Monday, October 09, 2006

The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave

Mary Stewart

Date: 1970   —   $10.47   —   Book

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Fiction, Fantasy
First in series of four

I am not like many people who find King Arthur endlessly fascinating. (Even though I do have two cats named Percival and Nimüe.) Most tales of Arthurian stripe seem to me to be little more than war-story bragging - "I fought this HUGE monster!" - and, really, that's close to the impulse that created them in the first place. A large number of the traditional stories are adapted from old English (pre-Saxon) folklore; Gawain is actually adapted from a god, hence his power getting greater until the middle of the day and waning as the sun sets. (Lancelot and Galahad are French grafts onto the legend, actually, whose roles were likely originally fulfilled by Gawain, Bedevere, and Percival, the original Grail Knight.)

Okay, I may not find it fascinating myself, but I'm married to someone who does.

Anyway, this has to be my favorite Arthurian series of all time. While Stewart does not worry too much about the historicity of her tale - she uses Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century fantasies are her primary source - she has the flavor of the period correct in such a way as to vividly depict a land where Roman occupation is only a few centuries gone, where France (Brittany) is closer in custom to England than Scotland or Ireland, and where the threat of Saxony rides strong. And the character she builds her story around is the most mysterious of all - Merlin.

Nowadays, if you go to the children's section of the bookstore, you'll find whole series on Merlin as a boy, but when Stewart wrote this book, her account was unique. And her take is somewhat unique too: instead of jumping in with the all-knowing sage of later years, she shows us a boy with no father, whose occasional gifts of Sight are wild and uncontrolled. She also shows us a child with a love of learning, a love that later enables him to do seemingly impossible feats such as resettting the Dance of Giants (Stonehenge.) And she shows us a child who was not, as commonly believed, fathered by a demon, but by a human.

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