The Crystal Cave

Written by Mary Stewart
Review by Mary Sharratt

Merlin is one of the most enigmatic figures in British lore. Was he a god, a man, or was Merlin the title given to a powerful shamanic figurehead? Mary Stewart’s 1970 classic is no young adult sword and sorcery caper but a serious fictional exploration of the Matter of Britain. She delves into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, ferrets out the clues concerning Merlin, and proceeds to transform him from a cipher into living flesh and blood.

The bastard son of the Princess of South Wales, Merlin Emrys grows up an outcast, left to believe his father is the Prince of Darkness himself. After finding a secret mentor, he sets off on a quest of discovery as heroic as any in Arthurian legend, rising from scapegoat to a magician powerful enough to command kings. After exile in Brittany, he returns to Britain to outwit Vortigern, aiding Ambrosius in his bid to become High King. Later Merlin stands by Ambrosius’s successor, Uther Pendragon. The novel reaches its climax with Merlin’s bittersweet sleight of hand, in which he unites Uther with Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, for one fateful night of passion which will bring forth the infant Arthur – at a terrible price.

This is an arresting portrait of 5th century Britain. Merlin, a celibate intellectual in a warrior culture, is a mercurial figure, who loves no woman and is beholden to no man, and manages to be both pagan and Christian. His “magic” owes as much to mathematics and engineering as to the hand of the gods. This book left me thoroughly enchanted.