Study Guide

The Crystal Cave

By Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave Introduction

When we say the name "Merlin," we're betting that an image of this guy pops into your head. You know him: the long, flowing robe covered in suns and moons, the tall staff, the long grey beard.

Mary Stewart wants you to put that basic dude out of your mind. In The Crystal Cave, we see a more complex Merlin, one with a family and a tragic backstory. This Merlin is an engineer and a poet. He's an orphan and an awkward teen. And oh, yeah—he's also a wielder of supernatural power.

The Crystal Cave tells the story of Merlin's involvement in the Top 10 Moments in Legendary British History, including (but not limited to):

  • The downfall of wicked King Vortigern;
  • The renovation of Stonehenge;
  • The shady hookup of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, the parents of King Arthur.

Merlin still has a starring role here, and he still shows off some impressive prophetic skills. But Stewart doesn't want to focus on that guy; she doesn't want to get involved in the Arthurian legends in the usual way.

So this Merlin isn't going to whip up love potions or spells to transform eager lovers. This Merlin is an agent of Fate.

As such, he really doesn't have control over his powers. They're completely in the service of "the god," an unnamed deity who won't take no for an answer. Stewart's goal is to explore the chaos that is Britain in her favorite era—between Roman occupation and unification under the mythic Arthur, during what people used to call the Dark Ages.

And boy, was that place a hot mess. Christianity had popped up on the island and taken hold, but the people weren't ready to let go of their pagan rituals. Hordes of Saxons, Danes, and pretty much everyone else poured into Britain, bringing strange languages and really, really bad attitudes.

Seriously. Chaos.

By telling the story from this new and improved Merlin's point-of-view, Stewart gives us a street view of the story behind the legend. This is not your grandma's medieval chronicle (that would be Nennius or Geoffrey of Monmouth to us) with a bird's-eye view of long stretches of history. And The Crystal Cave is also not like the famous work of Thomas Malory, who wrote episodes about Arthur's Round Table while serving hard time in Newcastle prison.

Stewart's work is not mythology or legend. It's more like a tell-all biography of a guy you wish had existed. Juicy.

Think you know everything there is to know about Merlin and Arthurian legend? Mary Stewart's got two stone-cold words for you: "Think again."

What is The Crystal Cave About and Why Should I Care?

You may not have heard of Mary Stewart, but back in the '60s and '70s, she was the romance author to read. If you were a woman of a certain age, you wouldn't head to the beach without one of her novels in your macramé bag.

That's one reason to care about The Crystal Cave, but we've got an even better one: this book takes on the massive and intimidating literary tradition surrounding the legends of King Arthur and his shenanigans with the Knights of the Round Table and makes it new. Seriously, the figures in these stories started popping up as early as the 6th century in the writing of a monk called Gildas, and they really never stopped populating stories, songs, and poetry throughout the Middle Ages.

Even the French were involved, people. You know that the French wouldn't get involved in British history unless it were très chic.

Seriously, you can't miss these stories. You don't want to miss these stories.

So, while it's always in vogue to appropriate some SCA version of the Arthurian legends, Stewart does something truly difficult and creative. She goes hardcore and creates her version straight from the original sources. What we get is something very different, but Stewart's work reminds us not to forget the past when we search for inspiration.

Now get on that 800-page Le Morte d'Arthur before your enthusiasm fades.

The Crystal Cave Resources


Total Fandom
Mary Stewart's work is so awesome that it inspired a fan-run blog.

"Mary Queen of Plots"
This blog covers Stewart's whole writing career and includes interviews, articles, and obituaries from around the globe.

Deadly Hook Up
Want the info on the relationship between Merlin and Nimue? Check out this 18th-century poem (it's pretty short) to get the bitter end of it in a nutshell.

Getting a Grip on the History
Check out Shmoop's awesome Medieval Lit timeline to get a hold on the actual stuff happening around the events in Stewart's book.

King Arthur FTW
Though the legendary king hasn't exactly made his entrance by the end of this book, he's kind a big deal, anyway. Take a look at some of the traditions and stories that inspired Mary Stewart's famous trilogy.

Once. Future. Always. Forever.
So if you've read The Crystal Cave, there's no way you should miss out on T. H. White's The Once and Future King. In fact, we think Stewart would rap your knuckles if you did. We've got you covered, natch.

Go On: Be Impressive
Why stop with 20th-century Arthurian adaptations? Take the plunge and get medieval with Thomas Malory's 15th-century Le Morte d'Arthur. Don't freak: it's in English.

Movie or TV Productions

Medieval Wizardry on TV
Okay, we know that this BBC production looks pretty old school and super cheesy these days, but hey, don't judge. It's also pretty faithful to Stewart's storyline.

Articles and Interviews

The Life of a Lady
Sure, this is an obituary, but it's a New York Times obituary, which means it's got everything you need to know about Mary Stewart's life and work.

Mary Stewart Speaks
Stewart talks about genre change, the perils of writing a four-book series when you think each book is your last, and how she handled the legends surrounding King Arthur.

A Busy Woman
Here's a solid bio and discussion of Stewart's written works, including a list of first lines from her novels.


Rebuilding Segontium
Check out this CGI recreation of what the Roman fort at Segontium in North Wales looked like back in the day.

Smooth History
Morgan Freeman narrates (yay) this NatGeo special on the cult of Mithras and its importance in Roman religion.

Mysterious Stones
Remember those creepy standing stones that Merlin runs into when he first lands in Brittany? Yeah, those are a real thing. If you ever get a chance to visit Carnac in France, you can see the fields of giant stones that likely inspired Mary Stewart's descriptions. This link includes a nifty little History Channel video about the stones at the bottom of the page.


Merlin in Art
This site's got links to images of Merlin—and his lady-love-slash-nemesis Nimue—in art through the centuries.