PinkMonkey Literature Notes on The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

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The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

PinkMonkey Literature Notes on . . .
The Crystal Cave


Mary Stewart


MonkeyNotes Study Guide by Diane Clapsaddle






The novel is set around 450 A.D., one of the darkest periods of Britain’s history. It begins in Wales in the town of Maridunum, but branches out into various areas of Britain and Less Britain (Brittany) in what is now France. Some of the towns and cities where Merlin travels include: York, Kaerconan, Doward, Bremia, London, and Winchester in Britain and Tintagel and Dimiliac in Cornwall as well as Lanascol and Kerrac in Less Britain. Some of the action also takes place in Ireland at Killare.


Major Characters

Merlin -The main character and narrator of the novel, he is the young boy who has the Sight and grows into his power as an enchanter. He is the one who is led by the god (later God) to bring the about the birth of Arthur.
Ambrosius - Merlin’s father, he becomes the High King of Britain after defeating

Vortigern and the Saxons and restoring peace to the land

Niniane - Merlin’s mother, she has a forbidden affair with Ambrosius from which comes Merlin. She never reveals the name of Merlin’s father. She, too, has the Sight, but fears her power and turns instead to Christianity and the nunnery for her strength.
Uther - Ambrosius’ brother and Arthur’s father, he becomes High King at Ambrosius’ death. Merlin uses him to bring about the birth of Arthur, but thinks of him only as a regent who follows and precedes great kings. He is not a great king himself.
Gorlois - The Duke of Cornwall, he is ultimately loyal to Ambrosius and fights with him to unite all Britain. He is betrayed by both Merlin and Uther when Merlin makes it possible for Uther to sleep with Gorlois’ wife Ygraine and conceive Arthur.
Ygraine - The Duchess of Cornwall, she gives into her lust for Uther and agrees to Merlin’s plan to bring them together. She will become Arthur’s mother.
Galapas - The hermit with the Sight who helps Merlin find the crystal cave and teaches him all he knows of his power.
Camlach - Niniane’s brother and briefly King of Maridunum, he sides with Vortimer against Vortigern and is killed in battle. He fears Merlin will be a challenge to his right to be king, so he tries to poison the boy.
Vortigern - High King of Britain when Merlin is a boy, he steals the throne from Constantius by poisoning him. He actually begins his reign as a good king, but soon allows the Saxons to control his country.
Cadal - Merlin’s loyal servant, he dies at Tintagel, protecting Merlin from Gorlois’ men.
Minor Characters

Merlin’s Grandfather - The king of Maridunum at the beginning of the novel, he despises Merlin who is a bastard without a father. This character is never named.

Olwen - Merlin’s grandfather’s young wife, she plays the harp and teaches Merlin to play as well.

Dinias - Merlin’s cousin and his grandfather’s bastard son, he bullies Merlin as a child, but helps Merlin and Ambrosius in the invasion.

Moravik - Merlin’s nurse
Cerdic - A servant in Merlin’s grandfather’s house, who becomes a kind of father figure to Merlin. He teaches him to be the ring-dove rather than the falcon until he is old enough to fight for himself.
King Budec - King of Less Britain, he takes in the young Ambrosius and Uther when Vortigern kills their brother, Constantius, and steals the throne of Britain.
Rowen - Vortigern’s Saxon Queen who influences him to bring Saxon troops to Britain.
Vortimer, Katigern, & Pascentius - The three sons of Vortigern, they turn against him to take the throne for themselves. They eventually must be defeated by Ambrosius.
Marric - One of Ambrosius’ spies in Britain, he takes Merlin to Less Britain where he finally meets up with his father.
Mithras - The god whom Ambrosius and Uther worship in Less Britain.
Belasius - Merlin’s tutor in Less Britain, he is the Arch Druid of a sect which believes in human sacrifice.
Ulfin - Belasius’ servant, he later becomes one of Uther’s servants and is taken along when Uther seeks Ygraine at Tintagel.
Tremorinus - Ambrosius’ head engineer, he teaches Merlin all he can about building siege machines and from these lessons, Merlin is able to determine how to raise the standing stones at the Giant’s Dance.
Hengist - The Saxon leader, he is eventually beheaded by Ambrosius, but is buried in an honorable manner.
Maugan - A magician, he insists that Vortigern should kill a man who doesn’t know the name of his father and spread his blood into the foundation of the fortress at Dinas Brenin, so the walls won’t crack.
Keridwen - A servant in Merlin’s grandfather’s castle, she earns her keep as well by sleeping with the men there. She is Keri’s mother.
Keri - A young nun in St. Peter’s, Merlin finds himself attracted to her, the first time he is ever attracted to a woman. She is an opportunist who wants Merlin, because he is the son of Ambrosius.
Octa & Eosa - The brothers of Hengist, they must be brought under control after Ambrosius defeats their brother.
Gandar - Physician to Ambrosius’ army, he recognizes Merlin’s great talent as a healer.
Gilloman - Young King of Ireland, he makes an alliance with Pascentius against Ambrosius’s right to rule in Britain.
Brithael - One of Gorlois’ soldiers, his discovery of Uther’s presence at Tintagel forces Merlin to kill him.
Ralf - Ygraine’s page boy, he helps Merlin and Uther to get into Tintagel.
Marcia - Ygraine’s lady-in-waiting, she appears in Merlin’s vision handing him baby Arthur on the night of his birth.


Protagonist - The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. He or she must usually overcome some opposing force. This is Merlin who, as the narrator, re-tells the story of his mission to bring about the conception of Arthur. We are shown his life from a child of six to the moment when he is able to bring Uther and Ygraine together as the parents of the Great Future King Arthur. He is a character who is constantly in motion. He learns as much as he can and willingly places himself in the hands of the god who, he comes to believe, is the only God there is. He experiences many emotions throughout the novel when he comes in contact with those characters that impact on his mission. However, he discovers that these emotions are not his to enjoy for long as the god always sends him on the next step of the path which will lead to Arthur.
Antagonist - The antagonist of a story is the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. The antagonist does not always have to be a single character or even a character at all. In this story, the antagonist is Merlin’s god or God. Merlin is always in conflict with the god’s needs and even though he eventually acquiesces to the gods demands, he pays a severe price every time. For example, the god will not allow him to have a relationship with a woman for fear that his mission will be hampered. He loses many people he loves as well, such as Galapas and Cadal, because he is constantly a target. The god is strict and unbending and many times he places Merlin in situations of great danger. Nonetheless, he must be satisfied, no matter the cost.
Climax - The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. The climax in this story does not occur until the end when Merlin kills Brithael so that Uther will not be discovered in Ygraine’s bed. Although it nearly costs Merlin his own life, it allows enough time for the god’s demand to be fulfilled: the conception of Arthur.
Outcome - In the end, Merlin is blamed by the Uther for the deaths of the four men at Tintagel, even though it was Uther who demanded that Merlin bring him Ygraine. He then repudiates Merlin, forbids anyone to help him with his wounds and leaves him standing on the Cornish shore. He also declares that he will never acknowledge the baby he conceived with Ygraine. Merlin then climbs on his horse and rides away. The ending, however, is hopeful, because Arthur has been conceived as symbolized by the rising sun at the end.

The novel begins with a Prologue in which Merlin introduces himself as an old man remembering all the events of his life. He presents his greatest memory in the prologue as well which details the love affair in the cave between his parents who we will learn later are Ambrosius and Niniane.

The novel is divided into five books which unfold as follows:

Book I – The Dove tells the story of Merlin’s early years. We learn how is despise in his grandfather’s house because his father is unknown and he is a bastard unrecognized. He begins to become aware of his power of the Sight and how to use it to his own advantage.
We are introduced to his uncle, Camlach, who tries to poison Merlin, because he fears his power. He discovers the crystal cave and meets Galapas, another person his life besides his mother who has the gift of the Sight. Galapas teaches him many aspects of life as well as how to use magic. He takes him into the crystal cave where Merlin has a vision of a deep mine underground where slaves are breaking out rock and taking them to the surface. He will later know that this mine lies under Dinas Brenin and will be the reason why the fortress being built there won’t stand. Galapas later insists that Merlin ride along with his grandfather when he meets up with Vortigern, the High King, at Segontium. Here, Merlin first sees the hill that will become Dinas Brenin or the King’s Fort. This place will be the one where Merlin nearly gives his life for a blood superstition.

This section of the novel also introduces the tension in the country, because the sons of Vortigern have broken with him and war is imminent. Quarrels break out between Camlach and Merlin’s grandfather over whose side to take. Then, Merlin’s grandfather is killed in a fall and Merlin’s beloved servant, Cerdic, is blamed and killed as well. Merlin sees all this in a vision at the crystal cave. Merlin returns to his home long enough to pack supplies and burn down his room where Cerdi’s body lies. This will be his way of sending his friend “on his way” in the manner he would have wanted.

After Merlin runs away, he is kidnapped by Marric and Hanno, two spies of Ambrosius, who take him across the Narrow Sea (the English Channel) to Less Britain.
Book II – The Falcon tells the story of Merlin’s life in Less Britain. He arrives there, sea-sick and afraid that the two spies will kill him. He escapes from the boat and makes his way up a road toward the nearest town. This is when he first sees standing stones and the image of a two-headed axe which disappears before his eyes. This image will appear to him many times in the future and is a sign given by the god.
Merlin finds shelter in a cow shed where he has a vision of a man lassoing a great white bull and killing it. This is the sacred picture of the god Mithras who is worshipped by Ambrosius and Uther. When he awakes, Ambrosius and Uther are standing over him and demand that he relate the vision again. They take Merlin with them to Ambrosius’ camp where the story of Ambrosius’ and Uther’s life in Less Britain is revealed. They had been taken in by King Budec when Vortigern had poisoned their brother, Constantius, the king, and stolen the throne. Now, they are amassing an army to take back their birthright and unify Britain.
Ambrosius speaks to Merlin about many things in Britain and later gives him a brooch for his cloak which carries Ambrosius’ personal insignia, the Red Dragon. At this point, Ambrosius knows that Merlin is his son, but Merlin does not. Ambrosius also assigns Cadal as Merlin’s personal servant.
Merlin is given a tutor named Belasius. One night, Merlin follows him and discovers he is the Arch Druid of a sect which believes in human sacrifice. Belasius tells Merlin that he wants him to be one the new initiates in this religion, but Merlin only acts like this is what he wants. On his way back to Ambrosius’ camp, he is stopped by Uther who finds Belasius’ bloody robe in Merlin’s saddlebag and believes he is one of the members of this illegal sect. However, when he grabs Merlin by his cloak, he sees the Red Dragon brooch and stops short of hurting him. Merlin tells Cadal everything that happened to him while following Belasius and Cadal warns him to steer clear of both Belasius and Uther.
When he goes to tell Ambrosius what happened, he has vision in which he sees Ambrosius with his mother Niniane going into the cave. He realizes then that Ambrosius is his father and Ambrosius tells him the whole story about how he met Niniane and how they fell in love. She had refused to live in Less Britain with him, because she was too loyal to her father. However, neither one ever stopped loving the other.
Book III – The Wolf relates some of the next five years Merlin spends in Less Britain. Camlach and Vortimer and his brothers bide their time by controlling most of West Britain even though their father is the High King. The Saxons continue to enjoy the benefits of raping Britain, because Vortigern doesn’t have the troops to expel them.

Merlin spends those five years learning from his father, Belasius, and Tremorinus, the chief engineer of Ambrosius’ army, as he waits to be of service to his father. When Merlin turns eighteen, Ambrosius is finally prepared to invade Britain. Merlin is sent on the first boat with orders to find Galapas who they hope will have information about Vortigern’s army. Unfortunately, when Merlin finds the cave again, it has been trashed and burglarized and Galapas has been murdered. His next step is to find his mother, as she may know as much as Galapas. Before he can do that, however, he meets up with Dinias, his cousin and his childhood bully. They go together to an inn to eat and drink where Merlin hopes to learn as much as he can from him. While they are there, Merlin notices they are being watched by two mysterious Welshmen. Dinias tells Merlin that Vortigern is building a stronghold on the same hill where he saw Vortigern with his grandfather all those years ago. He plies Dinias with more wine to get him to talk, but it backfires on him when Dinias raises his voice too high, telling everyone there that Merlin is a bastard who never knew his father. This is of interest to the two mysterious men who take Merlin outside and force him and his mother to ride with them to Vortigern’s court.

At Vortigern’s court at Dinas Brenin, Merlin’s mother tells Vortigern that Merlin’s father was a demon, hoping to keep them from knowing that his real father is Ambrosius. Unfortunately, it is exactly what Vortigern wants to hear. He has been trying to build a stronghold at Dinas Brenin and the walls have cracked and fallen four times. Now one of his magicians tells him that they will only stand if the blood of a bastard who does not know his father is placed in the foundation. Merlin is that bastard. Merlin now must use his wits to survive. He takes the king into the mine cave and shows him a rock shaped like a dragon, hoping the light from the torches will create a magic effect around the rock. Instead, he falls into another vision during which he tells the king he must drain the pool by means of a conduit. Then, he prophesies through pictures of banners, wolves eyes, and the tail of a comet the defeat of Vortigern by Ambrosius. He also mentions the coming of artos or Arthur which those around him take to mean a bear. When the pool is emptied, there is nothing there to help Merlin’s prophecy seem true. But a gust of wind grabs the king’s banner and it falls into the pool of water left in the cave. The sunset leaves a reflection of red on the banner and the soldiers see it as a prediction that the banner will fall. At the same time, the comet from his vision flashes across the sky and Merlin screams that it is the voice of the god. He convinces Vortigern to strike his tents and leave Wales. This will help Ambrosius smoke him out later.
Merlin then gets away with Cadal and meets up with one of the officers who stood around him when he had his vision. The man is not really an officer of Vortigern, but is instead Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. He has come to spy for Ambrosius, too, and is now able to hook up with Merlin. They ride to meet Ambrosius and three days later, he comes ashore.
Book IV – The Red Dragon relates how Ambrosius takes Britain. It takes him more than two years to pacify this country. Using “Caesar-speed” (to move fast and live off the land), he meets up with his allies in Britain. He unifies all these tribes and assimilates them into his army. Then, he finds Vortigern at Doward and because the fortress there is impregnable, he burns them out and kills them.
In flashback, we learn that Merlin, Cadal, and Gorlois rode on to meet Ambrosius with plans to ambush Vortigern’s troops who had take Merlin’s mother home. Along the way, they meet up with men from the countryside who are eager to be a part of Ambrosius’ army. Once they have killed those troops of Vortigern’s, they give the weapons and horses to the countrymen who want to volunteer. Merlin sees Dinias in Maridunum and convinces him to ride south and persuade pockets of men there to join him and Ambrosius.
Merlin also discovers that his mother is ill, but believed to be recovering. He goes to her and tells her everything that has happened to him since he left his grandfather’s house, including the truth about Ambrosius. She is content to know he has been happy and Merlin, in his heart, knows she is dying. The only message she sends with Merlin to his father is: “When I see him again, it will be time enough. “ Unfortunately, she dies before she can see the love of her life again. When Merlin leaves the convent, he sees a young nun to whom he is attracted. But in his heart, like the knowledge of his mother’s death, he knows love is not meant for him.

Ambrosius’ army defeats Hengist and the Saxons at the Battle of Kaerconan. Merlin watches it all on a hill above the plain where they meet. Later, Ambrosius executes Hengist, but gives him an honorable funeral. The army then travels to York where Ambrosius begins his great task of reconstruction in every city he visits. He also accepts the Christian God as his own and leaves behind the worship of Mithras. He believes he must live as his people do and they are Christians for the most part.

Merlin visits the Giant’s Dance near Amesbury and has a vision about a stone missing from an indentation in the ground within the circle of the stones. It reminds of a grave and he knows the god has led him there for a reason. Later, he sees Keri, the young nun, coming to his cave where she attempts to seduce him. Merlin wants the love she offers, but the god won’t allow it and Merlin repudiates her. Later, he is sent to Ireland to use his magic to somehow break the heart of the Irish. King Gilloman has allied himself to Pascentius and threatens Ambrosius. Ambrosius believes Merlin can end the battle before it even begins. He goes there and spends the night lying in the middle of the Dance of Killare, the Irish standing stones. He realizes that the black stone lying in the middle is the one which exactly fits the indentation in the midst of the Giant’s Dance. He tells Uther that this rock is the heart of Ireland and if they take it back, it will protect Britain forever. Using his own calculations, Merlin figures out how to lift the stone and take it home with him. An Irishman tells him that it had been prophesied that Merlin would appear one day and take the rock, which had been brought to Ireland originally from Britain. Therefore, it is only justice that it return. Merlin feels bound by the god to bring back the stone, because he knows that his father is ill and this stone will become his monument. When he arrives home, Ambrosius has already died. Merlin has him buried within the circle of the Giant’s Dance and he raises all the stones around his grave and places the black stone on top. Uther then becomes king.
Book V – The Coming of the Bear opens with Uther’s reign beginning in a troublesome way when Hengist’s brothers and the Saxons rise up again to challenge him. Fortunately, with Gorlois’ help, Uther defeats them and solidifies his power. On December 20, the winter solstice, Merlin shows Uther the ultimate monument he has made for his father: the stones of the Giant’s Dance are all raised and at sunrise that day, the light breaks upon Ambrosius’ grave, fulfilling his promise that he would deck his grave with light. Uther warns Merlin that he cannot be as close to him as he been to Ambrosius, but Merlin predicts that their stars will cross again.
At Easter, Merlin is commanded to attend Uther’s coronation. When he arrives, he discovers that Uther needs him, because he has fallen in love with Ygraine the wife of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. He wants Merlin to bring them together. Merlin knows from the god that this is destiny and that the child created between them will be the greatest king ever. So, at the cost of the deaths of four men, Merlin fulfills Uther’s desire and Arthur is conceived. In the end, Uther blames the outcome on Merlin and forgets it was his desire that prompted it all. Also, Gorlois is killed when his troops attack Uther’s and in the end, Uther rides to Tintagel to claim Ygraine for his own. Merlin rides off, knowing that his destiny still awaits him somewhere after Arthur’s birth.

Destiny or Fate - The theme of destiny or fate is strongly prevalent throughout this novel. All the characters are controlled by the god/God who with great determination moves them like figures on a chess board to bring about the birth of Arthur. Merlin, especially, is controlled by destiny to the point that his life is not his own. He is in the hands of God.
Duty and Loyalty - The theme of duty and loyalty can be seen in Merlin’s mission. He is ever loyal to God, never questioning his duty, even when the price is the loss of love and friends. He is also loyal to those he most admires, like his father, who brings good to his country and provides peace for his people.
Good versus Evil - The theme of good versus evil is another theme that dominates the novel. In every instance, even when people might die or lives are, at the least, profoundly changed, good always rises to overcome or even obtain revenge against evil forces that would destroy Britain.
Regret - A minor theme would be the theme of regret. Merlin tells his story long after the events have happened and he frequently shows regret for some of the things he did to achieve the ends of God.

The mood is frequently one of mystery. The most explosive scenes take place in darkness and mist with strange, unexplainable events taking place. The author builds this mood and then lets the reader rest momentarily before she begins to build it again. We are never completely separate from the mystery and the suspense which shadows all the characters and the events within which they are bound by God.

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