|Title: The Crystal Cave|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: William & Morrow
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Almost everyone knows Merlin as the dark, brooding figure mysteriously associated with Camelot and King Arthur’s court.
But who, really, was Merlin? Was he the enchanter of fairy tales, the magician of the black robe and pointed hat and wand? Or was he the king and prophet of old legends of Brittany and Wales? How did a man reputed to be the bastard son of the Prince of Darkness, and condemned to death as a child of the Devil, become the chief architect of the first united Britain?
Mary Stewart’s answers to these provocative questions form a spell-binding novel that catapults the reader into fifth-century Britain—a land uncertainly divided by conflicting loyalties, political and spiritual; a land riddled with rumor real and planted, and spear-alert with superstitious fear.
Into this strange world was born Merlin, bastard son of Niniane, daughter of the King of South Wales, and an unknown father. The novel opens in Wales when Merlin is seven, and closes in Cornwall, at Tintagel, with the begetting of Arthur.
My aunt and uncle were moving to a smaller place and my uncle gave me his copies of Mary Stewart's Arthurian books. I mentioned it to Story, who suggested the joint project we are on now.
OK, so this book is a chronicle of the early years of Merlin, as stated in the description. It is widely considered a classic of Arthurian retelling and is the first in a series of five that relate the entire Arthurian saga from the childhood of Merlin to the fall of Camelot (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, The Prince and the Pilgrim). The first three books are the story of Merlin, told in his own words.
There are two major twists on the “accepted” view of Merlin in The Crystal Cave:
1. He is not actually a magician. Merlin has The Sight, and because both his parents have it he got a double dose of its power. He therefore sees things before they happen, knows things that are happening a long distance away, and occasionally has powerful prophetic visions. This gives him a major advantage over other people because it makes him appear fearless (he knows his powers will warn him when it’s his time to die and therefore he isn’t afraid to do dangerous stuff) and always in control of any situation. The only hint he might have other powers is the briefly mentioned ability to light fire with his mind, but this power doesn’t come into play much. This twist makes things like raising Stonehenge and sneaking Uther into Tintagel all the more interesting because they’re done with engineering and trickery, not magic power. Merlin plays up the reputation he gains as a “magician” to its fullest, however, in order to manipulate events to his advantage. He never denies he is a seer, but very few people know how limited his power really is.
2. Merlin is the secret son of Ambrosius (though he and his mother maintain the fiction that he was conceived by a demon in order to keep people from using him against his very mortal father). Ambrosius is the first King of All Britian, Uther’s brother. This makes Merlin Arthur’s first cousin. Mind-blowing, right?
Merlin (aka Myrddin Emrys or Merlinus) is born to the daughter of the King of South Wales and for most of his early years nobody quite knows how to treat him. Royal bastards seem to inhabit this weird unarticulated status where they are treated with lots of respect and can even inherit if there are no legitimate brothers or uncles, and nobody really objects to them except the Christian priests, but at the same time they’re still of lesser status. However, since Merlin’s father is a complete unknown people alternately fear and look down on him because the rumor is his father was a demon of some kind. His mother is very religious and takes little notice of him so he pretty much has the run of the whole castle, and later, the whole countryside. He dodges bullying and a murder attempt by use of his wits and his burgeoning Sight. He is tutored in the use of his power by Galapas, denizen of the titular crystal cave that eventually becomes Merlin’s own home. All during this time there are constant rumors of rebellion against the current usurping High King, Vortigern. This covers Merlin’s seventh through twelfth years and is pretty dull. It’s all just 100 pages of setup for the rest of the book.
Merlin’s grandfather dies when Merlin is twelve, and Merlin is forced to flee. Already skilled at manipulation, he fakes his own death, but is captured by spies and taken to Brittany (France). There he becomes a member of Ambrosius and Uther’s household as they plot to invade England and retake the High King’s throne from Vortigern. Merlin abruptly discovers he is Ambrosius’ son, the result of a brief foray into Wales. If you know that Emrys is the Welsh version of Ambrosius you probably would see it coming, otherwise it sort of pops up out of nowhere. Because of his new favored status, Merlin is given his own tutor, who turns out to be a Druid high priest. Merlin accidentally stumbles on a forbidden Druid ritual led by this tutor while out riding one day. Lots of threats are issued and Merlin promises to be trained as a Druid, but nothing really comes out of this except (I guess) the idea that Merlin has ties to the Druids. Merlin piddles around learning from this tutor and Ambrosius’ chief engineer for five years until Ambrosius and Uther are ready to invade Britain, another 100 pages of setup that is only mildly more interesting than Merlin’s childhood.
The action finally begins. Merlin returns to Wales, and from here proceeds the more familiar story about Merlin as a young man: how Merlin is captured by Vortigern’s men, who are looking for a child “who never had a father” to sacrifice so that Vortigern’s new fortress will stand. Merlin manages to talk his way out of being sacrificed by convincing the superstitious Vortigern that two dragons are hatching beneath his tower. Yet another example of Merlin worming his way out of a bad situation by use of his wits and what prophetic power he does possess. There are no actual dragons (to my disappointment); Merlin’s prophecy about them refers to the battle that is about to take place between Vortigern and Ambrosius. Long story short, Ambrosius wins and is crowned King. This feels inevitable not only because it’s part of the legend but also because Merlin is so certain it’s going to happen that it’s basically a foregone conclusion.
Merlin journeys to Ireland to pick up a piece of Stonehenge, which he’s determined to rebuild, and while he’s gone Ambrosius dies. Uther becomes King, and once Stonehenge is completed Ambrosius is buried there. Merlin attends Uther’s coronation, where he learns that Uther has become obsessed with Duchess Ygraine of Cornwall. Merlin agrees to help Uther sleep with Ygraine, with all three of them knowing full well (thanks to Merlin’s amazing FutureSight) that a child will result. The final portion of the book felt sort of like a medieval Mission: Impossible with all kinds of deception and even an exciting fight scene in order to keep Uther from being killed with his pants down (why, I’m not sure; Merlin states that once Uther and Ygraine have had sex he could care less what happens to Uther). Disappointing that the main goal isn’t some high-security government secret, it’s just sneaking somebody in to sleep with another guy’s wife. Anyway, the book wraps up with Gorlois’ death and Uther swearing he’ll never speak to Merlin again because he could have married Ygraine and slept with her legitimately if he’d only counseled Uther to wait one more night, but now they can never marry because people will think Uther murdered Gorlois. Because it’s totally Merlin’s fault Uther had to have Ygraine right now and not tomorrow. Merlin just smirks because he knows that this way he gets to raise Arthur himself (since Uther now refuses to acknowledge the child he just begot) and it all worked out to Merlin’s advantage in the end. The book ends with a reassurance that all this was for a good cause because Arthur will be The Once and Future King.
Merlin: The manipulative behind-the-scenes guy we all know and love (definitely not the sweetheart from the BBC TV show). He’s also an engineering genius, which is how he accomplishes several of his feats that have often been attributed to magic. Hard to like but also hard to dislike. He never does anything evil, but at the same time is kind of annoying for being so smug all the time. Lots of insinuations throughout the book from other characters that he’s gay, but he himself claims that he’s so caught up in work that he has no time for girls. He has one abortive attempt at losing his virginity that ends when he has a vision of the same girl sleeping with Uther which later comes true. I can’t figure out why this is a factor since Uther goes through women like socks, but apparently it’s important. I assume Merlin is actually straight since I know he gets seduced by Vivian later in the series, but at this point it’s hard to know. I can definitely see where T.A. Barron got his influences for his version of young Merlin: a guy brought down by his own arrogance and sense of superiority.
Niniane: Follows the classic portrayal of Merlin’s mother, a saintly Christian woman who supposedly has a child with a demon and sticks to that story. Though for the most part she is quiet and stays in the background, she does possess an iron will. She never gives up the name of Merlin’s true father no matter how she is pressured, and she refuses to marry despite her father’s wishes.
Ambrosius: An awesome guy and a great leader both on and off the battlefield. Merlin hero-worships him even before he finds out he’s his father. Ambrosius meets Niniane when he is wounded in Wales. She nurses him back to health, and since they both have The Sight to some extent they know that their brief tryst is destiny and will result in a child. He is buried at Stonehenge.
Uther: Portrayed as an excellent general and an all right High King, but completely ruled by his need to have sex with every woman he sees. Also a total jerk. His relationship with Ygraine was, to me, a combination of David and Bathsheba from the Bible and the movie Hitch. Let me explain. Like David and Bathsheba, Uther and Ygraine fall in love despite the fact that she’s already married and her husband is in Uther’s army, and they plot to make Gorlois think the resulting child is his. When that doesn’t work, Gorlois has to die, though Stewart cleverly makes it somehow Gorlois’ own stupid fault rather than having Uther have any active hand in his demise the way David does with Bathsheba’s husband. In Hitch there is a little segment where one of Hitch’s potential clients has all kinds of drama wanting this woman who is resisting him, but all he really wants is a one-night stand to “clear his head” and then he’ll get on with life. I felt like this pretty much characterizes the Uther/Ygraine thing.
Ygraine: Not in the book much. Stewart cleverly skirts around any suggestion of Uther raping Ygraine by making Ygraine complicit in the whole thing and as obsessed with Uther as he is with her. There may be some ambition in her motives as well; it’s hinted she is resisting Uther’s advances because she wants to be Queen.
The first 200 pages were tough to get through. The rest was more exciting but still not gripping until the very end when Arthur is being conceived. Merlin isn’t portrayed as all-powerful, which is a good thing, but he’s still hard to like because the older he gets the more he acts like he’s all-powerful. Three stars.