Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave

marystewart-thecrystalcaveFifth century Britain is a country in chaos, torn with conflicting beliefs and allegiances after the Roman withdrawal.

The illegitimate son of the Princess of South Wales, Merlin becomes aware at an early age of his extraordinary natural gift – the Sight. Gradually gaining control of his powers and facing the dangers that his knowledge brings, Merlin the enchanter grows in strength. He emerges into manhood to take his dramatic part in the New Beginning – the coming of King Arthur.

The body of Arthurian myths has been a staple of fantasy, since the genre’s earliest beginnings. Everyone has read at least one Arthurian book or seen Disney’s Sword in the Stone and some of the genre’s best known tropes can be traced back to the legend of the once and future king. Stewart takes a novel approach to the Arthur legend, by focusing on Merlin. While not the first to do so, her Merlin trilogy, which was published from 1970 onwards, was the first modern story to have Merlin as its main character, though this has been done more often since. 

I liked the focus on Merlin as a youth. He is often portrayed as either a manipulative and unpleasant character or a wise, druidic sage. In this case he’s neither, but is very human which I enjoyed. Merlin is flawed; he’s young, somewhat proud and already displaying the mix of magic, maths skills, and logical thinking that will gain him his reputation later on. We also learn that much of his earlier visions are accidental and not really under his control. And in Stewart’s version of Arthur’s world Merlin isn’t a druid, the way he’s often depicted, but he’s a learned young man, taught by Romanised tutors and a mystic hermit called Galapas, who may or may not be a mage.

Merlin’s magic and world is quite interwoven with religion. The story is set before the complete Christianisation of Britain and there are remnants of the Roman soldiers’ worship of Mithras and the Britons’ druidic beliefs running through the narrative. Merlin quite early on in the novel formulates his ideas about there being only one god, that all the gods are the same entity. A theme that feels rather current given the fact that humanity is still fighting about which god is the greater every day. Despite this interweaving however, the book doesn’t feel like it is taken over by religious metaphors. Though one wonders how much the portrayal of women is influenced by early Christian teachings: the book is somewhat of a sausage fest with women relegated to the background and those women with an active part in the narrative are portrayed either as whores, saints, or both. The best example of the latter is Merlin’s mother, the Lady Niniane, who bears a son out of wedlock, protects the identity of her son’s father but not speaking of him ever, and who later comes to the faith and enters a nunnery, going from being a woman of loose morals to a holy sister. On the other end of the spectrum, there are Rowena, the Saxon Queen, Keridwen, Merlin’s childhood love, and Ygraine, the woman Uther would make queen. They are all portrayed as dangerous, either on a personal level or to the kingdom, and they are all shown as women breaking faith, with the Church, with their marital vows, and with common humanity, this latter is especially true of Rowena, who is portrayed as purely evil.

What I did appreciate was the emphasis on the Romanised nature of pre-Arthurian Britain. It acknowledges that after the Romans left the country didn’t just return to its ‘barbarian’ roots as if the lights of civilisation were switched off, but that people, especially powerful people, retain a veneer of Roman civic life. Stewart also mixes in historical figures such as Vortigern and Vortimer and the Saxon invasion that took place after the Romans left. Stewart creates such an intricate weaving of actual history and myth that at some points it gets hard to distinguish between the two.

I have a soft spot for Arthuriana, to the point of having taken a class on them at university. In my teens I went through a phase of reading everything Arthur I could get my hands and I’d read The Crystal Cave for the first time at that point as well. I remember adoring it completely then. I still enjoyed it now, but I didn’t find it as engrossing or as flawless as I did then. The question is whether this is because the story and writing didn’t age well or whether I am a more critical reader? I’d hope that the latter is certainly true, but I’m afraid that the former is also true. The Crystal Cave is a well-crafted narrative, a classic coming-of-age story, but for modern readers there might be too many hurdles to overcome to make for a pleasant reading experience.

This book was provided for review by the publisher as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.