Book Review: The Crystal Cave

Finding someone who hasn’t heard of King Arthur is a tough task. That legendary British King has spawned a myriad of movies, cartoons, and books. The majestic monarch even has a brand of flour named after him. The fame spreads beyond just Arthur, as well. Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere are all familiar names. There is one other name that’s equal parts famous and mysterious: the magician Merlin.

As important as he is to The Arthurian Legends, it’s amazing how shrouded in mystery he remains. The Crystal Cave brings a brightly burning torch to bear on him. Mary Stewart’s book was written back in 1970 but I only recently stumbled across it in the basement of my mother-in-law. It does a great job at trying to tell Merlin’s story. She faced the same challenge as all those writing about King Arthur: namely trying to cleave fact from fiction. It’s widely accepted that there was, indeed, a person upon which the legendary King Arthur was based. So, too, is Merlin based on a person…or persons. Perhaps it’s easier to trace legends back to a mere King than it is to find out the truth behind a strange magician. And that’s where Stewart excels.

Son of a princess and a bastard, his unknown father sets the stage the believably for his inhuman powers. Yet there’s no chanting or spell casting from this Merlin. While he does seem to have moments of precognition, most of his skills are of the engineering or medicine ilk. It’s not a stretch to say that to the inhabitants of 5th century England such skills can seem like a kind of magic. If it wasn’t for a few prophesies, the entire book could be seen as the story of a simply smart young lad. More than once Merlin says he is but a conduit for a god. He can’t will himself to see the future, it happens when the god wants him to see something. Taken in this light, the reader is challenged to rethink what magic is.

The first prophesy is concerning Ambrosius, a Romanized Englishman that’s fighting to become a king of England, a desire that many people share. So much so that there are many self-styled kings at any given time. Merlin falls in with him and his brother, Uther. Merlin pays his way through the campaign by helping build siege towers and treating the wounded. Nothing magical about it. In the final third of the book Ambrosius dies and Uther is crowned. He falls in love with the wife of one his generals and asks Merlin to help. Even though he’s an incorrigible ladies man, this time is different. Merlin’s last prophesy is that of a king that will unit all of Britain: Arthur.

Honestly, I kept hoping that Arthur would show up. While I do thoroughly enjoy Merlin, a story about him without Arthur is like a story with Robin but not Batman, with Ernie but not Bert. Something just seemed to be missing. Perhaps, it’s unfair but that’s what I felt. It’s a good story and I love how Stewart didn’t focus on the magic in an effort to make it seem more historical. Had I never heard of Arthur, I would have enjoyed the tale more. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized it was but the first book in her Arthurian Saga. So if you’re interested in reading it, I arm you with that knowledge so that you may go into it knowing that it’s not meant as a standalone story but rather the first leg of a longer story.

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3 Responses to Book Review: The Crystal Cave

  1. Kevin says:

    I take issue with your comparison of a story about Merlin without Arthur to a story about Ernie without Bert. The latter is a far more serious problem. There are whole sections of Le Morte d’Arthur without Arthur that pack plenty of narrative punch: the story of Tristan and Iseult, the story of Sir Gareth of Orkney…try imagining an Ernie and Bert Sesame Street segment without Bert…simply a non-starter.

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