The Crystal Cave
By Mary Stewart
William Morrow and Company, Inc.
I have a soft spot for any book that features King Arthur as a character or even, as in the case of The Crystal Cave, as a future character. This story here is all about Merlin, the sorcerer, prophet, and friend of the future High King of Britain.
We meet Merlin as a child. And, while he may be young, he understands enough about the world around him to know that survival skills will be necessary for him. He’s small and fighting doesn’t suite him, but being a bastard child with a family that would be ready to call his life forfeit at any time, he finds ways to garner information, and knowledge, that will keep him safe. His mother, a daughter of a local lord, has steadfastly refused to tell anyone the name of Merlin’s father. It’s caused her constant grief but she has remained true to the story of Merlin’s conception and birth that she has always told — he is the child of the Dark Prince, a spirit neither human nor ghost that roams freely in the world. It is this story that keeps him alive as a child and as an adult.
Growing up, Merlin does his best to take in every ounce of knowledge he can find, devouring books, and learning secrets from a close friend who lives outside of regular society. This friend and teacher shows Merlin things he never thought possible and opens a new world to him that includes magic. When the small village he lives is in attacked, Merlin makes his escape and finds himself in Less Britain at the feet of a man he never thought he would meet — his father. Ambrosuis, the man planning to conquer and rule the British has known of his existence but for his own sake has left Merlin be. With the help of his father, Merlin rises to great heights and becomes known throughout the country as the greatest magician and prophet known to man.
This was a nice change of pace in my Arthurian legend reading. Usually the stories are focused solely on Arthur but to be taken in to the world in Merlin is fantastic. He is a character that changes so easily with each story — in some he is all magic, in others more human. This one tended toward the more human, rational, and knowledge based Merlin. There is some magic, or the talk of magic, but even Merlin finds he has trouble believing what is said about him and his works.
Stewart is a wonderful writer. I was taken in right from the beginning and found moments where I had to pry myself away from the book. I don’t want to say this book isn’t full of action because in many ways it is, but it’s a different action. Following the life of one person instead of everyone in it, makes for a more intriguing story. While the action takes places around Merlin, he stays fixed and for some reason that made his story more compelling for me.
This book was originally published in the 70s and there is an entire series that I now get to work my way through. It’s a complex tale, and even though it’s one I’m familiar with, I’m looking forward to this series. Her first book was so rich in detail and the story telling wonderful that I plan to track down the rest of the series. It may be a while before I get to these books though. I’ve read a lot of Arthurian books this year and I think it might be time for a break so I don’t tire of the story. This one is a good book to end on for a few months.