RogerBW's Blog

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart 12 September 2020

1970 Arthurian fantasy, first of its series. The young Myrddin is haunted by portents and visions, and is the plaything of gods.

This starts off superbly well, with its imagination of Merlin as a bastard princeling in Maridunum [sic] (modern Carmarthen), the perils he faces, his study of natural philosophy (which includes what little explicit magic is here), and his departure to Brittany where he comes to know more of himself.

The problems come as he enters his power, such as it is; the power comes and goes at the whim of the god, he's a toy of fate, and as he's used as a tool to push things into the shape that will eventually produce the Arthurian legends one cannot help thinking that "god" and "fate" are really just another way of saying "the author".

It's an intrinsic problem of Arthurian stories, of course: certain things have to happen. A story like this, which falls into what I think of as a standard template of telling mostly-mundane events such as could later have become the legends we know, is even more restricted: there has to be some set of events which will turn into the dragons in the foundation of the fortress, Uther must be taken to Ygraine at Tintagel, and so on.

And in spite of all these constraints it still mostly works – I think perhaps because Merlin has such a rotten time of it. He loses friends, he's injured and ill-used, and there's nobody with whom he can talk about more than the very simplest elements of what has become his whole life. There's plenty of proper history here, and this fantasy is very much aware of the mud and blood and general awfulness of Britain in the Dark Ages; and in turn that manages to alleviate some of the feeling of the author's hand on the scales.

It's an odd book, and not a cheerful one, but rather good nonetheless.

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