Review: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 11

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.  She based the series on Geoffrey of Manmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) – a work of now-debunked “scholarship” from the 12th Century.  In her Author’s note, Stewart makes it quite clear that she based her story on this text because it was, to her, the most interesting – and because she was not interested in creating a work of scholarship (thus, she did not need to take Geoffrey of Manmouth’s work entirely seriously).  This is an important note and certainly asserts the credibility of the author, scholarly text or not. Ultimately, this is a story of Merlin’s boyhood – and it outlines the path he will soon take as prophet, rather than magician.  Stewart’s interpretation places all of Merlin’s power in the hands of the gods – making him simply a vessel, with no major magical ability of his own (though he is certainly clever and intelligent).  While I am a bit disappointed in the more spiritual / less mystical interpretation of the Merlin story (I much prefer the magic of T.A. Barron or Jane Yolen), I was still fascinated by tale and how Stewart interpreted the various mythological events, people, and places.  I am a great fan of Arthurian Legend and the Merlin story, and this solid, literary approach (even more literary than White’s Once and Future King, in my opinion) is an excellent addition to the lore.

3 – Characters well developed.

The downside to Stewart’s approach with Merlin’s character is that it leaves much of the “magic” in the hands of a higher entity.  Thus, unlike the Barron or Yolen works, for example, Merlin’s character in The Crystal Cave does not spend much time training or developing in the magical arts, even though he does have a magician tutor (as well as engineering, language and other tutors).  To me, this is a disappointment because that type of learning is what I have come to expect with retellings of the Merlin tale.  Even without this element, though, the character development and dynamics throughout are so excellent, one becomes taken in and starts to appreciate the story for what it is – a more realistic, “historical” account of the man who was Merlin – and how the lore and legends might have grown exponentially over time.  Merlin’s characterization as a bastard prince, coupled with his relationships, then, with his mother (an unwed princess), his grandfather (the king) and his biological father – whom Merlin comes to discover later in the story, all make for interesting sub-plots and help to guide the story of Merlin’s development along.  The introductions of familiar characters from legend, such as Uther Pendragon, are also well realized and, though different from other interpretations, work very well in Stewart’s reimagining.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The crowning achievement for this story is without a doubt Mary Stewart’s writing style.  There are elements of this piece which hearken back to the epic poets – Virgil and Homer- and which make this story, though modern fantasy-fiction, feel like a weathered text of yore.  Simultaneously, though, the language and flow are current, making the story easy to read and easy to follow (Stewart herself explains in the Author’s note how she took great care to update town names and to limit herself linguistically: For instance, where there may have been three or four different names for one town, based on the different people who had settled the territory at the time, she would choose one name – the simplest to read, thus keeping the story moving and effective by not forcing readers to track the less important elements).  The Merlin legend is one which has been around for ages and thus which demands a certain respect in storytelling – it must be relevant, but also authentic;  it must be told in a way that is somehow reminiscent of ancient folklore, which means largely lyrical – respecting the way ancient stories were not written down, but retold again and again through song and the spoken word.  Stewart’s prose does this in a way that no other Merlin text does (at least, not since Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In essence, this story is about a young boy who was born in a tumultuous time and who has seemingly everything stacked against him.  Myrddin Emrys is a bastard child, born without a father in a kingdom constantly threatened.  His royal status is ignored because his mother bore him out of wedlock; he is feared because of the tales his mother told about his conception (and because of certain small “talents” he has, which are misinterpreted by those around him; and he is treated with fear, disrespect, and abuse – both by his elders and by his young peers.  But it is soon discovered that Merlin is a prophet – a vessel for the gods’ (or God’s) power.  He is a seer, who foretells the future – which causes him to be simultaneously feared and revered.  Ultimately, he is a boy on a quest to find his father and to do the right things – the things he is guided to do by his conscience and by the higher powers, who are preparing him to be the tutor and caretaker for the greatest King of all Brittania.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.

Notable Quotes:

“… the gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage.”

“But I have noticed this about ambitious men, or men in power, that they fear even the slightest and least likely threat to it.”

“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”

5 Comments on “Review: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

  1. My Mom loved this series and I just read this one for the first time last year. I’m a sucker for the Arthurian legend, so I definitely enjoyed it.


    • Me too! Love, love, love Arthurian legend. I’m so fascinated by the Merlin tales – just a tiny bit disappointed that there isn’t much “magic” to this interpretation.


  2. I’m planning on reading this during Magical March as well, and it’s helpful to have this info going in so I know what to expect! I seem to usually be disappointed by Arthur stories for some reason, so it’s nice to know how she handles the magic issue so I won’t be frustrated – hopefully – because I’ll know what to expect.


    • I hope it’s helpful! I definitely would have appreciated knowing beforehand, because it’s not what I expected (but it’s still very good). Have you read T.A. Barron’s “Lost Years of Merlin” series? It’s Middle Grade reading level, but so good!


  3. The Crystal Cave is the only Mary Stewart book I’ve read and I loved it! I got hooked on Merlin after reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. And yes, i agree with you, The Lost Years of Merlin is really good and it does fill in a gap in Merlin literature. =)


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