I don’t remember when first I read Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do believe it was those murky months after my parents divorced and my mother, brother and I moved into our first apartment. Tolkien gave me much comfort in the initial stages of their separation, and that was the summer before Freshman year at high school. So perhaps the Stewart books followed a year later, because they were assigned summer reading. Or maybe I read them directly after The Lord of the Rings. Either way, I had to read them.

But they were right up my alley back then: Merlin. Merlin, and Arthur.

Now, I haven’t the time or the inclination to test my theory, but to my mind it seems these books were the first to re-image classic, traditional tales of myth and legend. The story is told from Merlin’s point of view, beginning at the innocent age of six and ending with the wizard coming full into his powers, at age thirty-five or so, with the ascendency of his ward, Arthur. Nowadays, reimaged myth and legend are a multi-billion dollar industry (see: Riordan, Rick). Take a dash of classic literature, throw in heaping amounts of teen angst and faux Po-Mo attitude, shake and stir with action set pieces ripe for the Big Screen, and serve copiously at your local Barnes and Noble. Though not taken to that extreme, and written with class and reserve, Stewart’s novels are the progenitor of the Riordan phenomenon.

Anyway, the books themselves:

I used the adjective “murky” a few paragraphs ago, and that best describes my thirty-five-year-old memories of them. Not crisp, clear memories, but nebulous emotional attachments. Images laced with fear and foreboding. The vague recollection of Merlin’s forbidding grandfather-king slipping on spilled oil and cracking his head open, and Merlin’s slave put to death for it. The boy’s uncle slyly inducing the lad to eat a poisoned fruit. The ever-so-brief interlude in the forest with the hermit / teacher Galapas, expanding the boy’s vision in countless ways. Merlin finally overcoming brutality, savagery, and near death to wind up at the fireside next to his true father (how that warm image stayed with me!). The larger, geopolitical jigsaw pieces fragmented about in my recollection, such as the dragon at Vortigern’s castle, Merlin’s deception to bring lovestruck Uther to Ygraine’s bed (and thus beget Arthur), Morgause incestuously laying with Arthur after his first battle success.

Thus, for distant me, the two novels morphed into one timeless, blurry dream of incomprehensible apprehension.

Three-and-a-half decades later, a vivid laserlight has excised those dark and dank memories.

I enjoyed the two books. Crystal Cave slightly better than Hollow Hills.

No doubt it’s the seven hundred books read in the interim. I know that good triumphs over evil, mostly, mostly after taking a damn hard beating. I know that now; I didn’t know that then. I know story arc, and characterization, and plot, and setting. I have tried my own hand at them. Stewart is a great expositor, and great dialoguist, a wizard in her own right with the turn of a phrase. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling with Merlin as he grew in age, stature, and power, and found his own way, and discovered (“put himself in the path of the gods”) his charge to unite all of Britain through a bastard like himself, a hunted helpless child name of Arthur.

Oh, and maps. Maps help immensely in fantasy books. Don’t think the version I read in the early 80s had any. The paperbacks I just finished printed detailed maps of post-Roman England on the first pages.

Grade: A for The Crystal Cave. A-minus for The Hollow Hills, for two minor points of contention. First, I found large swaths of Hills unmemorable and unremarkable – Merlin spends years tending a shrine, trekking through snowy woods, encountering the Old Ones, etc. And I thought the whole “origin story” and “reveal” of Excalibur – called “Caliburn” here – something of a let-down, in that it was at variance to what I’ve absorbed from the more traditional tales.

Still, perfect for any youngling approaching high school age and bitten by the fantasy bug.

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