Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy

I don't want to spend a lot of time on these books, they have the virtue of
pretty much speaking for themselves. The trilogy is The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. Stewart will almost certainly be remembered for these, although she had quite a career prior to Cave writing what at least looks to be romantic suspense. I have a suspicion that these earlier novels are probably pretty good -- life's short and you have to make choices on what to concentrate on, but nothing I say here should push anybody away from reading, I don't know, Touch Not the Cat.

There is a noticeable dip downward in quality between Cave and Hills, and it gets much worse between Hills and Enchantment. This is interesting to me, especially after reading this interview I found online:


where she confesses that the only one she felt impelled to write was Cave, that the others were more or less afterthoughts (she doesn't phrase it exactly that way, but that's the gist of it.) It feels that way to me. Something, some kind of spark, leaves these books after Cave, although Hills has it's moments here and there. In general, though, the trilogy feels very dutiful to me after Cave, more like very well-crafted homework than an actual breathing living thing.

Let me digress a second. I've been reading a lot of John Gardner (not the Bond book guy, the "he died on a motorcycle" guy, he's next up) and it's been making me think about what it means to read as an artist, not a critic, what the essential difference of the two roles really is. I think you could fill up several essays and have a midnight snack or two on that subject, but the main thing I've come to realize -- and this blog has been a big tool in that for me-- is that for me the prime purpose of serious reading is to sense the "fire" or "spark" or "talent" or whatever you want to call it. Learn to recognize it, learn to see it ebb and flow through a work. Ultimately everything else is secondary. There are other reasons to read seriously of course: to study effects and learn how they are accomplished, to experience the story itself, to try to place the book in context of it's time, or literary history, or both, and I suppose a thousand others. (To impress people at snobby parties, perhaps.) But to me the prize is simply to understand what's burning and what isn't.

There's no way to talk like this without sounding like a mystic or a fool or both. Yet I think the further you go into fiction, this is your one inescapable destination point. If you really "get" fiction, I think you're left searching for and appreciating talent, because in the end that's the only thing that really matters about the enterprise.

I think humility ultimately comes into play, too. This, for instance. These are sturdy middlebrow books, they were not meant to be literary masterpieces and the reasons why Cave is so much better is probably fairly obvious (the story of Merlin's early life is lesser known, or unknown, which gave Stewart more freedom for her talent to flower and fill in the cracks). Still, that statement is reductive, while true it doesn't match the actual experience of reading these books in succession and feeling the dropping off point. And that's what it finally is, a feeling -- not an emotion, exactly, something more complex than that, but something like that.

Ultimately all that somebody can say is that it's there, and then it isn't. I think humility is needed when you get to that place.

(One corollary of all this is that most things suck, because most things don't hit those levels of talent or "burning". And indeed I have not liked most of the things I've read on this blog, at least to date. Another is that it's perversely more easy to talk about failures than it is about sucesses. I could go on and on about Stewart's cliched devices or how the pacing on Hills is all off, but its hard to talk about why Cave works so well.)

Well, anyway. Get Cave, once you're through dip into the others if you like, although their rewards are much slimmer. Although I am curious about The Wicked Day -- a novel mostly about Modred. Not spoken about much, does not have a high reputation, but based on that interview above I wonder if it might not have some of the freshness that Hills and Enchantment lack.