The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Publisher: Coronet Books
464 including Authors notes (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: The Merlin Trilogy #1, The Arthurian Saga #1


The Crystal Cave plunges the reader deep into Fifth Century Britain, a country in chaos and division after the Roman withdrawal, where minor kings plot and intrigue against each other in draughty fog-bound settlements.

This is Merlin’s world. The illegitimate son of a South Wales princess, his young life precariously in balance as the shifting tide of events wash over his homeland, he is aware at the earliest age of a great natural gift – the Sight.

Against a background of invasion and imprisonment, wars and conquest, we see his emergence into manhood equipped with learning and wisdom far in advance of his years and his time (which some call magic), and his dramatic role in the New Beginning – the coming of Arthur.

I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.

It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood,  he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.

The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why, he’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.

And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles  for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who the fuck it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults.

Eventually, the author’s note clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I fuck, I was hoping that they would be interesting characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge  section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid  – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.

Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s book and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.

All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.

I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother.


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