The Last Enchantment

Merlin's harp is focus of front cover of the Mary Stewart novel The Last Enchantment.
Merlin plays his swan song on this harp.

The Last Enchantment is the final book in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about how Arthur became England’s king, subdued the Saxons, and ruled from Camelot.

As in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, Stewart tells the story from the vantage point of Merlin, the prophet/wizard who is cousin to Arthur and his mentor.

Merlin has lost his youthful stamina and he’s losing his ability to foresee the future.

Having lived either alone or among men all his life, without his prophetic gift Merlin is at the mercy of women.

Arthur has just won the crown. He must fight to keep it and to beget a son to carry on his line.

Arthur also has to worry about his half-sisters, who have dynastic ambitions of their own, and about his bastard son by one of those half-sisters.

For the first 400 pages of the novel, Stewart spins a fascinating yarn.

She seems then to realize she has too much history still to cover, so she sidelines Merlin while she advances the story.

Then brings him back, gives him a “while you were out” message, wraps up the story, and closes the covers.

The result is 80 percent enchantment and 20 percent disappointment.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1979. 538 p.
1979 bestseller #07 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Jailbird: An oddball in dark places

Title page of Jailbird shows a yellow bird sitting a a tea cup.
The bird, a prothononotary warbler appears in the novel.

Jailbird is not what you’d expect from Kurt Vonnegut’s fertile imagination.

Jailbird is a fictional memoir combining a few oddball characters with a raft of real characters who commit immoral and criminal acts in public places.

Jailbird’s fictional narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, can do nothing right, even when he follows good advice.

The son of immigrant employees of a millionaire industrialist who sends him to Harvard, Walter holds a federal job until he inadvertently betrays a friend and is fired.

Walter’s wife to support him.

Walter finally gets work again in the Nixon administration, where he gets caught in the Watergate scandal and goes to jail.

Released in 1977, he goes to New York where he unlawfully fails to reveal a will  and soon is on his way back to jail.

Vonnegut cannot avoid including a few laugh-out-loud wise cracks and off-beat perspectives on ordinary life, but on the whole Jailbird is a dark novel.

Vonnegut uses the fictional Walter to examine the real history of labor relations in the U.S., the Sacco and Vanzatti trial, the McCarthy investigations of subversive elements, and the unequal distribution of wealth in America.

Vonnegut’s Walter, when asked why he concerns himself with the working class responds, “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, ©1979. 246 p.
1979 bestseller #05 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Silmarillion

Close-up of female figures on Silmarillion cover.
Creatures in the art on the 2001 paperback Silmarillion cover.

To the bestseller list in 1977 did The Silmarillion penned by J. R. R. Tolkien, ascend, whose passing had some four years before occurred.

By Christopher son of Tolkien in filial duty from notebooks scribbled and aged were fitted his sire’s tales of the creation and of the First Age of the World wherein Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, dwelt in Middle-Earth, and the High Elves upon him made war to reclaim the Silmarils.

Those three great fiery jewels by Fëanor  made to contain imperishable the glory of the Blessed Realm had Morgoth seized and within his crown had set, guarded within his fortress Angband.

Praised much has been the beauteous language of The Silmarillion but this reader wearied of that beauty, desiring ever the longer to see characters wherein distinguished could be  Elf, or Man, or Dwarf without recourse required be to the Index of Names.

Of sentences long and cunningly crafted doth The Silmarillion consist, and rare it is for one to plainly speak and straightforward tell its tale with grammar clear and modifiers that squinteth not.

In the glory and the beauty of the Elves and in their fate may others find great pleasure, for me The Silmarillion delighteth not.

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien, ed.
2nd American ed. [paperback] (pub. 2001)
Houghton Mifflin, ©1977, ©1981, ©1999. 365 p.
1977 bestseller #1. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Watership Down is for children of all ages

In Richard Adams’s Watership Down a dozen males bond as they flee unknown danger into certain danger in search of a better life.

The adventurers are all rabbits.

The story opens when Fiver, a clairvoyant runt, senses disaster. He convinces his big brother, Hazel, to warn the warren’s chief rabbit.

Sign says six acres are to be developed into housing.
                 Fiver senses something ominous about this sign.

Hazel’s warning is ignored but the brothers and nine other rabbits leave the warren, ready to risk life in the open until they can find safety away from men.

Their exit is not a day too soon.

The warren is bulldozed to make way for a housing development. Only one rabbit escapes to tell the story.

The rabbits soon realize the habits they learned as kittens won’t work on Watership Down.

They learn to work together drawing on each individual’s strengths, befriend animals with whom they have common enemies, and become masters of strategy.

Adams is marvelously inventive in giving each rabbit the lapine equivalent of a personality and creating a rabbit oral tradition on which readers may eavesdrop.

Watership Down is a real place in England’s Berkshires and the landmarks that figure in the story actually exist.

Map of  Watership Down from the novel
   The map from Watership Down doesn’t photograph well

Adams is equally factual about rabbit habits, drawing on The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley.

Adams’s work ranks with C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tokien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, although it differs from them in one significant way: Its characters are all ones we’ve all seen.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Macmillian, 1972, 429 p.
1974 bestseller #2. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Hollow Hills tells Arthur’s tale

The Hollow Hills is Mary Stewart’s follow-up to her bestseller The Crystal Cave.

A drawing of a sword and  colors behind the title words are only art on The Hollow Hills' dustjacket.
There’s no magic on this cover.

Stewart picks up where that story ended, giving just enough background that people who didn’t read the earlier work aren’t lost but dedicated Stewart readers aren’t bored.

Within days of his birth, Arthur is given into Merlin’s care. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, had sent the Duke of Cornwall into battle and then bedded the Duke’s wife while the Duke was dying on the battlefield.

Arthur is a bastard.

Uther hopes as his queen Ygraine will bear sons untainted by bastardy, but Uther wants Arthur kept safe just in case he has no legitimate male heir.

Most of The Hollow Hills relates Merlin’s travels between the time he secrets the baby away and the time he comes back to return Arthur to his father as his successor. Those chapters allow Stewart to display her considerable landscape word-painting skills.

The Hollow Hills has less hocus-pocus than Cave and better developed characters (although Merlin, his youthful sidekick Ralf, and Arthur each have about a quarter century’s more maturity than appropriate to their chronological ages).

Stewart isn’t to my taste, but The Hollow Hills gave me more to admire than others of her novels that I’ve read.

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, 1973. 490 p.
1973 bestseller #6. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Crystal Cave: Dark and dull

The Crystal Cave is Mary Stewart’s hallucinogenic tale of Merlin, the shadowy figure of Arthurian legends and post-Roman history.

Dust jacket of the Crystal Cave has black background with type colors suggesting light reflected from crystals.
First edition dust jacket of The Crystal Cave.

Myrddin Emrys, later to become known as Merlin, is the bastard son of the daughter of the King of South Wales by an man whom the daughter refuses to name.

When the story opens, Merlin is six years old, has the vocabulary of an Oxford don and absorbs every word he hears.

Political intrigue abounds and Merlin hears more than is good for him.

In his early teens, Merlin is kidnapped and taken to Brittany where he has one of his first visions, which brings him to the attention of the man who turns out to be his father. Ambrosius is preparing to invade and make himself King of all Britain.

Merlin joins him.

Even the dust jacket writer couldn’t come up with a summary of the plot of Cave. I won’t even attempt one.

All sorts of implausible events happen to Merlin, all of which fit perfectly with Stewart’s implausible characterization of him.

Merlin is not only a seer, but a skilled engineer, astronomer, physician, diplomat, politician, and dirty tricks artist.

Cave is not an historical novel, nor a fantasy, nor a romance, but a mash of all of them.

This long, convoluted tale is best avoided by all but die-hard Mary Stewart fans.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, © 1970. 514 p.
1970 bestseller #4. My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales Multiply Horror

Castle that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale

Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of stories too long to be short stories, too short to be novellas, and too depressing for anything. Andre Govia captures the mood in this photo.

Set primarily in 19th century Europe, they are part fairy tale, part philosophical treatise. The tales are usually told late on a dark night when a storm is threatening.

Several are set as stories within stories. In “The Dreamer,” there are actually four different stories, three of which are told at second- or third-hand — the literary equivalent of a story my cousin got from somebody at work.

My favorite story — the last! — is about a gentleman who loves the arts. The gentleman mentors a young poet. Thinking that a woman’s influence would be good for a poet, the gentleman proposes to a lovely young widow.

The poet and fiancée fall in love.

The poet shoots his mentor.

Dying, the mentor crawls to his fiancée’s feet. She picks up a stone and smashes him on the head with it while screaming, “You poet!”

After laboring through this book, I understand the impulse to murder someone for being a writer.

Isak Dinesen would be my first victim.

Seven Gothic Tales
By Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Modern Library edition
420 pages
1934 bestseller #10
My Grade: D
 

Photo credit: FairyTaleCas by Steve011

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni