Sunday, September 22, 2013

Merlin in his crystal cave

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

I decided to finish Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week with my favorite of her novels, the first that I read, probably 30 years ago now, and one I have re-read countless times.  It is also the first in her Merlin trilogy, which itself is part of a larger series of five books centered around King Arthur (the last two of which I still have to read).

This book introduces us to Merlin Emrys, growing up in the household of his grandfather, the King of South Wales, in the mid-5th century. He tells us his own story, beginning with an uneasy and unhappy childhood.  He is a bastard, the child of the King's daughter Niniane.  For six years, facing her father's rage, she has steadfastly refused either to reveal the name of her child's father, or to marry anyone else to give him a name.  It doesn't help that Merlin is a strange child, black of hair and eye in a ruddy household, who sees more than he should, and not just with those dark eyes. His grandfather despises his awkwardness and seeming weakness as much as his bastard's place.  The King needs strong men in the uncertain times in which they live.  Vortigern, the High King, has called in Saxon mercenaries to help him hold his throne, but they are deeply resented for their brutality.  Meanwhile, there are constant rumors of troops massing in Brittany, across the Narrow Sea.  There Ambrosius and his brother Uther fled, after their brother King Constantius died, some say by Vortigern's hand.

When Merlin is 8 or so, he rides out one day on his pony, and in the hills that lie around his home, he finds a cave.  Inside that cave is a smaller one, lined with crystals, in the blinding light of which he sees visions.  The cave's guardian, Galapas, begins to teach him how to use the power that is in him, to put himself in the path of the god who sends the visions and who will guide him.  Four years later, his god takes him across the sea to Less Britain and drops him at the feet of Ambrosius.  There Merlin finds a place, and work to do, which will eventually bring him back to Britain, and to the crystal cave.

It is hard for me to write objectively about this book, I love it so much.  Reading it this time, I meant to compare it with Mary Stewart's more modern suspense novels that I have been discovering, but from the first page I was as always completely caught up in the story.  This is one of those books where simply turning to the first page opens up the world of the story, and I don't feel that I am reading it so much as falling into it, watching the people and events pass before my eyes - like Merlin in his cave.  Stepping back a little now that I have finished it, I can see that it shares with her other books a compelling and sympathetic narrator, one of those neglected small boys in peril who feature in books like Nine Coaches Waiting or Madam, Will You Talk? Here the story is his, and it is exciting to watch him cope, find his own his way, grow into the power that is within him.  He shares his story with some equally compelling characters, such as Ambrosius himself (on whom I have had a slight literary crush), and his servant Cadal, the unsung hero of this book.  Like all of Mary Stewart's books, this also has her vivid descriptions of place, especially Merlin's beloved Wales.

In an Author's Note at the end of the book, Mary Stewart makes it clear that this book "is not a work of scholarship, and can obviously make no claim to be serious history."  I think though that it works very well as alternative history, a vivid portrait of life as it might have been in post-Roman Britain.  After all, Vortigern did invite his Saxon allies into Britain, and Ambrosius Aurelius is mentioned in Venerable Bede's A History of the English Church and PeopleStewart says that one reason serious historians will dismiss her book is that its main source is Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, which from her description has gone straight on my reading list:
Geoffrey's name is, to serious historians, mud.  From his Oxford study n the twelfth century he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of "history" from the Trojan War (where Brutus "the King of the Britons" fought) to the seventh century A.D., arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short on facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of the whole cloth.  Historically speaking, the Historia Regum Brittaniae is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff, and has been a source and inspiration for the great cycle of tales called the Matter of Britain, from Malory's Morte d'Arthur to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, from Parsifal to Camelot.
Spending time with Merlin was for me the perfect end to a week devoted to Mary Stewart's books.  Thanks again to Anbolyn for hosting this!


  1. I love this book, but I haven't read it in years! It's so cool that you found connections between this book and Mary Stewart's non-Merlin books. It really makes me think I need to go back and reread the whole Merlin trilogy.

  2. I've never read any novel that tells the Arthur/Merlin story, but if I ever did than this would be the one! I do plan on reading it one day (after I've read all of Stewart's suspense novels) and it sounds really wonderful. I would read anything that Stewart has written because I love her style and her descriptive passages. I'm glad you ended your week on a high note - thanks again for reading along!

  3. elizabeth, I'll definitely be reading the other two books! I'm not sure I've actually read The Last Enchantment - I have this vague memory of thinking it too sad.

    Anbolyn, I'm a bit biased, but I think you shouldn't wait til you finish the modern ones :) It has been such a fun week!

  4. Because it's by Mary Stewart I did think about this one as a reading option, but I've just never got on with Arthurian themed books. That's sort of pathetic, I know, especially as there are so many enthusiastic fans out there. I like your point about the theme of imperiled children - she has such a sympathetic eye for the (semi-)abandoned child.

  5. Like Anbolyn, I was planning to read these after I finish working through the suspense novels, but you've made me think it might be a mistake to wait that long!

  6. I don't normally read books about King Arthur, as they usually end up with fights with dragons or trolls, which are not my cup of tea, but you have made this one sound very interesting, and I shall certainly add it to my reading list!

    Have you read the classic The Sword in the Stone by TH White? The Disney film was based on this, but I remember it as another enjoyable book about the realities of life in 5th century England rather than a fantasy story.

  7. I really wanted to reread this one too but don't have my copy to hand, I'm rereading The Hollow Hills at the moment and enjoying it as much as when it was first published. I also recommend T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone.

  8. vicki, I much prefer Merlin's story to Arthur's, at least here. And this book is Merlin's, Arthur only appears prophetically, so to speak.

    Helen, you could at least try this one - and then intersperse them with the suspense novels :)

    Michelle Ann, I did read The Sword in the Stone, probably about the same time I first read these, and I remember liking it, but I've never re-read it. I've only seen clips from the film - I do remember an owl playing a big part!

    Katrina, I remember you had trouble finding your copy. I have The Hollow Hills all lined up. It's been a long time since I read it last.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!