Saturday, 17 May 2014

The late great Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

published 1970









I had seen 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.

[Later, talking about gods] “I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the blood-stained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.— Is the bath ready?”

Twenty minutes later, in a dark blue tunic clipped at the shoulder by the dragon brooch, I went to see my father.




observations: Back in the 1970s there weren’t really Young Adult books as we understand them now, and it wasn’t clear what a keen reader would move on to after children’s books. This is a theme I’ve been looking at on the blog over the past year – see particularly the entries on Monica Dickens and Jane Duncan (click on the labels below for more). There was a kind of adult book which I think of as being suitable for a girls’ school library in those days. The doyenne of this genre might have been Mary Stewart, who has died at the age of 97. The surprising thing is that her books haven't appeared on the blog till now – although she was mentioned in this Elizabeth Ferrars entry, as possibly the inventor of the romantic suspense adventure story. 


And actually her books deserve a lot of credit: I can clearly remember reading them and being impressed by the way the heroines were independent, happy women with careers. Yes, they were normally going to end up with a tall handsome man, but in the meantime they got on with their lives, and were tough and adventurous. They didn’t need a man to rescue or protect them, and they certainly made me think that a woman’s 20s might be a great time for travel, work and a nice flat. This was by no means the impression you would get from many adult novels of the time.

The Crystal Cave was different again: the first of a trilogy about Merlin, and then also Arthur, in 5th century Britain. When I first picked it up all those years ago, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a modern adventure like The Ivy Tree and Touch Not the Cat. But in fact it replaced those others in my affections: I read it several times then, and I picked it up to do this blog entry, and have just read it in its entirety again. It is a wonderful book, the kind that makes you live in its world, and then wake up in a daze when you finish it.

It is exciting and tense and adventurous – you really don’t know what is going to happen half the time – and also very emotional: the scene where Merlin uses the winter solstice to pay tribute to his father is heart-stopping. And, it made me think that if the flat and job in London (as in the modern books) weren’t forthcoming, you could do worse than settle on a cave in the Welsh mountains and a nice quiet life with books and comforts surrounding you.

The Crystal Cave made me want to visit the places in the book, read more history, find out more about the times it described: it opened whole other vistas to me. Books like that should be cherished, and I hope it will live forever.

It resembles in a strange way Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, published a few years later: both first person narratives of a boy growing up in other times and places, both with an emphasis on a soldier mentor. Both are enthralling, perfect books, and both very different from the usual run of historical novels. And there’s a prefiguring of Harry Potter – the boy with the magical powers:

‘You heard that? Where were you?’
I told the simple truth: ‘My lord, I was asleep in the hills, six miles off.’
The very unusual picture is specifically of Druids – one of many beliefs featuring in the story – but seemed to represent the rest of the book too. It is by George Henry, painted around 1890, and is from the Athenaeum website.

8 comments:

  1. Moira in spite of your enthusiasm, I won't be troubling myself to find this. I can only have so many adventures in my reading!

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    1. I've no recollection of your ever blogging on anything historical/magical - but if you ever decide to experiment, Crystal Cave would be a great place to start...

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  2. Moira - I remember reading Stewart's books. I always liked the fact that the women in them weren't 'clinging vines.' She often put more than a touch of mysticism in her books too, and adventure. I hadn't thought of her work as the precursor if you will to today's YA novels, but I can see the connection. She will be missed.

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    1. Exactly Margot - they didn't feel like feminist books, but she certainly produced some great role models in the middle of her exciting and tense adventures.

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  3. Moira: I can distantly remember reading The Crystal Cave as a young man four decades ago. Living in rural Saskatchewan in the 20th Century it described a far and wondrous time. I think of it as magical realism well before the phrase was created.

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    1. That's a great description Bill, I think you sum it up very well. I loved the books because they took you to a different world.

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  4. I honestly don't remember if I had read her books, either the suspense novels or the Merlin series. Regardless, I should give them a try.

    Speaking of Elizabeth Ferrars, I finished the book and I enjoyed it a lot. Plan on looking for more.

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    1. Worth a try, Tracy. If you think you would like the Merlin/Arthur books then I really recommend them, though they might not be your thing.

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