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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Crystal Cave

I have long been a fan or Arthuriana, but have yet to be bowled over by any of the literature. I've read most everything from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I haven't found the perfect Arthur literature. One of the writers I hadn't explored was Mary Stewart, who wrote many books on Arthur as well as a famed trilogy on Merlin, who of course was linked to Arthur. The Crystal Cave was the first of that trilogy, first published in 1970.

This is basically Merlin's origin story. He is the bastard son of a king in Wales. He doesn't know until he is a teenager that he is the son of Ambrosius, the Roman leader who fights the Saxons to become King of all England. Ambrosius is the brother of Uther, who Merlin helps father Arthur, so essentially Merlin and Arthur are cousins, according to Stewart.

Merlin narrates, and we follow him as he discovers the place of the title, where he is taught by an old sage, Galapius: "I was in a globe lined with diamonds, a million burning diamonds, each face of each gem wincing with the light, shooting it to and fro, diamond to diamond and back again, with rainbows and rivers and bursting stars and a shape like a crimson dragon clawing up the wall, while below it a girl's face swam faintly with closed eyes, and the light drove right into my body as if it would break me open."

He discovers he has a sort of second sight, but is not the wizard of popular entertainment. He doesn't cast spells, read fortunes, or carry a wand. In fact, there's sort of a wink at that, as he's talking to his servant: "Aye. Looks like the sort of stuff they think a magician ought to wear." I went over to look. "Not long white robes with stars and moons on them, and a staff with curled snakes? Oh, really, Cadal —" "Well, your own stuff's ruined, you've got to wear something. Come on, you'll look kind of fancy in these, and it seems to me you ought to try and impress them, the spot you're in."

The books leads to Merlin using his uncle, Uther, to sneak into the wife of the King of Cornwall's bedchamber so that he may father Arthur. In some legends (I think it was the movie Excalibur) Merlin makes Uther look like Gorlois, but here they just storm the castle, and Arthur's mother, Ygraine, is very much looking forward to the assignation. All this because Merlin prophesizes: "I tell you, a King will come out of this night's work whose name will be a shield and buckler to men until this fair land, from sea to sea, is smashed down into the sea that holds it, and men leave earth to live among the stars. Do you think Uther is a King, Cadal? He's but a regent for him who went before and for him who comes after, the past and future King."

Interestingly, the book is written like a romance novel without romance. Merlin has one stab at sex and botches it. Years later we know he will be done in by the seduction of a woman named Vivian, or Nimue, but that's not in this book. Here he is kind of a stick-in-the-mud. The writing, as is usual with historical romance, is overly formal, without any hint of vernacular. For example: Like a drunkard who as long as there is no wine to be had, thinks himself cured of his craving, I had thought myself cured of the thirst for silence and solitude. But from the first morning of waking on Bryn Myrddin, I knew that this was not merely a refuge, it was my place. April lengthened into May, and the cuckoos shouted from hill to hill, the bluebells unfurled in the young bracken, and evenings were full of the sound of lambs crying, and still I had never once gone nearer the town than the crest of a hill two miles north where I gathered leaves and cresses." That's pretty, but the whole book is like this, as though the writer were afraid to let her guard down.

I will still seek out my own personal Holy Grail--the ideal Arthur book. I was not bowled over enough to continue this series.

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