Sunday, 18 May 2014

Memories of Mary Stewart

I heard today (from reading that Mary Stewart has died, aged 97.

Her books were an important part of my reading life as I was growing up. I discovered The Crystal Cave series first, and I can still remember the images that her writing conjured up the first time I read them - Merlin's mother weaving the wrong colour on the loom as she got disturbing news that the young boy didn't understand (but the reader did), a drunken wasp dying on poisoned fruit in the orchard, little details that made the Dark Age world come to life.
Her writing also gave me an important lesson - as Merlin is growing up, he learns to seek knowledge wherever it may be found, rather than sticking to a single religious tradition. When I read that, I was strongly influenced by a childhood of Sunday school attendance and a Church of England junior school to seek religious knowledge in one place only - the Anglican tradition - but Merlin's quest for knowledge encouraged me to open my mind to other traditions. Over the years, I've read about Buddhism and the Sufi tradition and Wicca and Druidry, and all sorts of other things, and found value in all of them somewhere.

Later, I discovered her romantic mysteries, and searched out as many as I could. The Moonspinners introduced me to a magical modern Greece (I was already devouring as many of Mary Renault's books about Ancient Greece as I could get my hands on), and there were books set in France, and even Scotland, in Touch Not the Cat. Again it was the little details that made the stories come alive - in one it was the blue flowers that a dying girl had loved, which proved that she was not the missing girl that the heroine was seeking, who had been colour-blind and unable to see the colour blue. Or it was the nightingale singing near the taverna where the heroine was staying in the Moonspinners, giving her an alibi to be out at night when the villain of the piece finds her there.

What a pity her work wasn't better served on screen! The Disney film of the Moonspinners has little more than the title in common with the book - and the plot makes little sense. I could forgive the switch from the aunt collecting wild flowers to her collecting folk songs for the screen - Greek villagers singing into her tape recorder was far more photogenic than picking a few flowers. But how did the young man who was skin-diving get the money for his trip to Greece and all the equipment if he had been ruined and lost his job because of whatever the bad guys had done in England? And then there was the woman on the yacht, with the leopard....

The BBC were no better, when they serialised The Crystal Cave one Christmas. Some of the scenes were word for word straight from the book, but others.... I have never forgiven them for the scene where Merlin leads everyone to the cave under the castle that keeps falling down (an old Roman mine working, causing subsidence). In the book, he has a genuine vision, of the red and white dragons fighting - and wakes up a couple of days later feeling awful and asking "What did I say?" In the series, it was all a trick, and he only pretended to have a vision.

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