Mary Overton's Reviews > The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
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Jul 02, 10

Read in July, 2010

A retelling of the Arthur legend based on Geoffrey on Monmouth's HISTORY OF THE KINGS OF BRITAIN.
From "Author's Note":
"Geoffrey's name is, to serious historians, mud. From his Oxford study in the twelfth century he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of 'history' from the Trojan War (where Brutus 'the King of the Britons' fought) to the seventh century AD, arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short of facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of whole cloth. Historically speaking, the HISTORIA REGUM BRITTANIAE is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff, and has been a source and inspiration for the great cycle of tales call the Matter of Britain, from Malory's MORTE D'ARTHUR to Tennyson's IDYLLS OF THE KING, from PARSIFAL to CAMELOT." (pg. 313)

[Merlin's mother, a Welsh princess, tells King Vortigern what he wants to hear, that her bastard son Merlin was begotten by a demon.:]
"'So all through that winter he came to me. And he came at night. I was never alone in my chamber, but he came through doors and windows and walls, and lay with me. I never saw him again, but heard his voice and felt his body. Then, in the summer, when I was heavy with child, he left me.... They will tell you how my father beat me and shut me up, and how when the child was born he would not give him a name fit for a Christian prince, but because he was born in September, named him for the sky-god [Myrddin:], the wanderer, who has no house but the woven air. But I called him Merlin always, because on the day of his birth a wild falcon flew in through the window and perched above the bed, and looked at me with my lover's eyes.'" (pg. 184)

[The priests say that because Merlin is "the child of no man," his sacrificed blood will magically repair the cracked foundation of a fortress Vortigern is building.:]
"I could tell them the truth, coldly. I could take the torch and clamber up into the dark workings and point out faults which were giving way under the weight of the building work above. But I doubted if they would listen.... what Vortigern needed now was not logic and an engineer; he wanted magic, and something - anything - that promised quick safety and kept his followers loyal.
"....I lifted a hand to beckon the King, and he came forward and stood with me at the edge of the pool. I pointed downwards. Below the surface something - a rock, perhaps - glimmered faintly, shaped like a dragon....
"'This is the magic, King Vortigern, that lies beneath your tower. This is why your walls cracked as fast as they could build them. Which of your soothsayers could have showed you what I show you now?... If you could drain this pool, King Vortigern, to find what lay beneath it -'
"I stopped. The light had changed....Shadows fled across the streams and staircases of fire, and the cave was full of eyes and wings and hammering hoofs and the scarlet rush of a great dragon stooping on his prey ... my eyes were open, but all I could see was the whirl of banners and wings and wolves' eyes and sick mouths gaping, the the tail of a comet like a brand, and stars shooting through a rain of blood." (pg. 195)

[Merlin comes out of his trance and hears from his servant the prophecy he delivered to Vortigern.:]
"'It was all dressed up, like poets' stuff, red dragons and white dragons fighting and laying the place waste, showers of blood, all that kind of thing. But it seems you gave them chapter and verse for everything that's going to happen; the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius fighting it out, the red dragon looking not so clever to begin with, but winning in the end. Yes. Then a bear coming out of Cornwall to sweep the field clear ... ARTOS was the word.'" (pg. 199)

[Stewart adds in a revival of the mystery cult of Mithras, the bull-killing god worshiped by Roman soldiers.:]
"... the kneeling bull and the man with a knife under an arch studded with stars ... I had seen [a vision of:] the soldiers' god, the Word, the Light, the Good Shepherd, the mediator between the one God and man. I had seen Mithras, who had come out of Asia a thousand years ago. He had been born ... in a cave at mid-winter, while sheperds watched and a star shone; he was born of earth and light, and sprang from the rock with a torch in his left hand and a knife in his right. He killed the bull to bring life and fertility to the earth with its shed blood, and then, after his last meal of bread and wine, he was called up to heaven. He was the god of strength and gentleness, of courage and self-restraint." (pg. 109)
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