I have just finished reading The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. I haven’t read this particular iteration of the Arthurian saga for a long while – since my early teens I suspect, and I have to confess that I’m pretty sure I never read more than the first two books of the 4-book series.* Which is kind of crazy if you know me, and my long-lived adoration of all things Arthurian. The essay that got me into college was all about Merlin, for goodness sake, in answer to the “one person you’d like to meet” question. I don’t know why I never finished the Stewart books, or revisited them before now. All I can say is that I’m very glad I’ve picked them up again, as I have really enjoyed the first book and am looking forward to the rest.
For all my love of the Arthurian legend, it has been a long time since I’ve read any Arthurian books, and I can’t say precisely what prompted me to pick this up now, other then the general presence of Arthuriana in the air. It was a year ago that Parke Godwin** died, and Mary Stewart herself died just last month. And there’s been much discussion this past week about the author of what is probably the most influential work of Arthurian literature since The Sword in the Stone.*** And topping it all off, I’ve been watching the BBC series Merlin with my daughters.****
Let me tell you, it is really, really good to be back in Camelot. This story, along with Star Wars and the Chronicles of Narnia, lies at the foundation of all I love about stories, and my passion for mythic narrative in particular. Stewart’s books, with the careful balance of history and fantasy, and firm grounding in legendary material (it uses Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the British Kings as it’s primary source) is probably the perfect choice to reacquaint myself. It feels a bit like a homecoming.
In fact, I am feeling inspired to read a lot of Arthuriana right now, and have decided to produce a entirely definitive and entirely unofficial ranking of the best literary Arthurian novels, right here on this blog. (It’s not doing much otherwise, so why not?) As I progress, I’ll write a little about what I like and don’t like about each book, and how it compares to the legendary material, and I’m going to rank them in terms of personal preference. Here’s how the ranking stands right now:
Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):
#1: The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
(Okay, it’s gonna take some time to fill in the rest. I’m going off fresh readings, not what I remember from reading years ago.)
Specifically, what I like most about The Crystal Cave is that it closely follows the narrative source while giving it a firm historical grounding. (How accurate that history is may be up for debate, but it feels realistic enough for the average reader.) I really dislike versions that disregard the bones of the legend and instead construct their own narratives that just happen to use the characters and/or setting, but this book captures all the important events (so far): Merlin’s unknown father, his prophecy about the the red dragon and the white dragon, the erection of Stonehenge, and the deception that results in the conception of Arthur at Tintagel. Stewart interprets all these through a historical lens, but she doesn’t change them.
Stewart also injects in a significant mythic element, showing us a Merlin who is driven by the hand of the God (not specifically Christian), for purposes that aren’t always clear to him. Many of his feats that are attributed to magic are really the product of knowledge, engineering, and good luck, but his visions and prophecies are true, and he must often pay the consequences for acting on them. There is a definite sense of powers beyond the mortal realm at work.
What I don’t like is the lack of women of substantial character. There are four women of note in the book: Niniane, Merlin’s mother; Rowena, the Saxon wife of King Voritgern; Keri, a romantic interest for Merlin; and Ygraine, Arthur’s mother-to-be. Of these, Rowena doesn’t have a line of dialog, and Keri is only there to demonstrate that, for Merlin, girls are off-limits (the price for his powers, essentially). Niniane’s function seems to be primarily to keep Merlin’s father a secret – she doesn’t seem to have much influence on his character and once his reputation is secure she conveniently dies. Ygraine, of course, only comes in at the end, and while she is a reasonably interesting character, she never escapes from her role as Vessel of Prophecy. Her actions and choices have all been pre-determined. Of course, this is a big challenge for any Arthurian work – how do you create agency for characters whose fates are already established?
Overall, the book has good, solid writing, with first-person narration (by Merlin) that makes it very engaging. I like the character as presented, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I kept turning pages because I want to see how it affects him. That, really, is the essential point of any good story, isn’t it? Not what happens, but how it affects the people it happens to.
So, does anyone have recommendations for future Arthurian reads? What’s your favorite version of the legend?
* Wow, turns out there are 5 books – the last one came out in 1995.
** It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, but I remember thinking that his Arthurian books (Firelord, Beloved Exile, The Last Rainbow) were the best literary adaptions I’d read.
*** The Mists of Avalon, natch. I will leave you to google the current controversy if you’re not familiar with it already.
**** For all the liberties they take with the legendary material, it’s probably my favorite screen adaption to date.