My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I had my Arthurian period like many readers. There was a time when I found the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin irresistible.
The period when I was most susceptible to these stories happened to coincide with the time of greatest popularity of the Lerner and Lowe musical adaptation of them, known as Camelot. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn't a coincidence. How I loved that musical!
At any rate, it had been a number of years since I paid a visit to Camelot, but when Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave was recommended to me, I was intrigued. In spite of the reading I had done concerning the legends, I had never read Stewart's work. Obviously, that was a serious oversight on my part.
Stewart was an excellent writer and she pulls together all the threads of the Merlin origination story and weaves them into a page turner of a tale.
Merlin was the bastard child of a Welsh princess. His mother never told him, or anyone, the name of his father. As a child, he lived with his mother at his grandfather's court, but he was an outcast, without status or friends.
As he got older, he enjoyed wandering the hills on his own and one day he found a strange cave and met the even stranger man who lived there, Galapas. Galapas was old and wise and had the gift of "seeing," as did Merlin although he hardly knew it at the time. Galapas became his teacher and he had other tutors as well who educated him in languages, math, and engineering as well as medicine and religion. And, of course, magic.
Perhaps Galapas' most important lesson for Merlin was this: "The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage." Merlin learns the truth of that and learns to be open to the gods and always put himself in their path.
The student grows in knowledge and power and, following the death of his grandfather and the ascension of a king who is even less kindly disposed toward him, he runs away from home and ends up on the shores of Less Britain which is under the control of the exiled king Ambrosius.
Ambrosius' brother is Uther, who will one day be known as Uther Pendragon and will father yet another bastard child who will be named Arthur and given into the care of Merlin. But all of that is still in the future.
In the meantime, Stewart shows us Ambrosius attempting to bring the peoples of Britain together under one king and the parts that Merlin and Uther play in his grand scheme.
Merlin's renown grows throughout the land until he is seen as a great wizard, able to see into the future and to affect how that future evolves.
The stories here are very well known and yet Stewart manages to make them seem fresh. She weaves together historical details and myth in a wonderful tapestry that finally reveals to us the whole colorful picture. Her writing is vividly descriptive and makes the reader feel as though she is there by Merlin's side as he works his "magic." Indeed, not just Merlin but all of the characters, including relatively minor ones, were well-developed and one felt empathy for them.
This book was published in 1970 and yet it did not feel dated. It was as timeless as Merlin himself, perhaps still sleeping somewhere in his crystal cave, waiting to be called by Arthur to wake and defend the beloved kingdom once again.
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