Sat
May 17 2014 11:30am

Mary Stewart, 1916-2014: An Appreciation

I was sorry to hear that Mary Stewart is dead, at the age of 97.

She was a writer of romantic and Arthurian novels who was never afraid of crossing the border into the fantastic. She had a wonderfully sure voice and a way of using tiny descriptive details to make even the most implausible things believable. 

The books with the most obvious relevance for genre are her four Arthurian novels, The Crystal Cave, (1970) The Hollow Hills, (1973), The Last Enchantment (1979) and The Wicked Day (1983).

Some of her romantic novels also edged into fantasy, especially Touch Not the Cat (1976) which features hereditary telepathy. Many of her other romance novels used fantastic elements quietly and without any fuss, even though the books were set in the real world. Best of all these details were used as if she found the elements of the fantastic exactly as appropriate as any other elements to insert into the story she was telling. This isn't uncommon today, when the presence of paranormal romance has encouraged writers of romance to insert such things, but it was very unusual in her time and generation. Stewart is also to be commended for how well she dealt with the fantastic, and how seamlessly she integrated it with everything else. There's a lot to be learned from her technique there. Being aware that she would use the fantastic when appropriate made all of her novels more enjoyable for me—she was prepared to open up the space of possible answers to mysteries, even where the answers didn't go in that direction.

Her Arthurian novels put magic in a very interesting place in the worldbuilding—not at all where a fantasy writer would have put it, yet treated consistently and solidly as part of how the world works. Prediction is accurate, but being able to predict is not reliable. Other magics are also real but difficult. The books purport to be set in real history, but what is known about the real history of Dark Age Britain makes this in itself a speculative venture. Stewart has speculated, but based on historical and archaeological research. The Crystal Cave is told from the point of view of a young Merlin and as much as White or Malory shaped my perception of what Merlin can be. I grew up on these; they weren't my first Arthuriana, but they were close to it.

Both The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills won Mythopoeic Awards, and it's good to think that she had this recognition and welcome from within our genre. These books have been widely influential, and continue to be read and enjoyed, as are her more mainstream books like Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moon-Spinners.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and nine novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She has a new novel, My Real Children, out soon. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

20 comments
Marilynn Byerly
1. MByerly
Mary Stewart was a wonderful writer, and I was lucky to find her books in my younger years.

My mom and I listened to most of her books on tape as we travelled together some years back, and Stewart's books still hold their magic.
April Moore
2. aprildmoore
I still have my original paperbacks of her Arthurian books and they are still among my favorite treatments ever of those legends. R.I.P, Mary Stewart! And thank you!
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
April -- I have the original UK paperbacks!
Shan
4. Shan
I said "No" allowed when I read the title. She was and still is one of my favourites as well as my mother's. I'm going to re-read ther Merlin trilogy, now. It is in my opinion the best Arthurian re-telling there is (sorry T.H. White, you're still cool). You can see the dedication and research she put into making the setting take place during the correct period instead of the medieval hodge podge we normally see when Arthurian stuff is retold. I also loved her interpretation of Niniane where she completely reframes the feme fatale elements of her character instead making her someone Merlin respects.
However, in spite of all this gushing for her fantasy, The Moonspinners is my favourite of her books. She will be missed.
Shan
5. quillet
Oh! I'm sad, though she reached a good age. May she rest in peace.

She's one of my favourite writers of all time, and her Merlin books are among the best Arthurian stories ever written, IMO. I'm currently in the middle of a Mary Stewart re-read (in between other books), so I feel like I can say with confidence that her books age well. I adored them when I was younger, yet now that I'm older I still find them beautifully written and well-crafted. She was truly gifted, and will always be an inspiration to me.
j p
6. sps49
I loved those Arthurian books, and recall being intrigued at the expanded insight into the females in those stories (instead of the usual shallow depictions). I wasn't really aware of what she was doing, just that it was so much better than the legend I already knew.
Angela Korra'ti
7. annathepiper
I was very sad to note Stewart's passing, though indeed, 97 was a grand old age for her to reach.

She wasn't quite as important to my adolescent reading as Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, but she was very much a part of what I liked to read. And I adored Touch Not the Cat.

RIP, Ms. Stewart.
Shan
8. pilgrimsoul
Sad news.
One thing I love about her work is her ability to bring her settings so brilliantly to life.
Rebecca Brothers
9. RileyC
Darn it, another favorite gone. Thank goodness for the books, though, that's a kind of immortality.
F Shelley
10. FSS
I just discovered the Arthur books she did a year or so ago, and they've become favorites. Rest in peace Mary Stewart.
Karen Simley
11. Simka
She's been a favorite of mine since I discovered her in my teens (many years ago). I love her writing style. I've looked unsuccessfully for ebook versions of her books for a long time now. RIP, Ms. Stewart.
Alice Arneson
12. Wetlandernw
I sound like an echo - she's been a favorite since my early teens, and I read everything of hers that my library had or could get. She was a wonderful writer, and helped to set my expectations high when I read.

I think I'll go back and do some rereading, now.
Shan
13. CalindyR
Mary Stewart's Arthurian books were my introduction to myths that were written on a more personal level with the characters as people rather than heroes. She did a brilliant job of raising my expectations for the quality of writing in fantasy.
Maiane Bakroeva
14. Isilel
RIP.

I have always thought that her Merlin trilogy was brilliant and the best of the many, many Arthurian re-tellings and re-interpretations that I have read.

I never even knew that she wrote romance. This makes me curious - the only romance novels that I could enjoy were those by Jane Austen - maybe Stewart's could appeal to me too?
And her speculative fiction novels sound very interesting. I guess, it is time to re-read the Merlin books and hunt down Stewart's other works...
Shan
15. quillet
@Simka: I'm not sure about other platforms, but nearly all her books are available on both Kindle and iBooks. The entire Merlin trilogy plus The Wicked Day (four books!) are available as a fairly cheap e-book bundle, too, called Legacy: Arthurian Saga. Just put her name in the search bar at iBooks or Amazon and you should find it.
Shan
16. Shan
@14
Her romances are also mysteries/thrillers, with postwar europe as the background for most.
Shan
17. NightSkyGazer
I liked "Touch Not the Cat", but my favorite was "Thornyhold". I remember the first line in "Thornyhold" as being, 'I think my aunt was a witch'. Read and enjoyed her mysteries, but these two are still on my library shelves. It has been since my teens since I read the Arthurian books, this posting and comments have inspired me to re read them. Good Bye and and thank you to Mary Stewart.
Shan
18. Ellen W.
@annathepiper - It's always so clear to me that Mary Stewart was a great inspiration to Barbara Michaels' "modern gothicks." And so all the contemporary writers who reference Barbara Michels (Mercedes Lackey, Lauren Wilig, Gail Carriger, et cetera) have a linneage back to Mary Stewart- which means I have to wonder: who influenced Mary Stewart when she was starting to dream of writing?

I actually came (back) to Mary Stewart through my love of Barbara Michaels and was *stunned* to discover she was the same author as my beloved "Crystal Cave" which I think I read more than 10 times before I turned 15. What's even better is that my parents have joked about my mother's secert boyfriend "Raoul" my whole life so it was wonderful to finaly meet him in "Nine Coaches Waiting."
Shan
19. Timothy (TRiG)
I've never read any of Mary Stewart's fantasy, but her mystery/travel books My Brother Michael (Delphi), Madam Will You Talk? (Southern France), and The Moonspinners (Crete) all brilliantly evoke a sense of place, bringing the setting alive. That's an important quality in a fantasy author, so I imagine hers is excellent. Must get to it some day soon.

All three books I've mentioned are narrated by an Englishwoman on holiday, slightly out of her element, but nonetheless resourceful and competent (some more so than others).

There's something very elegant about her writing.

TRiG.
Shan
20. dbr
The Moon-Spinners was on the Wonderful World of Disney with Haley Mills - I remember looking for it at the library when I was about 10 - probably my first venture into the adult stacks

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