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Interview with Mary Stewart

14 APRIL 1989

   The drive to the town of Lochawe in Argyllshire took me through some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland on a fine spring afternoon: along the banks of Loch Lomond with its islands reflected in the still water; up by the Falloch River into snow-covered mountains; over Strath Fillan and down Glen Lochy between Beinn Udlaidh and Ben Lui; then to Loch Awe itself, with mountains rising steeply on every side. That night, in the House of Letterawe, Lady Mary Stewart, to give her her full title, gave me a fine dinner, then beat me in a game of rummy. It was suitable preparation for the interview she gave the following morning. Initially, she did not want the interview to be taped, but finally agreed, despite misgivings, after I promised to give her editorial control over the material. As I had foreseen, she found nothing to object to.
   Stewart's suspense novels were best-sellers when she turned to Arthurian legend in The Crystal Cave (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970). Despite the doubts of her publishers, this proved equally successful, and they were happy when she decided to continue the story of Merlin in The Hollow Hills (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973) and The Last Enchantment (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979). She concluded with the story of Mordred in The Wicked Day (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984). Although she did not set out to write a series, Stewart's Arthurian books have remained firm favorites with readers, rarely out of print since their publication. It is a tribute to her skill as a storyteller.

RT: How do you perceive your four Arthurian novels in relation to your other work?

MS: I'd always wanted to write a historical novel. One of my main interests, as you will notice in my modern thrillers, was Roman history. I'd been to look at the Roman sites in England many a time, and tried to recreate things in my mind. Thus when I finally decided to write a historical novel, Roman Britain seemed the obvious place to start. I didn't know quite what to choose, but then the subject came out and hit me, which is, I think, what every author hopes will happen.
   I wouldn't say that I was attracted to the Arthurian legend at first. It is, after all, medieval, and that period never appealed to me at all. It was Roman Britain that interested me, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain was what started me off. I was in my library one day, reading it--I can't remember why. I came to the part where the young Merlin, aged seventeen or so, is brought in front of Vortigern who intends to make him a human sacrifice, and I thought, that's my story. The character of Merlin appealed to me because he'd never been dealt with before--except in quite a different way by T. H. White who made him very much the traditional medieval enchanter.
   I thought, this is for me, because it uses the sort of magic that has always appealed to me, as you will find in my other books. I had found my hero. After that, all I did was try to find out what was known about him, which wasn't much. The Crystal Cave, at any rate, is largely pure invention on my part, with very little taken from tradition.

RT: Do you prefer having the freedom to invent, or do you find the guidelines of tradition helpful?

MS: It's comforting to have a certain amount of plot handed to you. In Merlin's case there's the outline of the story, but for the rest you're free to do as you like. I made him Ambrosius' son simply because he's referred to as Merlinus Ambrosius at some point. That gave me the connection.

RT: Did you intend to write a trilogy when you started?

MS: No. I had no intention of continuing after The Crystal Cave, which only goes up to Arthur's conception. I didn't want to write about Arthur because White, whose The Once and Future King I admired and enjoyed very much, had already done that. He had, moreover, done it better than I could possibly do, though in a totally different way: as a medieval fantasy. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. I can't remember now how I came to write the second one.

RT: Did the publishers want you to continue it?

MS: The publishers didn't want me to write The Crystal Cave in the first place, because they were doing so well with the earlier books. Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don't want you to change horses. I wrote a children's book next because I didn't want to go back to a modern adventure book just then. A book for children using magic was in the same vein as the Merlin story, as it were.

RT: Did readers ask you to continue the story of Merlin?

MS: Oh, yes, but that makes no difference. If you don't want to do it, you don't want to do it. I've never written for a market. In fact, if I'd ever thought about markets, I would never have written The Crystal Cave because it was such a big change. It was the historical book I'd always wanted to write. I can't remember now why I wrote The Hollow Hills, but I do recall telling my editor at the time that I didn't want to tread on White's ground. The editor, who had known him, said that he was sure White wouldn't mind. So I thought, well, I'll go on, and I wrote the second novel, The Hollow Hills.
   The main story in that book is the search for the sword. I'd been trying to bring in some of the Grail tradition, which of course has nothing to do with the real King Arthur, or anybody at all for that matter. Then one day a friend said to me, everybody who is worth his salt has a Grail, and everybody's Grail is different. I thought, well, that sort of search is a good idea. In Merlin's case, of course, it was the search for the sword, and so that became the Grail. I used the Fisher King legend in an unusual way because that was part of the Grail story.

RT: You concluded the story of Merlin with The Last Enchantment. Why did you continue with the story of Mordred, after that?

MS: Because I think Mordred's been given a jolly hard deal as a character. There's no evidence whatsoever that he was a villain, and I don't believe he was. When Arthur went to the continent, he made Mordred his regent--at least in tradition, although historically the whole expedition is a piece of rubbish. So I thought, well, Mordred cannot have been the traitor. Of course, he's been made into the traitor and the lover of Guinevere simply because the medieval poets needed that particular convention for their stories.

RT: Did you know that in Scottish tradition there is sympathy for Mordred? Scottish chronicles, for example, regard him as the legitimate heir and Arthur as an illegitimate usurper.

MS: No, I didn't know that at the time I wrote the book. The point was that when I wrote each book it was to be the last. When you do that, you lay some traps for yourself. You kill off people you wish you hadn't killed off; you keep people alive that you don't want; and you turn them in the wrong direction, as it were, which can be darned awkward if you want to go on with the story. Each one of those four books was the last. Well, as a matter of fact, now I'm getting older, every single book I write is the last.
   As a result of this approach, in The Wicked Day I landed myself with what I'd done in The Hollow Hills. There Arthur sleeps with Morgause before she marries Lot of Lothian. This makes Mordred her eldest son, whereas in tradition he was her youngest. Again, in The Last Enchantment Merlin says that he never met or spoke to Mordred. Thus when I wrote The Wicked Day, I couldn't let Mordred meet Merlin. This is what happens when you write it one book at a time.

RT: It created some problems for you, then?

MS: Yes.

RT: This is interesting because Malory may have approached his work the same way, one book at a time, and this may account for some of the inconsistencies that occur. He may have boxed himself into corners in similar ways.

MS: Well, with a work of that length he possibly did. He may have been asked to go on with it too.

RT: Did you find the task of writing more difficult because you chose to depart from your sources?

MS: I didn't mind departing from the sources, because the whole point of the Arthurian story is that everybody makes his or her own version. Since Malory's story was fiction anyway, you don't have to stick to it.

RT: When you chose to depart from a source, did you look for another one?

MS: No. As far as I can remember, I invented most of the story, apart from those basic relationships that are firmly laid down in tradition, such as Guinevere being Arthur's wife. Certainly I invented almost all of my Merlin story. There is very little information about him in Malory, really, apart from the odd rather stupid appearance when he disguises himself as a small child or old man.

RT: Thomas Berger pokes fun at Merlin's disguises in Arthur Rex. Have you read it by any chance?

MS: No. I haven't read any of the modern novels about Merlin, because I didn't want anyone else's invention to interfere with mine.

RT: Were you concerned lest you borrow from other writers?

MS: No. I just didn't want any interference with my own picture of Merlin.

RT: You chose to make Merlin's withdrawal back to the Crystal Cave voluntary, rather than an entrapment as is the case in most versions of the story. Did you plan that from the outset?

MS: I always had it in mind, because if Merlin is a figure of power it's just ridiculous to think that he would let anyone entrap him.

RT: Why did you decide to replace Lancelot with Bedwyr?

MS: In The Hollow Hills, where I introduced Arthur, I decided to keep the love affair, but in the post-Roman rather than medieval setting, of course. I also wanted to use local legends attached to wells and other places. I did not want to use Lancelot because of his association with medieval romance. Since Bedwyr was Arthur's close friend in the earliest tales, he was the obvious person to use instead.

RT: The legend clearly has elements that you respond to strongly.
MS: Yes. Of course, once I started The Crystal Cave and had to invent the beginning, then invent details about Ambrosius, and invent this and that and the other thing, it became a real world, as the purely fictional books become a real world. That's what I mean about not reading anything else that was written recently, but only the older sources.

RT: Yes. They're very involving books, which is a measure of the effectiveness with which you have created that world.

MS: Well, actually this is, if I may say so, the storyteller's skill that one is either born with or one isn't. I remember someone writing to me about my very first book, the thriller Madam, Will You Talk?. She told me that she'd taken it up to read in bed. Then at three in the morning, she wrote me a complaint. I'd come to a point in the book where I'd actually brought my exhausted heroine and her hero together, and they'd had an absolutely smashing meal, which I described in detail. She said, I had to go down to the kitchen and make myself bacon and eggs. So, I thought, well, that's a tribute, anyway.

RT: Do you deliberately create suspense so that your reader remains eager for more?

MS: No. I've written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you're either born with the storyteller's flair or you're not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller's flair or you don't. It's no virtue of mine. It's just there. In a story, however, each point of rest is also a point of departure; you can't help it.

RT: Yes, you answer one set of questions, only to raise others. In The Crystal Cave Merlin finds Dinias again, only to be carried off to meet Vortigern. Even though I know from my knowledge of the tradition what the outcome will be, I'm still curious about how it's going to be worked out.

MS: Yes. Of course, that's one of the challenges when you deal with the Arthurian story. Everyone knows the end, and the end is tragic. After I wrote The Wicked Day, I had a lot of letters from people, saying that they hadn't wanted to read it because they knew how it would end. But of course I tried, as it were, to get through the barrier of death, as if there were an afterlife. Arthur certainly isn't dead at the end of my book. I leave that resolution open, because he may well have been taken off in a coma, to be nursed or heaven knows what. Anyway, the legend leaves him alive. I didn't kill Merlin either.

RT: No. One can generate suspense as they do in ancient Greek tragedy, where the audience already knew the story.

MS: Yes. Exactly. It's the same with Shakespeare. By now everybody knows the plays before they start. Some people may even know the verses, but they still raise the hairs on your spine. You get involved. It's done with the writing.

RT: Yes. One gets caught up with the characters. One worries about how Merlin will deal with the next crisis.

MS: But you know that he'll get out of it because he's got the power. It's a very pleasant feeling.

RT: It helps, of course, to have visions of the future.

MS: Yes. There again, in The Crystal Cave and even The Hollow Hills these visions of the future hung me up when I went on to write the subsequent books. I had to make them all work out, which was something I hadn't planned when I wrote the books.

RT: We dig many of our own traps in life, particularly in the commitments we make. In response to my request for an interview two years ago, you wrote back and said, by all means come along in a couple of years' time, if I'm still around.

MS: Well, this is the cunning thing about making an appointment two years ahead, you see. You think, this'll never happen. If you'd said, I'm coming next month, I would have been away.

RT: Do you write your books out in longhand, or do you use a typewriter?

MS: I've gone through different stages--I used an ordinary portable for my first books, and that wrecked my wrist. I had a very bad time with it. Then I wrote longhand, but that's slow, and you go nearly mad because your brain is miles ahead of your hand. When I got to about the fifth or sixth book--The Ivy Tree, I think it was--I got an electric typewriter. It frightened me to death at first, but I got used to it eventually. I used to do the whole thing myself, including five carbon copies, and it nearly killed me. Then I got a dictating machine, and I sent the tapes to a professional typist. I think that must alter your style a little because you can be longer winded. When you're writing something, you skip bits. I dictate with all the punctuation, but it isn't finished. Once I've got the typed copy back, I then work on it. What I do is lay the typed sheets out. I have this beautiful paper, the sort that the chap wanted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and couldn't get anymore. It's lovely to write on. I do the corrections in longhand, but I can also just mark places with a star. I then dictate it through, putting the bits in as I go, which saves a tremendous amount of work. Then I get it typed back again. I do about four drafts for a book, so it's still a lot of laborious work.

RT: Then you did the Arthurian books by dictation?

MS: Dictation, and then the careful correcting. As I said, it goes through about four drafts. First the quick one, which concentrates on the outline of the story, on the characters, and on the places. You create the visions in your own mind. If you make the place properly, you feel that you could walk about in it. The second draft is the really difficult one, and very slow because that's when you fill everything out. You discover that the super scene you wanted to write won't work because people wouldn't behave like that, and so you have to redo it.

RT: Do you do research at any particular stage of this process?

MS: I'll do it at any stage. From my point of view, research is most useful when dealing with place rather than action. After all, you're inventing almost all of the story anyway. What can you see from a particular spot? Can you see Glastonbury Tor from Cadbury Castle, or can you not?
   The strange thing about the Merlin books, however, was that I wrote The Crystal Cave off the top of my head and then found that I was right about all the places; I saw them afterwards. I went to Brittany and found the small sea, and the cromlechs, and all the rest of it. I knew they'd be there, but they were, more or less, as I'd pictured them in The Crystal Cave.

RT: Rosemary Sutcliff said the same kind of thing, that often her intuition is right about these things.

MS: Yes. You'll find this, I think. The other extraordinary thing was that I invented the part about the Well of Galapas because Galapas is mentioned in Malory. I also decided to make him a hermit. Because I wanted the Crystal Cave, I invented that too. The Crystal Cave, of course, comes from Edwin Muir's poem, which is quoted at the beginning of the book and which gave me the idea for the whole thing. Then I wrote to the people who owned Bryn Myrddin, Merlin's Hill near Carmarthen, which I hadn't known existed before I looked at the map! They said, yes, certainly you may walk on the hill, and I suppose you'll want to see the Holy Well. Now I'd already invented the Holy Well; I didn't even know there was one.
   When we got to the hill, we wandered about it. In The Crystal Cave I'd buried old Galapas at the top, and there we found a barrow. Standing on the top of the hill, I said to my husband, Fred, I'd put the river down there, and it's not there; it's over there instead. He said, yes, but do you see that oxbow lake? That's where the river was originally, right where you put it. I also discovered that there had been a Roman mill at the foot of the hill. Yet at this stage the book had already been written. These discoveries happened all the way through the books.

RT: Perhaps you shared some of Merlin's vision?

MS: I don't know about that.

RT: Had you looked at maps before to get some idea of the lay of the land?

MS: I worked with maps of both Roman and ancient Britain, so that I knew where there were roads at that time and where there weren't.

RT: They didn't have that kind of close detail, though, did they?

MS: No, they didn't. They showed silver mines, though I can't remember if they marked the mill or not. At this stage, I had completed the first draft of the book, so that the actual story was done. Then, when I could get away, I went to check various things and came back to insert the more detailed descriptions, such as what the trees were like. I'm always interested in natural history as much as real history. After I've written the first draft, I like to look at the place and fill it in, making it real.

RT: Did you find that using a male, as opposed to female, protagonist created problems that you hadn't anticipated?

MS: No, I don't think so. Perhaps it was because I started with him as a child. Women know as much as anybody about what goes on in the minds of small children, whether they're male or female. Anyway, they're fairly equal at a very early age. Fred's always the first person to read the books, and I would ask him if there was anything that didn't ring true. He said, no.

RT: Were any of your readers disappointed not to find the romantic entanglements they might have expected from reading your earlier books?

MS: It depended on the intelligence of the reader. There were the sort of teenagers who would write and say, I wanted another nice romantic book; and there were others who said, I enjoyed The Crystal Cave, but I really wanted the other kind of book. I would say, well, everything that is in my earlier books you will find in The Crystal Cave, and even more besides, which is, I think, quite true. The things that matter to me, that is, not the romance, but the style, the descriptions of place, and the good storytelling, they are still there.

RT: When you do have a romantic relationship between Merlin and Nimue, however, rather than that she consider his overtures unwelcome and imprison him with his own spell, you develop a genuine affection between the two.

MS: I thought that was probably more credible than that he hand over his power. I did not see a sensible man, quite apart from a man of power, being entrapped by a girl, particularly when he wasn't a woman's man to start with. After the first two books, I received a letter from a woman, telling me about a local legend in Wiltshire that Nimue had not entrapped Merlin, but had been his lover. I reassured her, and told her that's what I was doing. In fact, though, I'd already done it.

RT: According to one tradition they retire to a floating island and live in harmony there.

MS: I'm not sure if I knew that at the time I wrote the books. I did know the legend about the Tower of Crystal, the invisible tower, although I don't recall whether Nimue was in that with him. My version just seemed right to me.

RT: I was impressed by the sense of acceptance that Merlin had at the end.

MS: Yes. That seemed right too. He wasn't afraid of death; he accepted it, because he knew it had to come. If the silly old chap of legend or of Tennyson could see the future, why did he allow himself to be trapped? It seemed silly; I had to keep his power.

RT: In the "Author's Note" at the end of The Wicked Day, you said that you were going to make Mordred, if not a hero, at least a man with some kind of reason for his actions.

MS: Yes. I wanted to put Mordred back where I thought he ought to be, but I wish that I'd thought about it sooner, so that I could've laid the groundwork. I used to lecture on Anglo-Saxon, and when I started to think about Mordred and to reread my Anglo- Saxon history as research for that particular book, I could see how he could have been on Arthur's side, rather than on the other side. I was wishing to goodness I'd laid the proper groundwork. I enjoyed doing the Anglo-Saxon parts of that book. In fact, one of the things I was tempted to go on with next was Cerdic as the hero of another book, but I haven't the energy, I don't think.

RT: Did you visit Orkney as part of your research?

MS: Yes, I went to Orkney, but only after I had written the first draft of The Wicked Day. I had to move the home of Mordred's adoptive parents, because I'd placed it where there wasn't a shore; there was nothing but cliffs. The birds are very interesting, and we found some rare flowers which are fascinating, I think. That's what we love, the natural history.

RT: Yes. You mention that Mordred gathered birds' eggs, didn't you?

MS: Yes, the Orkney people have always gathered gulls' eggs for eating, and probably still do.

RT: You didn't present Mordred's half-brothers in a very favorable light, did you?

MS: Well, Gareth was alright; but Agravain's never been very attractive, possibly because he tries to trap Lancelot in bed with the Queen, and of course Gaheris murders his mother. I think also I had, in the back of my mind, T. H. White who looked on the Orkney lot as being wild young cattle. They probably were, if they came from there.

RT: I wondered if you might have had more sympathy for Scotland, since you have been living here so long, even though you are English originally?

MS: It never occurred to me. I wish that I could remember the book more clearly, because then I could perhaps remember where my attitude towards Gawain sprang from. Yet although The Wicked Day is the most recent of my Arthurian books, I remember it the least. I think that it's because Merlin was me; or rather that I was much more involved in his story than I was in Mordred's. Also The Wicked Day is told in the third person, not the first, and I've never done that before, except once, in one of the very early books, and it didn't work.

RT: Did you find it created narrative problems for you?

MS: Not really. It was the second book I wrote, although it was actually published third, and I simply did it in the third person because it was a different technical approach. I didn't like it, and so I went back to the first-person narrative. I stuck with that from then on, until Mordred. Somehow or other, that story had to be told in the third person, perhaps because Merlin was still the chief Arthurian figure in my mind.
   One of the bits I like best in my entire Arthurian saga takes place in the wood, when the Old Ones catch Merlin and he lights the bonfire for them. I don't know why I like that bit. I also like the bit where he and his horse take shelter in a stone structure. That was Arthur's O'en in Stirlingshire, and it has since disappeared. There is, however, at Penicuik House near Edinburgh, a reproduction of it rebuilt among the stables.

RT: Did you make other use of legends attached to places?

MS: Yes. At Little Doward Hill near Monmouth, Ambrosius is supposed to have burned Vortigern's fortress. I went up the hill with the chap who owned it, and I said, I want them to go up here. He said, oh yes, that's always been called Roman's Way. This I learned after I'd already written it that way.

RT: You find, then, that the traditions coincide with your invention?

MS: Yes, the traditions probably recall reality. It's like Schliemann and Troy, in a way. I'm sure that an old tradition with lots of legends around it has a very sound basis in truth. The idea of Arthur galloping about in plate armour is a piece of nonsense, but I'm sure he existed.

RT: Why did you decide that Merlin's powers should wane as he grows older? This is something that nobody else has suggested.

MS: If I remember correctly, they wane as he develops feelings of love for Nimue. Also in The Crystal Cave Merlin as narrator recalls the greater powers that he wielded when young. I stuck myself with that in the later books, but it did feel right. Merlin was, one gathers, either sexually impotent, or unwilling to use his physical powers. After his encounter with that first girl, he didn't fall for anybody else until Nimue came along. I even leave it open as to whether he and Nimue actually slept together. I never say so. It is an old idea that celibacy increases mental or spiritual power.

RT: In the course of your research, did you come across the tradition about the wild man in the woods?

MS: Yes. I used that legend of Lailoken in The Last Enchantment, where Merlin drank the poison prepared by Morgause.

RT: Another person whom you treat severely is Morgause. Often the incest is seen as unintentional: in Malory, for example. they are unaware of their relationship when they sleep together.

MS: Yes. She plays the villainous role often given to her sister, Morgan le Fay, but I don't remember why I inverted their roles.

RT: Did you have any particular source for the figure of Guinevere?

MS: As I said in the "Author's Note" to The Last Enchantment, I was influenced by Chaucer's treatment of Criseyde, another example of a faithless woman. Chaucer tells us that she was very nervous and afraid, and that she was easily led. I put a little of her into my Guinevere. Don't forget, though, what a dreadful life those medieval women must have led, shut up in those ghastly castles while the men were away having fun. Nothing to do but your embroidery, and play at ball in the garden.

RT: Is there anything further you wish to say in conclusion?

MS: Well, no, but I'm sure there's a lot more I could say, if I could only remember more clearly what I wrote. It was a long time ago, however.

RT: Thank you.