The Crystal Cave

by Mary Stewart

Paperback, 2003

Call number




Eos (Trade) (2003), Edition: Reprint, 494 pages


Fantasy. Fiction. HTML: Born the bastard son of a Welsh princess, Myrdden Emrys�or as he would later be known, Merlin�leads a perilous childhood, haunted by portents and visions. But destiny has great plans for this no-man's-son, taking him from prophesying before High King Vortigern to the crowning of Uther Pendragon ... and the conception of Arthur, king for once and always..

Media reviews

NBD/Biblion (via
Eerste deel van een trilogie over het leven van de legendarische tovenaar en helderziende Merlijn. Hij leefde in het Brittannië van de vijfde eeuw en was in zijn latere leven de opvoeder en raadgever van de grote koning Arthur. Dit eerste deel omvat het verhaal over zijn geboorte en eerste
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levensjaren, doorgebracht aan het hof van zijn grootvader, de koning van Zuid-Wales. Verder: de ontdekking van de glazen grot en zijn opleiding bij de ziener Galapas. Het boek eindigt met de geboorte van koning Arthur. Een boeiend verhaal over deze magiër; door haar levende verbeelding en vlotte schrijftrant weet de schrijfster de lezer van begin tot eind te boeien. Wordt vervolgd door: "De holle heuvels". Normale druk, volle bladspiegel. (Biblion recensie, J. v. Leeuwen-v.d. Tempel.)
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User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
Absolutely wonderful!

In some ways, I think this book stands even better on its own than it does as the beginning of a trilogy. There have been innumerable stories about Arthur, without or without Merlin as a main player. And this trilogy, once Arthur enters the stage, doesn't really add much new
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to the Geoffrey of Monmouth version of the story. As such, I have a bit of ho-hum reaction to the trilogy...been there, done that.

However, this first book about Merlin pre-Arthur is very good and quite capable of standing on its own. I think it's the best book with him as the main character that's been written. Stephen Lawhead tried to do the same thing later, but didn't succeed as well.

If you're looking for a novel full of wizardry, you won't find it here. This is a novel about the people set on a backdrop of well-researched history. You know while reading that Merlin has the magic, but demonstration of it does not fit the story's structure and, except for minor asides, is not shown. I think the novel is actually stronger for it. Instead, the story focuses on the characters, both major and minor, and their relationships.

I definitely recommend this one.
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LibraryThing member breadcrumbreads
For years I'd heard my mother talk of Mary Stewart. But it took me this long to finally pick one of her books up (I was admittedly bored and this was at hand) and read...and read...and read. I wish I'd read her stuff before. But, better late than never, they always say!The book I happened to pick
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up was the first of her Merlin trilogy - The Crystal Cave.Written from the perpective of the legendary Merlin, it traces his young life up to the point when he is instrumental in playing a part in Arthur's birth. It is a story with familiar names and places, but with a whole, fresh new outlook. If Mary Stewart has been hailed a fantastic 'story teller' then it is no exaggeration. From the very first word of the story she has you glued to her pages, her style being descriptive yet succinct, imaginative yet real, and full of movement and fire. The first book of her Merlin trilogy is fast paced and captivating, and by the end of it, leaves you panting for more. You are introduced to a Merlin who is not a creature of fantasy and magic, but a learned and knowledgable bastard prince who knows how to use all that experience and learning have taught him. In a time when a warrior is regarded as the ultimate epitome of manhood, it is little wonder that his intellect is treated with skepticism and suspicion of supernatural intervention - atleast, that is how Mary Stewart portrays this Merlin, although one cannot escape his gift of the Sight.Britain awaits unification despited the warring factions of Celts, Saxons and Romans; and it is through Merlin that this unification has its beginnings.The Crystal Cave is truly a fantastic read. I can't wait to get my hands on The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment - Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member bragan
This novel tells the life story of the legendary Merlin, from his early childhood up until the conception of King Arthur.

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book. It's quick, decent, unobjectionable read, and it fleshes out the legends in some moderately interesting ways, but somehow I
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just never found it nearly as engaging as I wanted it to be. Part of that may be due to the fact that there are longish chunks of narrative that are mostly about the movements of armies, and that's not exactly my favorite thing in the world to read about. But I think it has more to do with Merlin himself. There are two things about the character of Merlin, as he's traditionally presented, that are interesting: his wisdom, and his magic. Well, the youngster of this novel may have a lot of knowledge, but he's not really old enough yet to have that kind of iconic wisdom. And the magic is portrayed as something vague, limited, and surprisingly passive. Mostly it consists of visions provided at useful moments and a tendency to find himself drawn toward certain people and places exactly at the right times, which Merlin attributes to the patronage of some god. (Or all gods, or the only God... This book really does want to have its paganism and eat its Christianity, too.) I can't help but feel vaguely disappointed by this, somehow, though it's not because I was hoping for sparkly magical fireworks and didn't get any. I think the idea here is to undercut the mythology a bit and create a more human Merlin, and I actually think that's an approach with some terrific potential. I do, in fact, rather like the way Stewart shows how some of the legends start growing up around him based on stories that are exaggerated or just not true to begin with; there's a nice realism about that. But in general, I just don't think it succeeds very well, because I never did get a strong sense of Merlin as a real person. After spending 380 pages with him -- 380 pages of first-person narration, even! -- if you were to ask me to describe his personality, the best I could manage is, "Well, he's quite intelligent. And, um, he mentions sometimes really liking to be alone, so I guess he's kind of an introvert?" And that's it, because ultimately he comes across less as a fully fleshed human being and more as a passive tool of fate. Unfortunately, passive tools of fate are a lot less interesting.
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LibraryThing member dreamseeker
I was hooked on this story when I read Mary Stewart's vivid realistic description of Merlin as a little boy, playing among the Roman ruins at Bath. I have loved fantasy literature since I was a child, and grew up listening to teh tales of Arthur, Merlin and the knights of the round table, but this
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book is something different.
This beautifully written book encorporates the author's research on 5th century Brittain and her personal knowledge of the settings into the traditional Arthurian mythology. She re-examines the stories in the light of (what was, in the 1970s) the most current archeological evidence about Britain for the time period in which most scholars think the man who inspired the tales actually lived. Even though more evidence has come to light that puts some of those 1970s interpretations in doubt, the wonderful vivid world and striking characters that Mary Stewart created for these books still stand as wonderful in their own right. (This book is part of a trilogy including "The Hollow Hills", and "The Last Enchantment".) I definitely recommend these books - especially to readers who enjoy fantasy , historical and main stream because this book straddles those three genre, and does so beautifully!
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LibraryThing member PhoebeReading
It's clear, in The Crystal Cave that Mary Stewart owes quite a bit to the genre of fantasy--and I mean this here in both senses. Not only is her primary source material Geoffery of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (and an excerpt, concerning the legend of Merlin, is included), but the
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language here is incredibly rich in terms of sensory details.In debates about genre, and the worth of "genre" works, romance--and I mean here the type often assumed to be read and written solely by housewives--is usually given a short shrift. There's undoubtedly a gender bias there; science fiction and mystery are masculine and robust (supposedly), but that romance exists primarily for women is rarely questioned. What these debates miss are the strengths of the genre, and they're in full display here. The Crystal Caves is an absolutely gorgeously written book. Each line is deliberately and carefully crafted. Descriptions are clear and immediate. This is the opposite of sparse prose. This is fiction where the sentence is just as poetic a unit as the line is in poetry. For example:I stood where I was, watching the juice of the apricot trickle down the hot wall. A wasp alighted on it, crawled stickily, then suddenly fell, buzzing on its back to the ground. Its body jack-knifed, the buzz rose to a whine as it struggled, then it lay still.This luscious prose is in abundance here, and it lends the traditional source material a concrete immediacy that would be absent were Stewart not so handy with the language, if her words weren't so pretty. Of everything about the volume, I think it's the language, and therefore an overall sense of setting, that will stay with me the longest.The plot itself--tracing Merlin's life from childhood to young adulthood--is strong, but uneven. This is a four-hundred page novel divided into five sections; the earlier sections are much more engaging than the latter, which are crowded with battles and somewhat flat militaristic characters. Certain personalities--Uther, Ambrosius, the women of the abbey--are much more vivid and well-developed than others, namely Merlin's interchangeable servants (even our narrator, the wizard himself, acknowledges that he can't tell them apart). Though the book dragged a bit by the second-to-last section, where Merlin relocates stonehenge using science, not magic, for his king, it picks up a bit in the final fifth, where passion, rather than battle, again becomes the centerpiece. This is a worthwhile read, and a wonderful romance.
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LibraryThing member littlegeek
Very readable and engaging story of Merlin, from childhood until he helps Uther snag Ygraine. I love the way Stewart explains the "magic" of Merlin--it's more science and "headology" than tricks, although he does have the second sight. Very inventive, despite being based on such an old tale. Nicely
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descriptive without being boring.
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LibraryThing member maryh10000
Mary Stewart's books will always be my view of Merlin.
LibraryThing member morriss003
Warning: If JRR Tolkien ruined you for all other fantasy, Mary Stewart is likely to do the same for any other Arthurian stories. Her autobiographical account of Merlin is filled with fascinating detail, plausible history, and tragic inevitability. Her characters come alive as the last of the old
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Romans makes way for the first of the new Britons. This is the first of a wonderful three part series. There is a fourth book, but that seems to be an afterthought.
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LibraryThing member threadnsong
Oh. Wow. It is truly an amazing book, a groundbreaking look at Arthur through the eyes of Merlin, and one that acknowledges the disparate bits of history that are traceable as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth's legends. The historical bits are the post-Roman Britons who are struggling to hold onto
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their lands amidst the constant invasions of the Saxons and the perceived betrayal of the Lord/King Vortigern in his alliances with the Saxons.

In this re-telling, Merlin is the bastard son to a noblewoman, whose father is Ambrosius Aurelianus, exiled to Brittany. Ambrosius is brother to Uther who will later be the Pendragon and father to Arthur, but until then, Ambrosius must claim his crown and train his retainers in fierce fighting and moveable military camps. Merlin's upbringing, his servants, his journey, and his education are well-told and full of an appropriate combination of speculation and research. And also in this book is an embrace of the element of magic through the Sight as well as an intelligent mind. And darkness and mist.

I can see why it was better that I read it at an older age instead of in the "Arthur must be medieval!" thinking of my teens. The historical Arthur was of a certain time period and the court customs of the Middle Ages were definitely anachronistic to his history. On the other hand, there is quite a thrill to see "Excalibur" or to read the poetry of Mallory. I highly recommend this book for students of this legend; it is probably the foundation of modern Arthurian tales.
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LibraryThing member ladycato
This first book of Stewart's acclaimed Arthurian Saga examines the childhood and maturation of Merlin. From his birth, Myriddin Emrys is set apart from other children, and not merely because he was born a bastard to a Welsh princess. He is strange and precocious, using his intellect even when his
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burgeoning magical powers didn't serve him. After his grandfather the king is killed, Merlin flees from the household. God leads him on a strange path northward into foreign lands, but Merlin doesn't fear. He has seen his own death, and he knows that in the intervening years Britain will change and he will be an instrument of many kings.

Honestly, I avoided reading this book for years because I think King Arthur has been done to death. I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book since I wasn't familiar with Merlin's mythology and thought the plot came together beautifully. However, as Uther became a central figure, I liked the story less. This is completely my own bias. Mary Stewart is an excellent writer, and it's easy to see why this series has remained a consistent seller for decades. However, I won't be continuing with the next volume.
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LibraryThing member ZanaDont
I really enjoyed this novel, and will look for the other books in the series. The character of Merlin was written well, as a person who *thinks* in a time when thinking seriously about a problem... may be considered a special gift.

I thought it was well written, exciting, fun, and paced so that it
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felt like an adventure the whole time.
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LibraryThing member gothamajp
Another reread of a long-time favorite, that unfortunately didn’t stand up so well this time around. The central storyline of this first part of Stewart’s Arthurian cycle focuses on Merlin’s youth and growth to power and is engaging enough. But I don’t recall the first third being as
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ponderous as I found it this time. This time around I also found some of Stewart’s storytelling choices jarring and the language anachronistic at times.
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LibraryThing member 2chances
Mary Stewart's first published novel - NINE COACHES WAITING - was my first introduction to gothic-type romance, and it was a very auspicious introduction indeed - in my opinion, she was the best writer of the genre, aside from the great Daphne Du Maurier. When Stewart's Arthurian trilogy (Crystal
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Cave is the first of the series) came out, I resisted reading it - I wanted the old Mary Stewart. Silly me.

THE CRYSTAL CAVE is a wonderfully imagined, beautifully written novel about the young Merlin, following him as he traces his own bastard origins and begins to grasp his power and his destiny. Stewart has a gift for making mythical characters like Merlin, Uther and Ygraine seem wholly plausible; I love the way she writes dialogue for her characters, sprinkling modern English with just a touch of medieval phrasing, but wholly avoiding the "forsoothly" speech that does nothing but annoy and distract. Oh, Mary Stewart, I love you so much and I am so sorry I did not want to read this when it first came out. I have since made up for it by reading this trilogy at least thirty times.
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LibraryThing member ammie
Wow! What an enjoyable read! I've never been so thoroughly swept into the world of Merlin and King Arthur as I was with this book. The compelling pseudo-historical imaginings of what Merlin's boyhood might have been like and where his magic/religion began were fascinating. Stewart's story is
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engaging, her language is rich, and her retelling of Arthurian legend is thoughtful. I'm delighted that there are more books in this saga for me to read.
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: In most tellings of Arthurian legend, Merlin enters the story already an old man, but in Mary Stewart's version, he starts as a small boy. He's the bastard grandson of a Welsh king: his mother, the princess, won't tell anyone who his father is, leaving most of the palace to believe that he
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was fathered by the Devil. He's a quiet and intelligent child, not at all the future soldier that his grandfather might wish, and he's strange, beside, often knowing things he has no way of knowing. But it is only when his grandfather dies, and Merlin must flee his home ahead of his uncle's jealous lust for power, that he can begin to understand who he truly is, and what destiny his Sight is preparing him for.

Review: I generally enjoy retellings of all stripes, but I particularly enjoy those that take take the story out of the hands of the nominal hero/heroine, and give a secondary character the starring role. So, since I'm not yet burnt out on Arthurian legend retellings, I very much liked the idea of getting Merlin's backstory and his point-of-view, of putting his role in Arthur's story into a new perspective.

For the most part, The Crystal Cave delivered exactly that. It primarily focuses on the generation and a half before Arthur - this book ends with the events surrounding Arthur's conception - but there were plenty of hints about what's to come, and links to the familiar parts of the story. It also did a good job of giving Merlin a credible backstory, and turning him into a person, rather than a cryptic old magician.

But the book itself was somewhat uneven. The early parts I quite enjoyed; Merlin's a personable narrator when he's young, and the plot was interesting and moved at a good clip. By the later stages of the book, however, a lot of time was being spent talking about battles (which has to be done just so if I'm not going to tune them out), and Merlin himself has become less personable, and more know-it-all-y and self-satisfied. (In his defense, he's got the Gift of Sight; he pretty much does know it all. But that still doesn't mean you have to act like it.)

I did think the book did a credible job of depicting Britain at the time, particularly in bringing out the Roman influences that lingered, both in architecture and in thought. I was sort of disappointed that the religious aspects of the story weren't played up more. The clash of the old and new religions is one of the aspects of Arthurian legend, and The Crystal Cave introduced a third player: Mithraism, imported by Roman soldiers and since driven underground. It was certainly talked about, and important to the plot, but I felt like it could have been a more substantial discussion than it was. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Overall, it was pretty good, even if it didn't exactly blow my mind or leave me dying to dive into the sequels. Plus, as far as modern Arthurian tellings go, it's one of the classics. (And I liked it *way* better than The Once and Future King.)
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LibraryThing member Checkwood
Stewart’s first book in The Arthurian Saga is a wonderful mix of science and the mystical. Unlike many novels on the subject, The Crystal Cave reads more like a historical novel and less like high fantasy taking on the character of Merlin and his influence brilliantly and captivatingly.
LibraryThing member lovell
a lively story with well constructed characters based on all the old tales of Melin and the Camelot romances.
LibraryThing member arthos
The story of Merlin's early years, up to his early twenties. He is the bastard son of Niniane, princess of South Wales. She refuses to tell anyone who the father was, and the boy is sufficiently odd and preternatural that rumor holds the father to be the prince of darkness.

Vortigern is High King of
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the Britons, but he has many rivals, including the Saxons, whom he originally brought to Britain as mercenaries, his own son Vortimer, and the semi-legendary Aurelius Ambrosius in Brittany. It is a dangerous time, with many spies, suspicion, and deceit.

The book is the best Arthurian novel I have read. The prose is intelligent and flowing, the description is vivid, the plot is suspenseful and elegantly structured. She is a master storyteller.
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LibraryThing member dianahunter
A must for every lover of the Arthurian legend.
LibraryThing member HHS-Staff
Perhaps the best imaginative retelling of the Arthur legend, the story is done from Merlin's perspective. Stewart's sweeping grasp of religion, politics, love, and history give the story a depth and plausibility too often missing from simplified Sword-in-the-Stone versions of this tale. This book
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opens with the young Merlin and carries him through his twenties. In case the reader becomes as entranced as I was, Stewart's two succeeding volumes continue the story through Arthur's advent and the rise and fall of Camelot. Volumes two and three are entitled The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment.Reviewed by:John C DekenHistory Teache
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LibraryThing member melydia
As mentioned on the back cover, this story covers Merlin's early childhood through the conception of Arthur. It was intriguing to see so many familiar aspects of the famous legend, but I have to admit that I think I prefer magical Merlin to merely clever Merlin. Yes, it's kind of neat how you can
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explain away his "spells" with ingenuity and careful calculation, but to me it takes away some of the fun of the story. That said, this was well-written and I may pick up the rest of the trilogy at some point.
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LibraryThing member freecyclor
Mary Stewart's Arthurian series include some of my major "go to" books when feeling under the weather or stressed. This first book covers Merlin's childhood in Wales, and his adolescence with his exiled father in Less Britain, through their successful campaign to retake Britain. This story has many
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versions by various authors, but Stewart's haunting prose is well suited to the mythic material, and her use of Merlin as the narrator makes the series unusual.
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LibraryThing member Woodcat
In my top ten. So magical, so romantic. Gorgeous.
LibraryThing member Steph78
The Crystal Cave takes us from Merlin's childhood in post-Roman Wales, through to the conception of King Arthur. Merlin here is a doctor, an engineer, a singer and a prophet. My view may be coloured by fond remembrances from younger days, but IMO it's a wonderful story; full of adventure, well
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written and well paced. The take on the myth has some original twist and turns, and there is a strong sense of place and solid reality provides a vivid setting for the "history" that plays out. One of my favourite reads, which I will probably go back to again and again.
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LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
A retelling of the Arthur legend based on Geoffrey on Monmouth's HISTORY OF THE KINGS OF BRITAIN.
From "Author's Note":
"Geoffrey's name is, to serious historians, mud. From his Oxford study in the twelfth century he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of 'history' from the Trojan War (where Brutus
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'the King of the Britons' fought) to the seventh century AD, arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short of facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of whole cloth. Historically speaking, the HISTORIA REGUM BRITTANIAE is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff, and has been a source and inspiration for the great cycle of tales call the Matter of Britain, from Malory's MORTE D'ARTHUR to Tennyson's IDYLLS OF THE KING, from PARSIFAL to CAMELOT." (pg. 313)

[Merlin's mother, a Welsh princess, tells King Vortigern what he wants to hear, that her bastard son Merlin was begotten by a demon.]
"'So all through that winter he came to me. And he came at night. I was never alone in my chamber, but he came through doors and windows and walls, and lay with me. I never saw him again, but heard his voice and felt his body. Then, in the summer, when I was heavy with child, he left me.... They will tell you how my father beat me and shut me up, and how when the child was born he would not give him a name fit for a Christian prince, but because he was born in September, named him for the sky-god [Myrddin], the wanderer, who has no house but the woven air. But I called him Merlin always, because on the day of his birth a wild falcon flew in through the window and perched above the bed, and looked at me with my lover's eyes.'" (pg. 184)

[The priests say that because Merlin is "the child of no man," his sacrificed blood will magically repair the cracked foundation of a fortress Vortigern is building.]
"I could tell them the truth, coldly. I could take the torch and clamber up into the dark workings and point out faults which were giving way under the weight of the building work above. But I doubted if they would listen.... what Vortigern needed now was not logic and an engineer; he wanted magic, and something - anything - that promised quick safety and kept his followers loyal.
"....I lifted a hand to beckon the King, and he came forward and stood with me at the edge of the pool. I pointed downwards. Below the surface something - a rock, perhaps - glimmered faintly, shaped like a dragon....
"'This is the magic, King Vortigern, that lies beneath your tower. This is why your walls cracked as fast as they could build them. Which of your soothsayers could have showed you what I show you now?... If you could drain this pool, King Vortigern, to find what lay beneath it -'
"I stopped. The light had changed....Shadows fled across the streams and staircases of fire, and the cave was full of eyes and wings and hammering hoofs and the scarlet rush of a great dragon stooping on his prey ... my eyes were open, but all I could see was the whirl of banners and wings and wolves' eyes and sick mouths gaping, the the tail of a comet like a brand, and stars shooting through a rain of blood." (pg. 195)

[Merlin comes out of his trance and hears from his servant the prophecy he delivered to Vortigern.]
"'It was all dressed up, like poets' stuff, red dragons and white dragons fighting and laying the place waste, showers of blood, all that kind of thing. But it seems you gave them chapter and verse for everything that's going to happen; the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius fighting it out, the red dragon looking not so clever to begin with, but winning in the end. Yes. Then a bear coming out of Cornwall to sweep the field clear ... ARTOS was the word.'" (pg. 199)

[Stewart adds in a revival of the mystery cult of Mithras, the bull-killing god worshiped by Roman soldiers.]
"... the kneeling bull and the man with a knife under an arch studded with stars ... I had seen [a vision of] 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. He had been born ... in a cave at mid-winter, while sheperds watched and a star shone; he was born of earth and light, and sprang from the rock with a torch in his left hand and a knife in his right. He killed the bull to bring life and fertility to the earth with its shed blood, and then, after his last meal of bread and wine, he was called up to heaven. He was the god of strength and gentleness, of courage and self-restraint." (pg. 109)
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