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Online Study Guide: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart - Book Summary

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THE CRYSTAL CAVE: FREE STUDY GUIDE / CHAPTER SUMMARY

BOOK I - The Dove

(the significance of the title: Cerdic teaches Merlin to be the ring-dove and run away from danger since he is yet so young and unable to face what might harm him)

CHAPTER 1

Summary

The narrator is but a six year old boy when the main part of the story opens. His memory concerns the return home of his uncle, Camlach, his mother’s brother, both of whom have beautiful blue eyes and red hair. His nurse, Moravik makes him ready for someone of importance whose men speak Celtic. We learn the identity of the important visitor and that the narrator’s grandfather is the king of Maridunum, a city where they live in South Wales.

The narrator also reveals that, besides Welsh, he knows Breton, the language of Less Britain, because Moravik, his nurse, is a native of that land. Pieces of information about Camlach are revealed through the narrator’s questions to his mother: the war is over and Camlach has been with the High King in the south; Camlach’s older brother, Dyved, has died of stomach cramps; Camlach will now be expected to marry; the narrator is called Merlin by his mother; Merlin seems to know more information than he should; and Camlach and his father will come to see Merlin. When Merlin questions why they would want to see him, his mother merely answers both mysteriously and bitterly, “Why do you think?”


Camlach and Merlin’s grandfather arrive, the elder in blue and the younger in black, a color he always wears. The King reveals that Merlin is a bastard who neither looks nor acts anything like his family. He also explains that Merlin’s mother will not reveal the identity of his father, even though she was whipped until she nearly miscarried him. It is interesting to note that Camlach had come to see Merlin even before he had washed away the dirt of travel. What makes this six year old boy so interesting?

When asked his name, Merlin answers with the Welsh Myrddin Emrys. His second name means child of light, belonging to the gods, while his first name in its Latin form Merlinus means falcon. Camlach addresses his sister as Niniane and is amused when she won’t reveal Merlin’s father’s name. The King’s contempt for both her and Merlin is quite evident. He says even the High King, Vortigern, would have found nothing in Merlin’s father or him.

Merlin tells us that he went through the hypocaust, the tunnels of the disused heating system, that night. It seemed to be a secret place where he could hide and be alone and even eavesdrop. But, he tells the reader, he went there to be alone in the “secret dark, where a man is his own master, except for death.”

In this way, he learns that Camlach and his men had ridden in from Cornwall. From the conversation between Camlach and his right-hand man, Alun, the reader also learns tidbits about Merlin’s mother perhaps refusing someone and having her mind set on a higher court, which may be a blessing to Camlach before the “game” is played out. Also, he describes Merlin in such terms as “clever . . . nice enough . . . and keeping him close to me . . . and remember that, Alun; I like the boy . . .”

The chapter ends with Merlin stating that this was the beginning of it and that he followed Camlach everywhere for days.

Notes

Merlin’s understanding of Breton is an important piece of foreshadowing for later in the story.

His mother is suspicious of all that Merlin seems to know, perhaps because, as we will learn later, she, too, has the Sight.

Merlin is interesting to both us and his family, because he doesn’t look like them and his father’s name is unknown.

Merlin’s name has symbolic significance: his first name, meaning falcon, implies strength and cunning and his second name reminds us of goodness, characteristics which will be revealed over and over as the story unfolds.

The secrets yet unknown about Niniane and who she will marry are intriguing while Merlin’s final sentence - “This was the beginning of it. . .” - make us wonder just what “it” is - and if we have any understanding of the Arthur legend we come to the conclusion that it is the conception and birth of the greatest king of Britain, Arthur.

We learn new names in this chapter: Niniane, Merlin’s mother; Vortigern, the High King; Maridunum, the city where Merlin lives; and Moravik, his nurse.


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