100 introductory words
It’s Hodderscape Review Project time again. This time up, the 1970 classic The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. This, for those who don’t know, is the Arthur mythology brought back to life using Merlin as the point of view and main character. Stewart turns to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. This remains the source for most of what we think of as the Arthur myth, although it’s clear that he made up what he didn’t stick together from legend, myth, story, and songs heard down the pub. It still makes a good tale, which Stewart was happy to use.
100 words: coming back to it
But is it any good? That, ultimately, is the question. The story takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Rome, in fifth century Britain. Merlin is a young boy, with The Sight (emphasis Stewart’s), the bastard son of the princess.
The novel shows its age. The prose is less than engaging; the story is told out at a regular pace. Merlin, as an old man tells – and comments on – his own story. It was written for an adult audience, enthralled by TH White and the Kennedy’s but it could handily be read and appreciated by a young adolescent.
100 words: the ideas and the world
Magic exists in this ancient Britain. Wales is held in high regard, the heart of pre-Saxon Brittannia. Brittany, or Less Britain, is contrasted with Great Britain. There is magic, but it is subtle, and chance plays its part. Stewart’s Merlin is made up of an odd combination of neopagan-ish spirituality and demystification: much of what passes for magic is chance, confidence tricks, or engineering. Stewart is clever, here, author-hand-waving over the engineering works that Merlin uses to achieve his goals while the men who witnessed the work pass it into legend as magic, much like her source material – or “mud”.
100 words: on women
This book was published in 1970. The most recent big wave of feminism was fairly alive and well – but you mightn’t know it from the portrayal of women in this book. I had a big problem with this. Women in The Crystal Cave fell into three categories: paper-thin two dimensional wise women (“She’s a witch! Burn her!”), “sluts” (sic – not my description and overused in the text), or caretakers. The poor women in this book are given almost – but not quite – two dimensions. They exist, firmly as secondary characters to give Merlin something to think about, react to, or desire.
100 words: conclusion
This isn’t a bad book, per se. The prose is very stilted and dated. It’s told from Merlin’s point of view, ostensibly from the perspective of someone looking back after his life’s journey is done. The magical author hand-wave is all too often overdone, and the loading of Chekovian guns over fireplaces stands out, to modern eyes. Secondary characters – men and women – appear often to be interchangeable. Both teachers are wise and a bit tricky. Servants are solid and capable (think Samwise Gamgee with swordcraft). All that being said, the fundamental story is engaging and readable, even when it meanders.
Get it here (US) or here (UK)