Monday, October 20, 2008
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
When I was in late adolescence I read several paperback versions of the Arthurian saga. Most of these were camp, usually with a slightly pornographic bent. They were all fun, but offered very little insight into what prompts humans to make wise or disastrous choices of far-reaching consequence. When I got to university I asked a friend who was immersing himself in Arthurian narratives to recommend a particular writer. He covered the gamut from T.H. White’s purely naturalistic approach (A) to some of the wilder “bibbety-bobbity-boo” magick-fests. “Mary Stewart strikes a balance between the two. Her Merlin is in the grip of some sort of supernatural impulse, but it isn’t magic wand stuff. I’d probably recommend her Merlin books over just about anyone else’s.”
Re-reading The Crystal Cave some twenty years later, I think my friend’s analysis was right on the money. Stewart introduces Merlin as a young, conniving bastard with an appetite for eavesdropping. He is a pitiable figure — picked upon, beaten and targeted for a courtyard assassination. But occasionally something seems to take hold of him and show him the true shape of things. He cannot summon this ability, but it visits him at crucial moments.
Already prone to manipulating people’s fear of him, he learns to exploit these moments with increasing confidence. By book’s end he is a cocky young man, gleefully assisting the newly crowned Uther in his midnight tryst with Lady Ygraine, an adulterous romp that will result in the birth of Arthur — and the New Beginning for England.
400-plus pages leading up to the conception of Arthur might seem like an indulgence in another writer’s hands, but Stewart ably demonstrates why her Arthurian account is still the first choice of geek (or any other) readers everywhere. Her pre-Arthurian England is mash-up of Christian and pagan sects vying to hold political sway over the country's itinerant warlords. Merlin is a skeptic of both religions, but has a shrewd sense of how the two collude. Above all he is a pragmatist with a sense of destiny, and he appeals to one or the other wherever they serve his purpose.
Someone once equated writing a novel to “juggling confetti” and in this regard Stewart has few peers. There are several strains of political intrigue running through these novels, and she has a clear sense of where they all lead, but only reveals what she has to in order to sustain reader interest. Again, this is meat and potatoes geek material, but she serves it up with considerable panache where someone like, say, Neal Stephenson sometimes struggles. In Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle an all too frequent narrative pattern was an unanticipated wallop of unexplained significance, followed by a buffering scene, followed by an episode that revealed what the wallop was all about. Stewart is a gentle massager of foreshadowing, giving the reader a sense of how and why a particular character is developing a moral blind-spot which will eventually be exploited to tragic effect. When surprises occur they do not materialize out of thin air, and thus have genuine emotional weight.
My 37-year-old copy of this book fell apart on my second reading, so I visited the nearest used bookstore and picked up replacements for all three titles. Is there a used bookstore that doesn’t have these books on hand? Go and find out. If you’re an Arthurian buff who hasn’t yet read Mary Stewart, you’ll thank me for introducing you to such cheap but enduring thrills.
(And of course there is always Amazon.)