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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging re-telling of the life of Merlin
The Crystal Cave is one of a multitude of fictional works pertaining to the times and life of the legendary King Arthur. It differs from the others however, in that it focuses on the life of the great enchanter Merlin, who although intrinsic to the legend, rarely is considered by authors as a principal character of their stories. Generally, Merlin is presented as a...
Published on 4 July 1999

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3.0 out of 5 stars Classic, but flawed to modern eyes.
The body of Arthurian myths has been a staple of fantasy, since the genre's earliest beginnings. Everyone has read at least one Arthurian book or seen Disney's Sword in the Stone and some of the genre's best known tropes can be traced back to the legend of the once and future king. Stewart takes a novel approach to the Arthur legend, by focusing on Merlin. While not the...
Published 18 months ago by W.M.M. van der Salm-Pallada

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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging re-telling of the life of Merlin, 4 July 1999
By A Customer
The Crystal Cave is one of a multitude of fictional works pertaining to the times and life of the legendary King Arthur. It differs from the others however, in that it focuses on the life of the great enchanter Merlin, who although intrinsic to the legend, rarely is considered by authors as a principal character of their stories. Generally, Merlin is presented as a learned sage of whose earlier life little is known. Mary Stewart shows Merlin to be more human, than the reader has encountered him in the other Arthurian tales. She achieves it by creating for him a childhood and parentage. In the popular myth it is believed that Merlin was a devil- begotten child, hence his magical powers. The Crystal Cave shows him a very real person possessed of heightened perceptions and extraordinary intellect, which a medieval audience, whence the original stories of Arthur stem, would very likely have equated with powers beyond an ordinary mortal. The book is an engaging and highly probable tale, beautifully written and entertaining. Mary Stewart cleverly links her story with original legend and her fresh approach makes for excellent reading. Even an adult reader well familiar with the legend will be transported to another world, one he might not have visited since his childhood days.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Favourite retelling of the Arthur myth, 31 July 2008
First read this series (Crystal Cave - Hollow Hills - Last Enchantment - Wicked Day) in the seventies and it stands the test of time well.

Mary Stewart makes the best attempt I have so far read to combine most of the legends passed down to us (especially Geoffrey of Monmouth who is her main source) with such historical knowledge of the period as was available at the time. And she does it in a way that is highly readable, with convincing characters, good pace, and a version as near plausible as anything that must cover some magical element can be.

Monmouth would have voted for it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, 23 July 2012
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This review is from: The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
I was first introduced to the tales of King Arthur, whose realm is made magical by the intriguing wizard Merlin at six or seven. And in my teens I was very much impressed by the 1981 John Boorman movie Excalibur starring Helen Mirren, Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, starring a rather sinister and hard to like Merlin. Later I saw the more sympathetic Merlin in the highly engaging 1998 TV series Merlin starring Sam Neil. Have read Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie which I loved and its sequels. The mediocre Pendragon cycle by Stephen Lawhead, the intriguing if drawn out Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Bernard Cornwell Arthur trilogy. and the somewhat disappointing Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country by Rosalinde Miles.
Only now have I had the privilege and pleasure of reading The Crystal Cave, which was written and took the world of historical fantasy by storm for the first time 42 years ago,and has been a best seller ever since.
Together with McKenzie's Queen of Camelot this one is by far my favourite and I cannot wait to read the sequels. Intriguing, engaging, a page turner, brings 5th century Britain and the story of Merlin to life.
In the early Dark Ages Britain has fragmented into a number of kingdoms and tribal entities, as the island struggles to resist invasions by the Saxon tribes from Germany which are slowly colonizing south-east England and in the west marauders from Ireland.
The fatherless son of the Welsh princess Niniane, Myrriden Emrys - better known as Merlin faces a perilous and unwanted and dangerous childhood and on the death of his grandfather the king of Dyfed must flee for his life from the murderous plans of the new king, his uncle Camlach. Captured by pirates, he takes a perilous journey to Brittany where he joins the service of King Ambrosius, who learns that he can benefit from Merlin's psychic abilities (the sight). He discovers the identity of his true father. Five years later he is a powerful young nobleman and 'magician'and returns to Britain where he is captured by the power-mad High King Vortigern, and prevents being put to death by the latter when he discovers through his mazing abilities why the great castle the king aims to build keeps collapsing. He also prophesies the death of Vortigern and the great battle between the 'red and white dragons' which will ravge the country and end with the victory of the red dragon. He sees his mother Niniane at the abbey she has retired to and experiences a hint of romance with a young girl serving there by the name of Kerridwen.
After Vortigern is defeated and killed by Ambrosius, Merlin travels with Ambrosius to Ireland to obtain a great treasure which the High King believes will give him greater power, and Ambrosius meets his end there. The novel ends with Merlin helping the new King Uther to lie with the Cornish princess Ygraine, who Uther has become besotted and obsessed with. This results in bloodshed and conception of the the future saviour of Britain Arthur.
The book is written in a way that is highly accessible to modern readers without losing the magic, mystery and awe. The characters are engaging and one really gets a feel for them. A skilled blend of history, mythology and imagination, Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy is perhaps the greatest work of historical fantasy written in the 20th century.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something special., 12 May 2012
This review is from: The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
I've read a few fiction books about the legend of King Arthur and enjoyed them so I saw this and decided to give it a read and I wasn't disappointed. Mary Stewart has a knack for writing a novel that's gripping, has a great plot line, characters you care about but for me she also has this special something I can't really put into words, It's like was reading this book I was sucked in whole heartedly and it was like I was home or in a warm bubble I just wanted to stay there lol
Another thing that I like about the book is the magic, It's not your typical magic that you get in fantasy novels in fact personally I was never sure if the magic was real or just in the other characters minds and I think that's what the author wanted.
The only reason I didn't give the book five stars is because I did feel it lagged slightly towards the end but it was still a pleasure to read and I'm looking forward to reading the next book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best telling of the Merlin / Arthur legend, 27 Oct. 2009
By 
I first read this book about 10 years ago and it has vividly remained with me as one of the best books i have ever encountered. I love the detailed description of Britain at the end of the Roman empire, with its reflection in the names of people and places. It gives Merlin an origin and a family as well as explaining his extraordinary gifts of mathematics, science, music, philosophy and human perception. The other characters are well developed and totally believable and as others have said before me, the author has woven much historical fact in with the threads of legend. This book is where i go when i want to escape from the modern and mundane world.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The archetypal fantasy book without the goblins, 5 April 2012
This review is from: The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
Mary Stewart's "The Crystal Cave" is a tour de force of myth and magic, told in a way that is believable and not in-your-face (no goblins or elves). In fact, it is impressive how Mary Stewart tells the famous legend of Arthur without it feeling cliched or tired, and builds the characters in an artful way that draws you into their world. If you read this you will feel compelled to read the other books in the series, The Hollow Hills (Coronet Books) and The Last Enchantment (Coronet Books).

If you found this review helpful, why not check out some other books that I like:
Fish Stocks Limited (The Infinity Fish Trilogy)
3 + 3
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As enchanting as the first time I read it, 18 Jan. 2013
By 
Dolphin (Stuck inside a cloud) - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
The first volume of Lady Stewart's Arthurian saga, which eventually grew to five books (although to me "The Prince and the Pilgrim" is so different as to be really a stand-alone).

Much has been written about this book and I believe all the praise to be richly deserved. Merlin has always been a favourite figure from my childhood study of myths and legends, but for the first time under Stewart's inspired treatment, he really comes to life as a very plausible historical figure. I like the way some of his most celebrated "magic" is presented as the likely product of a highly intelligent and accomplished man with a deep understanding of human nature and the daring to manipulate circumstances to suit the simple reasoning of the masses. One of the great accomplishments of this narrative is that it creates an historically accurate and highly probable story out of all the sketchy and often contradictory accounts that have reached us. Stewart used her in-depth knowledge of the period and scrupulous research into the available historical sources (particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain") to weave a complex but coherent tapestry that reads like a thriller. I have just revisited this book for the purposes of reviewing it and it never fails to amaze me how rich and detailed the story is and how completely it draws me in. I can taste the food and feel the texture of fabrics and wet grass. I can follow the historical events and their significance without feeling lectured to. As usual, the sense of place and human perspective are just right.

I own and have enjoyed nearly all of this author's works, but to me the Merlin saga is something higher. You don't need to be a history buff to get carried away by the beautifully-paced narrative, with enough realism to make it vivid but a deft hand with the guts and gore element inherent in a story of war and power struggles in some of Britain's darkest times. Stewart is justly famous for her strong character development and here we find an unusually rich cast, all brought to life by her masterful and compassionate hand. Ambrosius, Uther, Cerdic and Cadal (among many others) become real people with emotions and desires we can understand. Even the villains are painted with the full palette of nuances, light and shadow. Definitely one to read over and over again with undiminished enchantment.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A wizard is born, 14 Feb. 2012
By 
R. A. Davison (UK) - See all my reviews
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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'.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical Merlin, 25 May 2012
By 
Mrs. Penelope J. Jaquet (Cheltenham UK) - See all my reviews
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Mary Stewart was born to write this book, and her ability to write in such a deceptively simple style means that Merlin leaps from the pages as if he had just been waiting for a voice.
Here is the story of his childhood, a despised bastard of a king's daughter, intelligent, intuitive and already showing the signs of his natural affinity with magic guided by the dweller in the cave.
But it is also Merlin's voyage of discovery, of his real parentage, of his growing power and the destiny that will bring Arthur eventually to the throne of a real dark age's world.
"The Crystal Cave" has been for many years one of my favourite books, read again and again. Of all the versions of Merlin's story that are or have been published, this is the one that will remain with you for a very long time.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Classic, but flawed to modern eyes., 8 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
The body of Arthurian myths has been a staple of fantasy, since the genre's earliest beginnings. Everyone has read at least one Arthurian book or seen Disney's Sword in the Stone and some of the genre's best known tropes can be traced back to the legend of the once and future king. Stewart takes a novel approach to the Arthur legend, by focusing on Merlin. While not the first to do so, her Merlin trilogy, which was published from 1970 onwards, was the first modern story to have Merlin as its main character, though this has been done more often since.

I liked the focus on Merlin as a youth. He is often portrayed as either a manipulative and unpleasant character or a wise, druidic sage. In this case he's neither, but is very human which I enjoyed. Merlin is flawed; he's young, somewhat proud and already displaying the mix of magic, maths skills, and logical thinking that will gain him his reputation later on. We also learn that much of his earlier visions are accidental and not really under his control. And in Stewart's version of Arthur's world Merlin isn't a druid, the way he's often depicted, but he's a learned young man, taught by Romanised tutors and a mystic hermit called Galapas, who may or may not be a mage.

Merlin's magic and world is quite interwoven with religion. The story is set before the complete Christianisation of Britain and there are remnants of the Roman soldiers' worship of Mithras and the Britons' druidic beliefs running through the narrative. Merlin quite early on in the novel formulates his ideas about there being only one god, that all the gods are the same entity. A theme that feels rather current given the fact that humanity is still fighting about which god is the greater every day. Despite this interweaving however, the book doesn't feel like it is taken over by religious metaphors. Though one wonders how much the portrayal of women is influenced by early Christian teachings: the book is somewhat of a sausage fest with women relegated to the background and those women with an active part in the narrative are portrayed either as whores, saints, or both. The best example of the latter is Merlin's mother, the Lady Niniane, who bears a son out of wedlock, protects the identity of her son's father but not speaking of him ever, and who later comes to the faith and enters a nunnery, going from being a woman of loose morals to a holy sister. On the other end of the spectrum, there are Rowena, the Saxon Queen, Keridwen, Merlin's childhood love, and Ygraine, the woman Uther would make queen. They are all portrayed as dangerous, either on a personal level or to the kingdom, and they are all shown as women breaking faith, with the Church, with their marital vows, and with common humanity, this latter is especially true of Rowena, who is portrayed as purely evil.

What I did appreciate was the emphasis on the Romanised nature of pre-Arthurian Britain. It acknowledges that after the Romans left the country didn't just return to its 'barbarian' roots as if the lights of civilisation were switched off, but that people, especially powerful people, retain a veneer of Roman civic life. Stewart also mixes in historical figures such as Vortigern and Vortimer and the Saxon invasion that took place after the Romans left. Stewart creates such an intricate weaving of actual history and myth that at some points it gets hard to distinguish between the two.

I have a soft spot for Arthuriana, to the point of having taken a class on them at university. In my teens I went through a phase of reading everything Arthur I could get my hands and I'd read The Crystal Cave for the first time at that point as well. I remember adoring it completely then. I still enjoyed it now, but I didn't find it as engrossing or as flawless as I did then. The question is whether this is because the story and writing didn't age well or whether I am a more critical reader? I'd hope that the latter is certainly true, but I'm afraid that the former is also true. The Crystal Cave is a well-crafted narrative, a classic coming-of-age story, but for modern readers there might be too many hurdles to overcome to make for a pleasant reading experience.

This book was provided for review by the publisher as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.
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The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1)
The Crystal Cave (Merlin Trilogy 1) by Mary Stewart (Paperback - 2 Feb. 2012)
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