Saturday, 14 May 2011

Book #33 The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave

One of the most enduring legends of British culture is the story of King Arthur and his magician Merlin. The Crystal Cave is another re-telling of that story. Well, I say "another" it was published in the 1970's originally and drew my attention based on the fact that it was in the list of great forgotten reads alongside Cronin's 'Keys Of The Kingdom'. My copy is second hand and rather quaintly cost £1.50 at time of publication, imagine paying £1.50 for a paperback now...I am reliably informed however that £1.50 in its day would have been considered roughly the same as £6.99 now.

This story differs from the usual in that it focuses entirely on Merlin. The Crystal Cave is the beginning of a trilogy and is followed by 'The Hollow Hills' and 'The Last Enchantment'. I believe that a fourth novel 'The Wicked Day' was later added as an afterthought. Arthur does not appear at all in the novel, having not yet been born the story concentrating instead on Merlin's life before Arthur, beginning with him aged six, and chronicling his childhood and the developing of his magic skills.

Much of Merlin's magic with the exception of when he falls into trances and prophesises, is that which we would call maths or science today which reminded me of the Arthur C Clarke quote:

" Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

In Merlin's time, engineering was advanced science and therefore magic. Merlin's people skills also make it appear to others he can read minds when actually he just has good intuition and is pretty astute. I liked the addition of this element of realism to the tale making it less far fetched than some Arthurian stories. Set in 5th Century Britain, Stewart writes in the notes at the end that Arthur was probably a real man which is something I was never sure about and Merlin a composite of several different men associated with him. The idea of Merlin the magician has endured however, and I think most of us would like it to be true.

I can't understand why as someone who reads such little fantasy I've read so much of it lately, perhaps because it is escapism from the tolls of daily life. The Crystal Cave though about Merlin bears more similarity in setting and tone to A Song Of Ice And Fire rather than say Harry Potter and I think this is in its favour. It also bears zero resemblance to the poorly written and badly acted Saturday family series Merlin on the BBC so hurray for that.

Overall, I think that I preferred the first half of this book covering Merlin's childhood and adolescence a quick, enjoyable read over the second which dealt with political changes in early Britain which was slow reading and slightly bored me. The next book in the trilogy picks up were this left off and covers the childhood of Arthur, at least I think it does, and so is the beginning of the Merlin/Arthur story, and I will probably pick it up and read it at some point. I felt it was a competent, enjoyable novel, yet not a compulsive one.  I also think it has more potential as a young adult crossover novel than as strictly 'adult contemporary fiction'.

I am a bit worried that I've fallen behind with the Challenge I really need to read 7 more by the end of May so that I have a chance of being halfway with 50 books by the end of June, halfway through the year. 7 books in 17 days seems a bit of an impossible goal.  I haven't dug myself into a hole quite yet there is time for my numbers to even out so fingers crossed, wish me luck.

The Crystal Cave gets 7/10

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