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The Crystal Cave: Book One of the Arthurian Saga    by Mary Stewart order for
Crystal Cave
by Mary Stewart
Order:  USA  Can
Eos, 2003 (1970)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Mary Stewart is best known for excellent romantic thrillers like The Moonspinners, but she also wrote an Arthurian Saga, by comparison to which all others pale. I still remember the excitement of first reading it in 1970, and can't wait now to introduce it to my own teenage sons. It begins with The Crystal Cave.

As the story opens an old man remembers past events and a younger Merlin. He tells us that 'the recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured.' His Sight shows him a tryst in a cave between a Romeo and Juliet couple, the eighteen-year-old king's son and a Welsh princess. The result was a black haired, black eyed, bastard child - Myrddin Emrys (Merlin) rumored to be the devil's whelp.

Though Merlin idolizes his uncle Camlach - the first, aside from his mother, to show him affection - Camlach tries to poison his six-year-old nephew, foiled by the boy's ability to See the rotten core of the golden apricot he offers. At the age of seven Merlin finds a mentor, Galapas, at the cave where his parents met. Galapas teaches the child medicine, map-making and magic. And he introduces Merlin to the crystal cave, where the boy sees visions and feels like a 'whistle for the winds'.

Merlin heeds Galapas' warning that 'the gods only go with you ... if you put yourself in their path' and presses to accompany his grandfather to a meeting with High King Vortigern. Is it serendipity or the will of the gods that sends him to explore an old mine adit? Then his grandfather's death puts Merlin at risk again from his uncle's ambitions. He flees Maridunum, is kidnapped by spies, and eventually, 'in the god's path', finds his father, Ambrosius.

Ambrosius encourages Merlin to seek knowledge and Power where he can find it. He learns of Mithras from his father and of the Goddess worship from his tutor Belasius, saying that 'there's nothing in this world that I'm not ready to see and learn'. The reader sees Merlin's character mirrored in his treatment of his servants - Cerdic the Saxon, for whom he makes a funeral pyre, and the loyal Cadal, who becomes his friend.

What I have always loved about this story is the manner in which Mary Stewart weaves legend, magic and the politics of the time into a tapestry, to make a clear pattern. For example, when Merlin and his mother are taken before the superstitious Vortigern, Niniane hides his true identity with a story of a demon lover, and Merlin then uses the knowledge gleaned from his early curiosity about the mine adit, to prophesy the downfall of the 'white dragon of the Saxons' in opposition to 'the red dragon of Ambrosius'; all part of the Merlin myth.

Merlin makes himself useful to his father as a prophet and physician, an engineer and a singer. On Ambrosius' death, he builds him a monument at the Giants' Dance (Stonehenge) and retreats to his crystal cave, for 'the god does not speak to those who have no time to listen.' When his uncle Uther demands his help, Merlin arranges, at high personal cost, for the begetting of Arthur ... 'a King will come out of this night's work whose name will be a shield and buckler to men until this fair land, from sea to sea, is smashed down into the sea that holds it, and men leave earth to live among the stars.'

I've read The Crystal Cave many times and expect to do so many more. The series is one of the greats of historical fantasy, and I'm delighted to see it released again. Now if only someone would have the sense to make a movie that is true to the magic of this saga. If done well, it would be up there with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

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