The Crystal Cave


by Mary Stewart

published 1970

So this is book one of four in the “Arthurian Saga.”  However, The Crystal Cave isn’t really about Arthur at all – it’s entirely about Merlin.  We start with Merlin as a young boy, and watch him grow to adulthood throughout this engaging story.

First off, this book is set in Wales.  I’ve always been intrigued by/wanted to visit Wales, mostly because of the names.  Who can’t be drawn to a place where people are named things like Myriddn Emrys?  I love the way that anything in Welsh immediately sounds magical.

The story itself was quite good.  I’m no expert on Arthur, and haven’t read very many different versions of the legends surrounding him.  The exception is Gerald Morris’s series (beginning with A Squire’s Tale), which are some of my very favorite books (even though I haven’t read/reviewed them since I started blogging).  The point is, I really had no idea how Merlin’s story was going to unfold, and still have no real idea how things are going to continue on in the next three books.  I am coming to the series without a lot of preconceived ideas as to how a Arthurian legend should read, so I’m not going to be able to tell you how “accurate” (is that a word for how well a fictional book follows a legendary account?) the story is.

This was a pretty serious book.  Part of the reason I read more YA fantasy than adult is that frequently adult fantasy seems to have completely lost its sense of humor and is instead very grim and intense.  This book is alright in that area…  while definitely not funny, it doesn’t unnecessarily dwell at length on depressing themes.

The story is told in first person by Merlin himself, and he is telling this story as a very old man looking back on his life.  This adds a personable touch to the story, but because Merlin is also a magician who is gifted with the Sight, he is able to tell us about other parts of the story, even if he wasn’t there in person to see it happen.  This keeps the story well-paced and engaging, as Merlin tells what is happening even when he’s doing relatively boring or mundane things at the time himself.

There’s a lot going on, and there are a lot of characters to track, but Stewart, overall, does a good job of keeping people straight and finding natural ways to remind her readers of who somebody is if we haven’t heard from him in a while.

I definitely enjoyed this story and found it engaging, and am planning to finish the series.  However, I will say that at times the story can be a bit dark.  These are definitely adult books, with topics like adultery, whether a demon can father a child, war, betrayal, murder, magic, dark arts, and more.

My problem with these stories is the problem I have with really the Arthurian legend as a whole – Merlin is a bit too much like a god for my comfort.  In these stories, particularly, Merlin believes himself to be called by God, but decides throughout the course of this book that all the gods are actually one god, and any good or worship wrought in a “good” way is service to God, while any evil or worship in a “bad” way (e.g., human sacrifice as one religion practices in the book), is service to the devil.  This is not necessarily bothersome to me as a reader, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable recommending the books, as my personal religious views are obviously quite a bit different than Merlin’s!  :-D

Overall, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.  While this book was a bit heavy at times, the story still moved well, and I am interested to read about the arrival of Arthur at the beginning of book two.

PS I’m not sure if Arthurian legend books should be categorized as historical fiction??  Any thoughts??