The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The Crystal Cave tells the story of Merlin’s childhood and the very beginnings of the story of Arthur. It’s told from Merlin’s point of view, and there’s surprisingly little of the supernatural in this telling. Merlin is an engineer as much as a wizard, and his education is practical as well as magical. Much of the plot concerns the military campaigns of the kings Vortigern, Ambrosius and Uther, with lots of background about the conflicts among the Saxons, Welsh, Cornishmen, and Romans, as well as religious upheaval. That information makes the book feel well-researched and historical even though it’s completely fictional.
Throughout the story, Merlin has this sense of acting as an instrument, of being a mere vehicle for fate. He waits to be told by some higher power what to do, and then he acts. This robs the story of some dramatic tension, as we are always sure Merlin will work things out, and if he does something wrong or evil it’s not really his fault. However, it feels like a faithful interpretation of Merlin’s story, and he does pay some personal costs for his certainty.
The language of the novel is a pleasure. Here’s a taste from near the climax:
“If Uther gets into the place tonight and lies with her, then before God, Cadal, it will not matter as much as the worth of a drop of that sea-foam there if he is murdered in the bed. I tell you, a King will come out of this night’s work whose name will be a shield and buckler to men until this fair land, from sea to sea, is smashed down into the sea that holds it, and men leave earth to live among the stars. Do you think Uther is a King, Cadal? He’s but a regent for him who went before and for him who comes after, the past and future King. And tonight he is even less than that: he is a tool, and she a vessel, and I…I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of God blowing through it. You and I, Cadal, are as helpless as dead leaves in the waters of that bay.”