The Crystal Cave

I first read the Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy (of which this is the first book) during my Arthurian phases back when I was in college (actually, it was right after Hubby and I got married; he came to the marriage with these, of which I had never heard of, but would have discovered eventually, I suppose). I remember being captivated, enthralled, entranced, charmed and totally engrossed by them. I haven’t picked them up in 15 years (now you know how long we’ve been married…) and I was wondering whether or not they stood the test of time.

I’m glad to say, they have. Or at least, this one has (since I haven’t read the other two, yet). Stewart takes the legend — from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain — which, from what her Author’s Note stays, is terrible history, but a really good story. But, she goes above and beyond the standard Arthur fare, to give us Merlin’s story. And that is precisely what I loved about it. The book begins when Merlin is six years old, bastard son of a Welsh princess (Niniane in this book). He doesn’t know whom his father is; his mother isn’t telling anyone. He lives an uncomfortable, if quiet, existence in his grandfather’s house. He discovers, when he’s about 11, a cave and a master, Galapas, and his gift for the Sight — for prophecy, for visions, for Seeing. From there, when his servant accidentally kills the king — and the future king is no friend of Merlin’s — escapes to Brittany and into the hands of Ambrosius and Uther, to learn, to grow, and to help Ambrosius become King of Britain. And then the standard Arthur legend picks up (with a lovely side trip with Merlin raising Stonehenge; I remembered liking that part from the first time, and I still do): Uther desires Ygraine, Merlin helps him, and thus Arthur is conceived.

The thing I really liked (both times) is the humanization of Merlin. He’s too often made mystical, super-human; a wizard, a Druid, a Mage. Here, he’s just a guy with a gift for a god to use as he will and someone with a lot of smarts. He’s a normal person, with wants and desires and hopes and fears (though he doesn’t fear death, because he’s seen his own death), and while he’s not really ambitious, he’s at least willing to support others’ ambitious. He cares for people — his servants, his friends — and he’s genuinely concerned about them, even when it seems he’s not.

The other thing is how very modern Merlin feels himself to be. It’s 500 AD, and yet Merlin’s way ahead of his time. (Which isn’t hard, considering how barbaric it was!) A lot of what is attributed to “magic”, Stewart explains with logic, chance, and good engineering. It’s quite refreshing.

Now, on to read the other two.

8 thoughts on “The Crystal Cave

  1. I read it years & years ago and don’t remember anything except I liked it. Maybe it’s time for a revisit.Interesting what you said about how the character of Merlin is often portrayed. In <>The Mists of Avalon<> he seems very human. And in the movie <>Camelot<> (shudder) he’s the comic relief. But other than that, I totally agree.And now I’m going to wrest <>His Majesty’s Dragon<> away from my husband. I turned my head for a second and look what happened! Thank you so much for the original recommendation 😛 which I obviously read at the time but totally forgot about. You were right to think of me; I’m loving it completely.


  2. This one sounds quite good! I’ve never read modern Arthurian adaptations (except for Mists of Avalon), but maybe it’s time to start 🙂


  3. I read this trilogy for the first time a few years ago. I really liked how, as you said, Merlin was portrayed as a normal man, whose actions and influences came to be seen as supernatural.


  4. I plan on reading these at some point this year for the Arthurian Challenge and I’m really looking forward to them – especially after your lovely review!


  5. I bought the entire trilogy at a book sale a few months ago (I only paid $6 total!) but still haven’t gotten around to reading them. I’m really looking forward to reading and reviewing them now that I’ve read your take on them. 🙂


  6. This sounds like a great trilogy! I love Arthurian books, and you have definitely caught my interest with your description of the portrayal of Merlin. Out of all of them, I feel like I know him the least.


  7. I really loved this series when I first read them as a young teenager and hope to read them again in the future. It’s interesting that lots of other series based on the Arthurian myths use her version of events as their story basis. I hope you enjoy the other two as much. I did read The Wicked Day which was tacked on at the end of the original three books about Mordred but wasn’t as impressed.


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