• Stephanie Koetsier

Lockdown Lowdown: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

So welcome to a new (and hopefully short) series on my blog called Lockdown Lowdon, or the books I’m reading in isolation. The first book to kick off this new series is The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart but confession – I started it pre-lockdown. I could give you a million reasons why it took me so long – working, tired, etc. To be honest, though, it was just a bit of a slog and difficult to get into. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book though! At points it was captivating, and I found myself having to know what happened next. But overall – yeah. Bit of a slog read. The Crystal Cave was written in 1970 and follows the story of Merlin, pre-King Arthur. Starting off as a ‘bastard prince’, we later find out that Merlin is in fact the son of King Ambrosius, who later becomes King of Britain. Now, ya gal here LOVES all things Merlin. The thing that really kicked off the obsession with the wizard was the 2008 TV show Merlin, and the comical friendship that developed between Merlin and King Arthur. Since then I’ve had a soft spot for the pair, and I’m always desperate to find more stories relating to their adventures. That’s why when I was told about The Crystal Cave I was thrilled, and ran out to buy it immediately. Again, I need to re-iterate how I operate on my blog since, well – my old blog died a death. I don’t do ‘book reviews’ or ‘star ratings’. There’s really no point – everyone’s taste is completely different, and who am I to stay a person’s writing is good or not? It’s all about style and preference. So I’ll tell you my thoughts, I’ll open the floor to discussion (because I LOVE discussing main themes in books, brings me back to my uni days), but I won’t be branding any book as good or bad. I’d rather be a source of positivity and, even if I don’t particularly enjoy a book, still find interesting discussion points from it and comment on the parts that I did enjoy. Every creative thing in this world has merit and was worked on and believed on by people. So yes. Long-winded explanation, but welcome to my book discussion. Now one thing I always loved discussing in uni was narration. How reliable IS the narrator? It’s something you don’t really think about when you’re younger and devouring stories. You tend to blindly trust whatever is being told to you on the page. I LOVE when an author experiments with that idea.

Mary Stewart's 'The Crystal Cave' - a story about the beginnings of famous sorceror Merlin.
The Crystal Cave

Now Merlin – I’m not sure how reliable he is. The story follows in a chronological order, yes, but as memories. Quite often, Merlin states that he thinks something happened this way, or he was sure he felt this at the time etc. It only happens fleetingly, so you dive back into the story and forget yourself and believe him again. But it’s these little slips that bring it back to the forefront, and you start to question whether you really believe what he’s telling you. Overall I do, but that’s because he’s Merlin and I’m biased. I suppose, in a way, everyone tells their own stories in their own way, and what one person interprets as good for example another interprets as bad. So really, having an unreliable narrator or one who admits to their being holes in their memory, is probably truer to life and maybe even more trustworthy than one who believes their own stories wholeheartedly. Anyway, just a thought. Let me know if you agree or not! Here’s an example to further my point: ‘Failing Ambrosius’ service, I believe I had some hazy idea of making my way to the village north of Kerrec where Moravik came from, and asking for her people.’

Now I don’t mean this including of examples to come across as though you’re reading an essay on the topic, but I do think it’s helpful for getting a feel of tone of voice and writing style and will help inform you on whether you want to pick up the book or not. This example is just one that shows Merlin is hazy on the memories he is now retelling to the reader, and in this case in particular, he is offering alternative story endings based on outcomes being different.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The character of Merlin himself, for a child in the beginning, is very sassy but naïve. Gifted with the Sight, he often sees glimpses of the future without understanding what they are, and this caused him to often say things to the wrong people and get himself in trouble. People were convinced, knowing him as bastard child with an unnamed father, that he was got of the devil, and would often make the sign against him to protect themselves from evil. So Merlin, often avoided or bullied, rather than becoming a quiet, downcast boy, became brash, sassy and oddly confident. But this came from something else, too, and opens up another very interesting question. That is, he believed, and throughout the book mentioned, that the God spoke through him. However, he is never clear on which ‘God’ this is, and lists many that we would recognise ourselves. All he knows is that there is a divine power using him as a tool and speaking through him, and though he never understood to what end, he allowed it and this it what gave him his confidence. When other characters in the book faced conflict they expressed fear, but never Merlin, much to their surprise. This was due to the God that spoke through him. He knew he must not die until he fulfilled whatever purpose the God envisioned for him. So this is what led him to become a rather brash and confident boy. It did make for funny reading at times just how sassy he was. Other times you cringed, and wondered how he was actually still alive. This power also made him very intelligent for his age, and as he grew older, allowed him to figure out what exactly to say to get himself out of tricky situations. Here’s an example:

‘Despite the bluff which had saved my life from the spies, this information was scanty enough, and Marric had been right in guessing – and Ambrosius would know it – I was useless as a hostage. My semi-royal status might impress Marric and Hanno, but neither being grandson to Vortigern’s ally, nor nephew to Vortimer’s, would be much of a recommendation to Ambrosius’ kindness. It looked as if, royal or not, my lot would be slavery with luck and without it, an unsung death.’          ‘And this I had no intention of waiting for.’

There was something comforting about the book and Merlin’s opinion on trusting fate and the Gods to lead him on the right direction. For such a young boy leaving home, he never shows fear – he just trusts that he is on the right path. Maybe that’s to do with the fact that he’s magic, although he doesn’t know it until much later. He never seems to believe that it is his own magic and, yes, the book itself never alludes to him ‘doing a spell’ or making anything happen miraculously. To be honest, a lot of it just seemed to be good timing, confidence (especially in the face of conflict and enemies), and then the reputation that followed. Even Merlin himself admitted that. Once one thing happened that was just good luck, the rumours spread like wildfire and men all across the country were discussing Merlin the sorcerer and prophet. This raises another VERY interesting point – how gossip and reputation is incredibly important in creating a character of fear. Merlin was just a boy in the right place at the right time who faced things confidently – it was the men themselves who created Merlin the Sorceror. Very interesting stuff, and a very prominent theme in books of Merlin’s era. For, reputation and honour were vastly more important then than they are in today’s society.

‘What I would do, where I would go, I had no idea, but the god had sent me safely out of Camlach’s hands and across the Narrow Sea, and I trusted my fate.’

However there is a counter point to this. On the one hand, yes it does seem like Merlin is just lucky and confident because he believes in his God. Yet, on the other side of the coin, he does randomly become overcome with visions within the book. Sometimes that was confusing because of the change in direction of narration. You would be reading one bit, then suddenly the book goes completely random and you’re lost, then he comes to and you’re brought back to the book’s ‘present’. I had to re-read certain parts several times to actually figure out what was happening.

These visions often prophesised the future, and also gave Merlin his confidence that he would not die, as he knew he was to live and see them come to fruition. But here’s the question – where did the visions come from? Were they actually sent to him by the God whenever he wanted Merlin to put a plan into action? Or were they Merlin’s own, and he has yet to realise that it is just his magic? The thing is, if he didn’t act on these visions then the course of the future would be different anyway. So yes, he appears to be a soothsayer, but if he didn’t believe in his God and take comfort and confidence in that, and then see a plan through to make the vision come true, the future would be very different? So isn’t Merlin the real creator of the future? I could go down a whole rabbit-hole on this stuff I LOVE books that make you think this much. Anyone who has read this book, what’s your opinion? Was it a God, or was it Merlin and his own magic? Or was it all just good luck and good timing? I’d love to know your thoughts. For me, and again I love when this happens, I don’t really have an opinion. I can consider multiple answers, but to be honest, I kind of like not knowing for definite. It’s fun to think about all the different possibilities. Pace of the book was good at points, and not so at others. The beginning went quickly enough – you wanted to see how Merlin got on, and you saw him getting into trouble for his ‘visions’ before he knew what they were so you wanted to stick with it until he figured it out. Then came all the parentage stuff when he escaped from his home and found out he was actually the son of a King, a King who planned to wage war and become King of all Britain. Everything in the lead up to that war went quick enough. The fight itself though. I’m not really one to enjoy reading a large fight scene, purely because I find it boring. The descriptions are never really that creative and I’ve read them a million times before. Plus it’s just not really what I’m into. So yeah, that’s when the book maybe lost me a bit. And after too. There was a LOT of talking and lots of slogging through for not a lot of action or events. I found myself having to force myself through because I was so close to the end, and I physically CAN’T stop reading a book once I’ve started. I HAVE to finish it, even if it’s mind-numbingly boring. Luckily, The Crystal Cave wasn’t overly boring it was just the end. I knew by this point what was going to occur. Ambrosisus had to die to let Uther take his place as King. (We all recognise the name Uther Pendragon if we’re 2008 Merlin fangirls). Obviously, Uther is the father of King Arthur, and that’s really what we’re wanting to read about. The end of the book was a bit of a weird one. Basically Uther, whose been with every girl he could, suddenly finds himself uncontrollably in love with the Duke of Cornwall Gorlois’ wife Ygraine. He HAS to have her for some reason, and he can’t sleep, can’t eat. Turns out she’s the exact same. People had noticed the King’s attentions to the woman because, well, he wasn’t exactly subtle, but it meant Gorlois too was wary and had her guarded. Everyone said Uther seemed to be under some kind of spell, and the King himself called for Merlin to basically bring Ygraine to him. Very weird, but it did raise an interesting question. Was this frenzy just an incredible meant-to-be love, or was it the God, literally casting a spell on the pair as their union would result in the birth of King Arthur, the Once and Future King? And so the end of the book results in Merlin essentially disguising Uther and sneaking him to Ygraine so they can be together and basically sees to it that King Arthur is conceived. Yes, whilst she’s still married to Gorlois. However, as the pair are together, Gorlois dies in battle. This raised a VERY interesting conflict in the book, and one which I do think is very clever. Afterwards, once Uther hears the news, he comes to Merlin. We all remember Uther in the Merlin series shouting “SORCERY!” every five minutes and putting anyone who practiced magic to death by fire. (A hatred that stemmed from his wife dying in childbirth, with a sorceror by her side.) In The Crystal Cave, once Uther finds that Gorlois is dead he is enraged and tells Merlin that he will no longer be a pawn like so many other men in his quest for power and notoriety. Merlin withstands this, believing still that it is his God who guides him, and who has ensured the birth of King Arthur. Uther states that if he had waited one more day and not listened to Merlin, he could have ‘claimed Ygraine as his own’ (yeah, a lot of this book was difficult to read for varying depictions of women – of it’s time, sure, but still makes the feminist in you want to scream a bit) and had a legitimate child. Merlin tells him that yes he could have, but he was guided by the God, and if he hadn’t lain with her that night but had waited until the day after, it would have been a different child and so it had to be this way. Uther does not listen to this though and claims he will not know the illegitimate child, and the pair part ways.

Merlin had a vision of the birth of King Arthur, but he sensed death through the vision also, which made him uneasy. For us who are familiar with the tales of Merlin and Arthur, we know that Arthur’s mother dies during childbirth. Of course, Merlin could not see this nor could anyone predict it, and so that will be a conflict that arises in the next book (there are two more for anyone interested). Merlin does, however, see that in years to come Ygraine will send Arthur to Merlin for him to look after, since the King refuses to know him. And so, that is where the first book finishes, with Merlin and Uther going separate ways, but knowing that King Arthur has been conceived and will one day become the King that truly unites Britain. Now, will I read the next few books? Not in lockdown, as I do not already own them. However, I am intrigued to see how the relationship between Merlin and Arthur works out. For one, it’s very different to the TV show in that regard, as the pair were made to be the same age so they could develop a comedic friendship on screen. It will be very interesting to go from that, where Merlin was just Arthur’s servant and punching bag, to this, where Merlin is Arthur’s teacher and literally the making of him as King of Britain. So yes, I am intrigued with the idea and I love the tales of Merlin and Arthur enough to give it a go. Hopefully, the more it gets ‘into it’, the less it will seem like a slog to read. With this book, though I did enjoy it at parts, it just wasn’t recognisable to what I already know and love, and it’s the pre-story, and I’m not a big fan of those. But it’s all important isn’t it in the grand schemes of the story, and I’m definitely more informed now on the true myth of Merlin. I hope you enjoyed the first in this instalment of Lockdown Lowdown. My next book is one that’s very different to today’s – that is, Rhonda Byrne’s sort of ‘self-help’ booked called The Secret. It’s so widely known and is revered by bloggers/influencers for changing their life and making them have an extremely positive outlook on life. I’ve been meaning to read it for literal YEARS now, but it seems fitting to have waited until lockdown. It’s definitely the time for it. I’ll let you know how I get on with it next Thursday, here again on the blog. But for now, thank you as always for reading. Take care, stay positive and stay safe. We will get through this, one day at a time.

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