Tuesday, May 13, 2014

First fantasy book I ever read? Wow, that's tough... I mean, there must have been a bunch of Robin Hood/Knights of the Round table type books, and fairy tales, and dragons and all that sort of stuff when I was in the first or second grade. I simply cannot remember any of it.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia in the sixth grade, and A Wrinkle In Time and Watership Down in the fourth grade, but none made an impression on me.

I'd have to say that the first fantasy book which made an impression on me was Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (1970) and The Hollow Hills (1973), which I read back-to-back probably in the fifth or sixth grade. I read The Last Enchantment, which forms the last novel in her "Merlin trilogy", but that was a year or so later.

It was pretty much a trend in the 1960s and 1970s to re-imagine Camelot and Merlin. Stewart's was one of the last to do so. She won extensive praise for her writing and plotting, but today she's largely forgotten. Hers is a world of magic, but it's also a world where Druis and the Celts were engineers and craftsmen. She takes Isaac Asimov's truism about advanced science looking like magic to heart. So when Merlin builds Stonehenge and appears to raise the stones out of nothing...everything thinks it's magic. It's not, it's just inventive engineering.

Stewart's novels try to strip a lot of the romantic nonsense out of the story. Arthur is the bastard son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, but it is the father's revulsion at his own weakeness and his ill-treatment of his loving illegitimate son that drive the plot. Guided by Merlin and helped (occasionally) by Merlin's magic, Arthur tries hard to avoid his father's mistakes. But he is his father's son, and in the long run his rotten childhood and anger at the way he was treated lead him to condemn Lancelot and Guinivere as harshly as his own father condemned him. Much of the story is told from Merlin's perspective, and Merlin struggles secretly to avoid fulfilling a prophecy about his own death, and about the way in which Mordred and the witch Morgan Le Fay will destroy him and Arthur.

There was a BBC adaptation of the novels in the 1990s, but it was not very good, I thought.

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