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Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave

September 28, 2011

119. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
The Merlin Novels, Book 1

Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy inasmuch as Arthuriana is considered fantasy.

Started: 10 September 2011
Finished: 14 September 2011

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? I’d just discovered the joys of the library booksale, I recently read Mists of Avalon and was on an Arthuriana kick, and they had all three books in the trilogy.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 October 2006.

Merlin’s secretly
sad because he’ll never have
a surprise party.

Summary: In most tellings of Arthurian legend, Merlin enters the story already an old man, but in Mary Stewart’s version, he starts as a small boy. He’s the bastard grandson of a Welsh king: his mother, the princess, won’t tell anyone who his father is, leaving most of the palace to believe that he was fathered by the Devil. He’s a quiet and intelligent child, not at all the future soldier that his grandfather might wish, and he’s strange, beside, often knowing things he has no way of knowing. But it is only when his grandfather dies, and Merlin must flee his home ahead of his uncle’s jealous lust for power, that he can begin to understand who he truly is, and what destiny his Sight is preparing him for.

Review: I generally enjoy retellings of all stripes, but I particularly enjoy those that take take the story out of the hands of the nominal hero/heroine, and give a secondary character the starring role. So, since I’m not yet burnt out on Arthurian legend retellings, I very much liked the idea of getting Merlin’s backstory and his point-of-view, of putting his role in Arthur’s story into a new perspective.

For the most part, The Crystal Cave delivered exactly that. It primarily focuses on the generation and a half before Arthur – this book ends with the events surrounding Arthur’s conception – but there were plenty of hints about what’s to come, and links to the familiar parts of the story. It also did a good job of giving Merlin a credible backstory, and turning him into a person, rather than a cryptic old magician.

But the book itself was somewhat uneven. The early parts I quite enjoyed; Merlin’s a personable narrator when he’s young, and the plot was interesting and moved at a good clip. By the later stages of the book, however, a lot of time was being spent talking about battles (which has to be done just so if I’m not going to tune them out), and Merlin himself has become less personable, and more know-it-all-y and self-satisfied. (In his defense, he’s got the Gift of Sight; he pretty much does know it all. But that still doesn’t mean you have to act like it.)

I did think the book did a credible job of depicting Britain at the time, particularly in bringing out the Roman influences that lingered, both in architecture and in thought. I was sort of disappointed that the religious aspects of the story weren’t played up more. The clash of the old and new religions is one of the aspects of Arthurian legend, and The Crystal Cave introduced a third player: Mithraism, imported by Roman soldiers and since driven underground. It was certainly talked about, and important to the plot, but I felt like it could have been a more substantial discussion than it was. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Overall, it was pretty good, even if it didn’t exactly blow my mind or leave me dying to dive into the sequels. Plus, as far as modern Arthurian tellings go, it’s one of the classics. (And I liked it *way* better than The Once and Future King.)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Avid Reader’s Musings, Confessions of a Book Addict, Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 73: ““What of it?” asked Cerdic. “That’s an old mine adit, by the look of it.”” – a nearly horizontal passage leading into a mine.
    .
  • p. 107: “Then I saw, just beyond the torchlight’s reach, the low black shape of a building that must be a cattle shed or shippon, some twenty paces away and at the corner of a field surrounded by low banks crowned with thorn bushes.” – a cow barn or cattle shed.
    .
  • p. 148: “I saw, then, that what I had taken to be banks of mist in the shadow of the cromlechs were groups of motionless figures also robed in white.” – a megalithic chamber tomb.
    .
  • p. 214: “This promontory jutted out from a circle of rocky hills which provided in their shelter a natural corrie where horses could graze and where beasts could be driven in and guarded.” – a circular hollow in the side of a hill or mountain.
    .
  • p. 293: “These tenons and sockets had been fashioned by men, craftsmen such as I had watched almost daily for the last few years, in Less Britain, then in York, London, Winchester.” – a projection formed on the end of a timber or the like for insertion into a mortise of the same dimensions.
    .

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2011 10:27 am

    I really want to read this. I bought it after reading Mists of Avalon, too, and still haven’t read them. There are actually 4 books, though, I think?

    • September 28, 2011 10:34 am

      Kailana – There are four Arthur books, and I actually have all 4, but I think the first three are Merlin-centric and the fourth one is not? I’m not entirely sure; I’ll have to check.

  2. September 28, 2011 10:54 am

    “I generally enjoy retellings of all stripes, but I particularly enjoy those that take take the story out of the hands of the nominal hero/heroine, and give a secondary character the starring role.” Me, too! In fact, I think those are my favorite retellings. I particularly enjoy the stories retold by the villains :)

    • October 4, 2011 1:55 pm

      Emily – I do like villain POVs. Hard to say who’s the villian in Arthurian legend, though, since that is as dependent on the retelling as anything else. I’ve read a few with Mordred as the baddie, but just as many where he’s a good guy caught up in events the same as everyone else.

  3. September 28, 2011 4:28 pm

    So I loved The Once And Future King and if you didn’t like that but enjoyed the Crystal Cave, my logic says that I’ll really enjoy the Crystal Cave.

    Also MERLIN FTW!!

    • October 4, 2011 1:55 pm

      April – I hope your logic is right! If you’re a Merlin fan, you should have a good time with these.

  4. September 28, 2011 5:01 pm

    I loved this book in high school. I think it was mostly because everything awesome that Merlin ever did in the book tended to be done with science rather than magic.

    • October 4, 2011 1:56 pm

      Grace – That’s true, and a very good point. I thought the Stonehenge parts in particular were neat.

  5. September 28, 2011 8:06 pm

    You didn’t like The Once and Future King? My God, you’re the only other person I’ve met who doesn’t like it either! I loathed it.

    • October 4, 2011 1:57 pm

      Omni – I thought the first part (with Merlin and young Arthur turning into animals) was okay, but the rest of it just dragged and dragged. I look at all of those “best fantasy novels ever” lists that put it near the top with a wary eye, now.

  6. September 28, 2011 9:22 pm

    I enjoyed this one. I read a lot of Arthurian legend and this was a refreshing take on the tale, mostly that it was told from Merlin’s perspective which you don’t see often. I recently returned the second book in the series to the library unread though, bad timing on my part and the library, in one of their strange fits, wouldn’t let me renew it. I plan to finish the series at some point though.

    • October 4, 2011 1:58 pm

      Amy – I’d like to get to the rest of the series soon – hopefully in the next few months – but I’m also not dying to dive in right away.

  7. September 29, 2011 12:08 pm

    Only thing better than a booksale? Finding an entire series intact at a booksale. Yay!

    • October 4, 2011 1:58 pm

      BiP – It doesn’t happen often, but it’s so great when it does!

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