The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
Overall, an enjoyable book. This was the first book that I read about Arthurian legend, so my background knowledge on the subject is poor. The objective of this summary is to ensure that I understand the events of the novel and establish a solid base for my continued education on the subject.
This book is narrated from the first person perspective of Merlin. He is an old man as he tells his stories, and since many of the stories occurred many years ago, the events are not always clear to him. Thus, many of the scenes in this book are fragmented. Merlin remembers what he can, but often that is only pieces of the larger picture, and sometimes the details are irrelevant. For example, at one point in the novel, he most vividly remembers a green lizard running over a rock. This is the sort of memory that a child recalls. Although an adult would hardly remember such details, to a young boy, it was absolutely fascinating.
As a young boy, Merlin climbs through the hypocaust (central heating system). Only a small child could fit in these openings. By navigating the hypocaust system, Merlin is able to hear many things, and learns information that only the adults are supposed to know. Merlin establishes a reputation for hearing things that he shouldn’t.
Who were Merlin’s parents? General legend claims that Merlin was fathered by the devil. The devil appeared to Merlin’s mother many times, and eventually she conceives a child. Merlin’s mother is Lady Niniane, a Welsh princess. In this book, Merlin himself is a bastard. His father is unknown until later in the novel. Since Merlin’s mother is a princess, Merlin receives nice accommodations inside the castle, and he has a personal attendant, Cerdic. Merlin is often teased for his lack of physical size, but he’s regarded as clever. Since he is a bastard, an illegitimate son, he is not well-liked by the royalty. Merlin’s mother refuses to tell the King, her brother Camlach, or anybody else who the true father is. This supports the myth that Merlin’s father is the devil.
The prince, Camlach, does not like Merlin, but because Merlin is the King’s nephew, Camlach needs to tolerate the boy. Therefore, Camlach hires a tutor for Merlin so that Merlin can study to enter the priesthood. The tutor is an alcoholic and often drinks or passes out during lessons. Merlin does not say a word to anybody else about his tutor’s drinking habits, and in exchange, the tutor covers for Merlin when the boy rides away to explore some of the nearby forests. One day, Merlin goes exploring outside of the town, and he is drawn to a cave. Outside of the cave is a chalice used for drinking water. Merlin enters the cave, and discovers what is referred to as the “Crystal Cave.” While in the crystal cave, the cave’s primary habitant, Galapas returns and finds Merlin. Galapas is a friendly old man who becomes Merlin’s tutor. In the subsequent weeks/years, Merlin returns frequently to Galapas’s cave to be tutored on many subjects, including medicine and magic.
Throughout the book, I was surprised by the lack of magic. Typically, when I think of Merlin, I think of lots and lots of magic. This book was very little magic. Magic is rarely mentioned, and Merlin does not consider himself to be a magical being. Merlin is portrayed primarily as an intelligent, normal, mortal person. He uses the guise of magic, and the myth of being son of the devil, to survive in the world. Otherwise, Merlin does not consider himself a magician. Eventually, he confirms that was born from an earthly father.
Although Merlin is not portrayed as an all-magical being, he does have a special ability called “the sight.” This ability allows him to see things, present and future, and know that these things are true. Merlin’s sights come in the forms of dream-like trances, and he cannot control when he will experience a sight. As he grows older, Merlin learns to recognize this sight ability, and he learns to trust it, and it becomes the source of this power. Merlin just knows things. Merlin tells the other characters in the novel that the gods (or single God) are inside him, that this God protects him and tells him certain snippets of information, and that he simply listens to God.
On one occasion, Merlin goes on an expedition with his grandfather, the King. On the way back, Merlin discovers a cave. The cave is an entrance to an old mine. At the time, Merlin discovers nothing significant and turns around. Towards the end of the book, Merlin’s discovery of this cave becomes significant. He uses this discovery to later guide King Vortigern’s men to discover why their walls are collapsing. Merlin’s knowledge of this cave helps create his reputation as a sorcerer.
When Merlin is roughly 12 years old, he asks Galapas about the crystal cave. While inside the crystal cave, Merlin sees a vision of the King’s death. As a result, Merlin knows that he will be killed or sent to the priesthood, since the King was his only protection against Camlach. He cannot accept death or priesthood. Merlin returns from the crystal cave, sneaks into the castle, and sees his slave dead, executed for accidentally killing the King. Merlin decides to prepare a proper funeral for his slave, and burns down the whole building in the process. While escaping the burning building, Merlin is captured by two of King Ambrosius’s spies. The spies take Merlin back to King Ambrosius in a boat. Since Merlin does not trust the two spies that captured him, he escapes the boat, and wanders on his own, in search of Ambrosius. Merlin finds a farmhouse, and secretly enters the stables to find shelter, warmth, and a night’s sleep. While in the stables, Merlin sees a vision of a man killing a white bull. To save the bull, Merlin rushes into the open field. Merlin trips and blacks out. When he awakes, King Ambrosius and Uther are speaking with him. Merlin is wearing Uther’s coat, which he stole while hiding in the stable. Merlin’s relationship with Uther is off to a bad start. Uther does not like Merlin. However, Ambrosius treats Merlin kindly, and takes the boy under his personal care. At first, it is not clear why Ambrosius treats Merlin with such kindness.
Under King Ambrosius’s care, Merlin receives a tutor and personal attendant. Merlin is a quick study, and he learns much about engineering, sciences, astronomy, and mathematics. There is a brief story where Merlin witnesses a druid religious ceremony while riding his horse in the woods. I am not sure how the druid ceremony fits into the overall plot. It’s an exciting chapter, but does not seem to have significant direction in Merlin’s life.
Eventually, Merlin learns that King Ambrosius is his father. Merlin lives with the King for many years and matures into an intelligent young man. Ambrosius devises a plan to defeat King Vortigern. As part of this plan, Merlin returns to his hometown as a spy to gather information to aid Ambrosius. In his hometown, Merlin meets his cousin, Dinias, and they have some beers together. As a result of Dinias’s drunkenness, Merlin is captured and escorted to face King Vortigern. Vortigern faces a serious problem, where the walls to his fortress keep collapsing. His sorcerers tell him that the walls can only be built by using the blood of a bastard. Since Merlin is a bastard, without a father, Merlin appears to satisfy the sorcerors’ criteria. King Vortigern plans to kill Merlin and use the boy’s blood to construct stable walls.
Merlin convinces the King that he can fix the wall problem. Merlin shows Vortigern’s men the cave that he discovered as a youth while out exploring. Inside the cave, Merlin speaks some prophesies. Unfortunately, Merlin cannot remember anything that happened, and consequently we do not know exactly what happened in the cave. But whatever Merlin said and did, it convinced King Vortigern to believe. From that point forward, Merlin was known as “Vortigern’s prophet.”
Somehow, it is not clear to me how it happened, Merlin and his slave, Cadal, escape Vortigern. Then, we are told how King Ambrosius wins many battles and ultimately defeats King Vortigern. King Ambrosius is the High King of Britain. During this period, Merlin has an encounter with a girl. The girl is beautiful and obviously attracted to Merlin. At one point, the girl tempts Merlin with sex, but Merlin refuses. This is consistent with other lore that Merlin was chaste. He did not have any sexual relationships. There is even a point where Merlin says that he knows many things, and women is not one of those things. Merlin only ever expresses interest in one female, and this eventually leads to his death. Merlin’s death is not mentioned in this novel. But we know that he eventually trades his magic and power to have sex with a woman. The woman betrays Merlin and kills him.
To celebrate King Ambrosius’s victories, Merlin devises a strategy to move some great fallen stones. These stones once stood many ages ago. It was believed that the stones were constructed using magic. Merlin knows that they must have been constructed by the ancient Romans, and is convinced that through engineering he also can move the stones, and thus cement Ambrosius as an eternal king. Merlin develops a method to move the stones, and as a result enhances his reputation as a powerful magician.
During one of the battles, Merlin simply stands on a cliff and overlooks the battlefield. His presence alone is enough to intimidate the enemy. Afterwards, Merlin is hailed by Uther for helping them in battle. Merlin did nothing but stand on the cliff, but Uther praises Merlin anyway. This is the point where Uther gains respect for the magician. When King Ambrosius dies in a later battle, Uther becomes king. King Uther is willing to grant Merlin anything that he wants, in exchange for the magician’s support. Merlin wants only to live alone in the crystal cave. Uther grants the cave and the cave’s hill to Merlin.
King Uther is known for his skill as a soldier and his love of women. For the most part, Uther can get any girl that he wants. However, there is a princess in a neighboring kingdom (she is the wife of the Duke of Cornwall) that catches Uther’s eye. The princess, Ygraine, is kept under vigilant watch and is not ever allowed to be alone. Uther’s lust for this woman drives him to physical sickness. He does not sleep or eat properly. Uther sends a message to Merlin, and instructs Merlin to come immediately. Merlin comes to Uther and is presented with the King’s dilemma. Merlin receives a vision from his God. This vision makes it clear that the gods need Uther to sleep with the princess and bear a child. Merlin’s sight provides a clever plan. Uther agrees to produce a child, and Lady Ygraine agrees to pretend that she is pregnant with the Duke’s child. When Ygraine announces her pregnancy, her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, locks her in a tower, the Tower Tintagel.
Merlin implements a clever plan, where Uther disguises himself as the Duke of Cornwall and is permitted to enter the lady’s chambers. Uther satisfies his lust. Arthur is conceived. At the Tower Tintagel, Merlin and company learn that the Duke of Cornwall was killed in battle. Uther is furious at Merlin, because if the King had only waited a few more days, Uther could have lawfully wedded Ygraine. Uther needs to blame somebody. These events produce the famed King of Britian, Arthur. Merlin clearly states that himself, Uther, and Ygraine are merely vessels of the gods. The gods orchestrated these events, and the characters are simply pawns that the gods use to fulfill their greater plans.