Edition: Coronet, 1971 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 970
Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels, particularly the first three, are her biggest selling. This is the first, a first person narrative of the childhood and early adult life of Merlin. It makes him the illegitimate child of Ambrosius, conceived when he was a fugitive long before he became High King of Britain, and a Welsh princess from Carmarthen, the town supposedly named after Merlin. (The main political events of the novel, from the reigns of Vortigern and Ambrosius, are taken directly from Geoffrey of Monmouth's "history" of the kings of Britain.)
In this novel, Stewart minimises Merlin's magical powers, allowing just some minor charms and some prophetic ability, together with intelligence and a somewhat better education than would be common at the time, even among the upper classes or in the church. It fits quite closely with the kind of minor paranormal powers given to characters in some of her later novels, particularly Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold.
What makes The Crystal Cave work is that it is one of the clearest and most consistent rationalisations of the strange myths created around Merlin's origins. The style is (not surprisingly) very like Stewart's thrillers, and so it is easy to read and has a convincing enough background. It certainly deserves its place as one of the best known novelisations of the legend.