Fantasy Classics: “The Crystal Cave” (by Mary Stewart)

There’s always been something about the Arthurian legends that call to me. I can’t precisely say why, except that they have a quality about them that is at both timeless and yet bounded within that uncanny realm between the historical and the fantastic.

For a long time, I was content to read the straightforwardly fantasy interpretations of the myth, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King remains one of my favourites.

Then, around 1999 or so I was introduced (by, of course, an honors English teacher) to Mary Stewart’s trilogy. All of a sudden I discovered a whole new way of thinking about the legends surrounding King Arthur. Now, he was not merely a mythical king, but someone who might actually have existed in Dark Age Britain, in that crucial period of time between the exit of the Romans and the Saxon conquest. I was instantly hooked, and I’ve re-read Stewart’s Merlin books several times in the subsequent decades, gaining new sorts of pleasure each time.

The first volume, The Crystal Cave, narrated in first-person by Merlin himself, follows him from his youth as the bastard son of the daughter of a Welsh king who ultimately discovers that he is, in fact, also the son of the general (and exiled king) Ambrosius. Gifted with the Sight, he aids his father as he sets about reclaiming the kingship from the deceitful Vortigern and, ultimately, helps his uncle Uther onto the throne and facilitates the conception of the baby who will one day grow up to be King Arthur.

Stewart has a phenomenal grasp of the evocative power of language. As I’ve been re-reading the book, I’m struck by the similarities between her style and that of one of my other all-time favourite authors: Mary Renault. Both have an uncanny ability to construct sentences that are, for lack of a better word, beautiful. She somehow manages to be both economical and lush in her descriptions of landscapes and settings, of the trappings of royalty and the brutality of warfare.

At the same time, because she uses first person perspective to get us inside Merlin’s mind, she also has to convey the complicated spiritual and intellectual movings of a brilliant mind. This she also accomplishes with grace. The sequences in which Merlin encounters the power of the God are some of the most exquisitely and intricately wrought in the entire book, and they come very close to transporting us to exactly the same sort of magical space that Merlin himself inhabits.

Thus, what I particularly enjoyed about the story was its ability to create a Merlin who is both thoroughly human and also uncanny. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a particularly sympathetic character; he’s far too mystical and preternaturally gifted for that. Nevertheless, his words have a hypnotic beauty that draw us into the story and keep us there. This is the world that is always on the brink of collapsing into barbarism, and it is Merlin’s mission to see to it that there is at least a brief period of beauty before the ultimate fall.

Stewart manages to breathe fresh life into some of the most enduring of legends in the history of English literature. That is no small accomplishment, especially given how many interpretations there have been of Merlin. Her main character is a mystic, it is true, and he has more than a touch of magic, but he is far more human than he typically appears in the myths.

What’s more, Stewart somehow still manages to keep to the familiar beats while infusing them with her own flare. There are also all of the requisite characters of the myth: Niniane (here Merlin’s mother rather than the woman who seals him away), Uther (here Merlin’s uncle and brother of is father Ambrosius), the villainous king Vortigern (here a misguided king who is brought down by his own misguided efforts) and, near the end, Duke Gorlois and his wife Ygraine (both of whom become pawns in the delicate game Merlin must play in order to bring about the vision bequeathed to him by the gods).

Fate, it this world, is inexorable, for better and for worse.

Stay tuned for my review of the second volume, The Hollow Hills!