An Unforgettable Book Gift: The Crystal Cave
I was at university the year I got The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart for Christmas. That was more years ago than I care to remember, but I have never forgotten the impact the book had on me. The story’s based on the legend of Merlin the Enchanter, but Stewart adds her own imagination to what she’s been given and begins with Merlin’s childhood. This book takes us up to the conception of Arthur the Once-And-Future King.
The plot itself, is not that original – a lost, lonely fatherless boy seeing his true father and finding that his father is, in fact, the High King – but it loses none of its power because of that. There is a reason the legend of Merlin, and of King Arthur, has lasted for hundreds of years.
The strength of the novel, to me, what takes it above just a good book is the language and the world-building Stewart has created. Her descriptions of fifth-century Britain are vivid, graphic, and compelling as are the people who populate is.
The language is remarkable and memorable: “This is what happened that night. I saw it, and it is a true tale.”
The Crystal Cave is the first of a trilogy, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment follow, and it’s absolutely necessary to start the series with the first one. Two additional books, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim, are sometimes included in the group, but they are nowhere near the calibre of the earlier ones, in my opinion.
A question that must always be asked when discussing a book read and loved long ago, is does it pass the test of time? I re-read the book two years ago prior to a trip to London in which we planned to visit the newly opened Mithraeum. (The worship of Mithras, the soldier’s god, is important in the book.) I loved it almost as much as I remember from when I was younger. I recommended it to two of my daughters. One of them got out of it what I did, and one didn’t care for it at all. She didn’t like the portrayal of women in the book (almost none and what there are, poorly drawn characters with no agency of their own). It’s a valid criticism, but I would point out that at one point Merlin says how sorry he is for women, who essentially live their lives (regardless of class or station) as slaves.
What effect did The Crystal Cave have on my own writing? Not one bit. I never attempted to write myth, fantasy, or dark-ages Britain historical novels. I write contemporary cozy mysteries, and those are about as far from the world of Arthur and Merlin that you can get. But I hope that maybe, in some very small way, the power of Mary Stewart’s words creeps into my own writing.
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She’s currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Tea By The Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Year Round Christmas mysteries for Penguin, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series and, as Eva Gates, the Lighthouse Library books for Crooked Lane. Vicki is the 2019 recipient of the Derrick Murdoch award for contributions to Canadian crime writing.
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About Vanessa Westermann
Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.