The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart: A review

The Crystal Cave (Arthurian Saga, #1)The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had my Arthurian period like many readers. There was a time when I found the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin irresistible.

The period when I was most susceptible to these stories happened to coincide with the time of greatest popularity of the Lerner and Lowe musical adaptation of them, known as Camelot. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn't a coincidence. How I loved that musical!

At any rate, it had been a number of years since I paid a visit to Camelot, but when Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave was recommended to me, I was intrigued. In spite of the reading I had done concerning the legends, I had never read Stewart's work. Obviously, that was a serious oversight on my part.

Stewart was an excellent writer and she pulls together all the threads of the Merlin origination story and weaves them into a page turner of a tale.

Merlin was the bastard child of a Welsh princess. His mother never told him, or anyone, the name of his father. As a child, he lived with his mother at his grandfather's court, but he was an outcast, without status or friends.

As he got older, he enjoyed wandering the hills on his own and one day he found a strange cave and met the even stranger man who lived there, Galapas. Galapas was old and wise and had the gift of "seeing," as did Merlin although he hardly knew it at the time. Galapas became his teacher and he had other tutors as well who educated him in languages, math, and engineering as well as medicine and religion. And, of course, magic.

Perhaps Galapas' most important lesson for Merlin was this: "The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage." Merlin learns the truth of that and learns to be open to the gods and always put himself in their path.

The student grows in knowledge and power and, following the death of his grandfather and the ascension of a king who is even less kindly disposed toward him, he runs away from home and ends up on the shores of Less Britain which is under the control of the exiled king Ambrosius.

Ambrosius' brother is Uther, who will one day be known as Uther Pendragon and will father yet another bastard child who will be named Arthur and given into the care of Merlin. But all of that is still in the future.

In the meantime, Stewart shows us Ambrosius attempting to bring the peoples of Britain together under one king and the parts that Merlin and Uther play in his grand scheme.

Merlin's renown grows throughout the land until he is seen as a great wizard, able to see into the future and to affect how that future evolves.

The stories here are very well known and yet Stewart manages to make them seem fresh. She weaves together historical details and myth in a wonderful tapestry that finally reveals to us the whole colorful picture. Her writing is vividly descriptive and makes the reader feel as though she is there by Merlin's side as he works his "magic." Indeed, not just Merlin but all of the characters, including relatively minor ones, were well-developed and one felt empathy for them.

This book was published in 1970 and yet it did not feel dated. It was as timeless as Merlin himself, perhaps still sleeping somewhere in his crystal cave, waiting to be called by Arthur to wake and defend the beloved kingdom once again. 

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  1. I would like to read this book. I too had a Camelot phase. In college I even wrote a paper on Arthurian legend for a mythology class.

    1. How interesting! Then I think you probably would enjoy this book. It is actually the first in a series of four by Stewart treating Merlin and the Arthurian sage. And, yes, I do plan to read the other three!

    2. Curiously, last month I re-watched the movie Excalibur after a long time since I first watched it. I found it wanting. It looked more like a play than a movie, and not in a good way either.

    3. Strange how our perspectives on things can change over time, isn't it?

  2. I have never read Mary Stewart but know that she was a very well-respected novelist. Thanks for the reminder about her. This sounds interesting - I'm adding it to my reading list.

    1. I, too, had managed to overlook Stewart all these years. I'm glad I finally found her. She was a very good writer.

  3. I love Mary Stewart. I am reading her in the order of publication as I like to do. Itching to get to the Arthur books. My first foray into this legend was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I have read twice. Then I read the The Once and Future King series by T H White. Even as I get older, I am always fascinated by these tales!

    1. The Mists of Avalonwas a favorite of both of my daughters as they were growing up. I was fascinated by the T.H. White connection to H is for Hawk which I read recently, and that was sort of what led me back into the Arthurian legends and to Mary Stewart. I'm glad it did.


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