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The Crystal Cave

5 stars
18,314 (40%)
4 stars
17,037 (37%)
3 stars
8,180 (18%)
2 stars
1,450 (3%)
1 star
366 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,002 reviews
Profile Image for L.J..
Author 4 books25 followers
March 25, 2008
I actually read this book first when I was 11 or 12 and would have rated it a 5 with that self. When I was a girl I was lucky enough to be a tomboy and have male figures in my life who taught me the things I would later realize were traditionally "guy stuff". I remembered this book with a mystical fondness because I remember absolutely identifying with the character of Merlin and cast myself in the role of boy adventurer.

Unfortunately, I have to now temper that literal reading with things I am aware of now-- that all the women in this book, with no exception-- fall into one of three roles: martyr, slut, or witch. Not to go too far down that path, but it's a shame when a book gives you such magic as a child and is laid bare in a more disappointing way when you grow up. I looked, in Mary Stewart's afterword, for some kind of explanation of this betrayal, but I was even more disappointed by her admission that though the work was inspired by fact, she makes it apologetically clear (in a scholarly sort of humility), that it is purely a work of fiction and in terms of the character of Merlin- fantasy.

A terrible thing to admit is also something useful in looking at my adult reaction to this book. Throughout the sections on battles and skirmishes (which are many), I kept thinking this exact thought: "for a woman, she's strangely interested in the details of war". I admit this because it shows that even now I have these prejudices imbedded in my psyche. I imagine Mary Stewart had them to an even greater degree.

However, there are countless books of the same period (and earlier) written by women, which do not deal with women simply as glyphs.

I didn't really want to go down this path in reviewing this book, but the shock of my disappointment with reading this book as an adult was centered firmly in that single complaint-- that it reads as if a misogynist wrote it. Or, maybe there's a better word-- an agnogynist? Someone that does not believe women are human beings.

Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,714 followers
March 23, 2016
5 enthusiastic stars!

"The first memory of all is dark and fireshot. It is not my own memory, but later you will understand how I know these things. You would call it not memory so much as a dream of the past, something in the blood, something recalled from him, it may be, while he still bore me in his body. I believe that such things can be. So it seems to me right that I should start with him who was before me, and who will be again when I am gone."

Wow! This book was exceptional! I was admittedly quite surprised at just how much I enjoyed reading this. By no means an expert in Arthurian legend, far from it in fact, I wondered if this book would really hold my attention or not. Well, it most certainly did! Do I dare say I was enchanted?!

The Crystal Cave is a wonderful blend of history and mythology. Recounted through the voice of Merlin himself, this first book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga takes us through his young boyhood as a bastard child living under the roof of his grandfather, a crowned king of Wales, right into his adulthood and ending with the conception of King Arthur. My preconceived notion of Merlin, based on my scant knowledge, was of an eccentric and perhaps shifty and ruthless wizard. Ms. Stewart, however, introduces us to a very human, intelligent, and compassionate individual who is born with the gift of prophecy. He is a friend to his servants, an avid learner, a loving son, and a very capable young man. He first begins to truly understand his gift under the guidance of Galapas, an old and wise man that Merlin meets after discovering the Crystal Cave. Educated in the fields of magic, medicine, languages, religion, math and engineering, Merlin is quite versatile thanks to the teachings of mentors such as Galapas and others. Most importantly perhaps are the words instilled within him from the mouth of Galapas himself: "The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage." Merlin throughout his adolescence comes to learn about the ancient religions as well as the new religion brought to Britain from Rome. Always keeping an open mind, Merlin is able to absorb the best of these and remain true to himself and his calling. "But there's nothing in this world that I'm not ready to see and learn, and no god that I'm not ready to approach in his own fashion. I told you that truth was the shadow of God. If I am to use it, I must know who He is."

Eventually Merlin arrives on the shores of Less Britain and into the hands of the exiled king Ambrosius and his brother, Uther, both predecessors to the legendary King Arthur. Here he becomes involved in a grand plot to unite Britain and rid the people of the treachery and turmoil of the current leader, King Vortigern. Merlin must use all his power- and not simply magic, but his intellect, clear judgment and cunning to not only save himself but to pave the way for the great king yet to come. There ensued a fabulous dose of adventure and plenty of suspense which kept the pages turning. I was thoroughly riveted! The pacing of this novel was superb; I never became bored and never once got bogged down in any of the historical details. Each character was so expertly depicted and the writing is so wonderfully vivid and descriptive that one could feel transported back to this very place and time. I really became attached to not only Merlin, but some of the more minor characters as well. The banter between Merlin and some of his companions was often witty and added an appreciated lightheartedness to the narrative from time to time.

Undoubtedly, Mary Stewart is a master storyteller. She weaves together the threads of history and mythology in such exquisite fashion that this book should interest a broad range of readers. I am puzzling over why this book is not more widely read. It never felt dated; rather, it seems timeless. You do not need to be a fantasy buff by any means to read this book. If you enjoy a great historical piece with well-developed characters, effortless pacing, and vivid descriptions then this book is for you. I highly recommend you do yourself a favor and pick this one up. As for me, this book is going on my favorites shelf while its sequel, The Hollow Hills, should be arriving at my doorstep any day now.

"What god are you talking about?... 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 bloodstained 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."
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book557 followers
April 7, 2020
With COVID-19 threatening all of us and altering our lives, I have found it hard at times to concentrate on the reading I had planned. I was once asked "if you were stranded on an island, what book would you take with you?" and I responded this one. Well, I am on an island, in a way, and I needed an old friend, so I pulled out my Merlin trilogy and just finished this first book. It is a great book for reminding you what you can overcome if you have God on your side. It was time...I like to meet up with Merlin once every few years in any case.
Who was Merlin? Most of us know the Arthurian tales in some aspect or another, and in them each of us has an idea of the role of Merlin, the great wizard who guides Arthur to be a great king. Few of us have ever stopped to think that legends spring from men and to wonder who the man was who was Merlin. Mary Stewart stopped to ask that question, and then proceeded to answer it with such finesse and glory and brilliance that whatever image of Merlin you have ever held will be dispelled and only her version will ever feel satisfactory thereafter.

She begins with Merlin as a boy, a bastard born to Niniane, a Welsh princess. Because of his ignoble birth and the looming threat of his unknown heritage, he is either mistreated, ignored, or feared in his home and becomes solitary in his character. Were he a simple boy, he would never survive his childhood, but like his mother, he is blessed (or cursed) with the “sight”, an ability to know more than his five senses might tell him.

Through a set of unique circumstances and a bit of fate, he comes to be in service to a great king, Ambrosius, and in intimate contact with the volatile and often callous Uther Pendragon, the man destined to father Arthur, the greatest of British Kings.

Where Stewart takes us next is on a very believable, fascinating journey--that is magical in a way that has little to do with magic. She breathes life into every character she presents, not only Merlin but Ambrosius, the King; Uther, his brother; Cerdic and Cadal, Merlin’s servants; Galapas the keeper of the cave, and even the more minor characters like Belasius and Ulfin. There is not one character, no matter how minor his role, that does not serve his function and move the story forward to its pre-ordained end.

Stewart has a sweeping command of the history she presents and an undeniably smooth and fresh writing style that puts you right there in the history, sharing the moment. She has, as well, a deep understanding of what it is to be both human and exceptional, and we understand Merlin on both levels. Then there is the charm of her subtle humor that is always so well placed and so perfectly timed that she has made me chuckle aloud and pathos so real that it has brought me to tears.

In the end, while explaining man, she also explains the unexplainable that is God and how He works in the lives He bestows:

Mithras, Apollo, Arthur, Christ--call him what you will,” I said. “What does it matter what men call the light? It is the same light, and men must live by it or die. I only know that God is the source of all the light which has lit the world, and that his purpose runs through the world and past each one of us like a great river, and we cannot check or turn it, but can only drink from it while living, and commit our bodies to it when we die.”

I first read this book in 1970, at its initial publication. I can remember waiting with great impatience for the next volume to become available and feeling elated by the words between the covers. It was the same response that I had to Tolkien when I discovered him, and while Tolkien has found his audience at last, Stewart is still searching for hers. Stewart deserves a lot more praise and a wider audience in my view. I have read these books over again several times since my first reading and find them undiminished in the enjoyment they bring. They possess the power of a very good and ancient tale told in a new and fresh way. They are a gift you should give to yourself.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.8k followers
February 20, 2018
The Crystal Cave is a lush, detailed historical fantasy about Merlin the magician, from his boyhood through when he was a young man (before Arthur comes on the scene). It's well written and richly imagined but the pace is rather slow, or "deliberate" if I'm being nice.

So I've been having some issues with this book (which is kind of embarrassing since I'm a moderator of the Mary Stewart GR group). I got about halfway through this book a few months back and then stalled out. It's been sitting under my bed since then while I've gotten busy with other books. I'm not quite ready to call this quits and label it a DNF, but it's on hold at least for now. I don't think I'm inclined to read the other books in this series. Mea culpa.

November 2017 buddy read with the Mary Stewart group.


Original post: I read this so long ago, and remember it so little, that I would feel really guilty about giving it a star rating. But Mary Stewart was a very talented author and I like almost everything she wrote. One of these days months years I'll try reading this one again.
Profile Image for Savannah.
42 reviews42 followers
August 16, 2007
I love Mary Stewart's work. She always mixes the right amount of supernatural and realism, and here is no exception.

Throw out your previous ideas of Merlin, Arthur, and Magic. Here's something a little more Organic. In her Arthurian Saga, Stewart mixes historical figures with figures of myth in a way that is pleasing to the historian's eye. I don't mean in a true historically accurate sense, but in a way that allows you to fall into the world. Details of what was left behind from Roman Rule in England cement this further, and issues that actually existed at the supposed time are woven in rather then ignored.

For those un-familiar with the time period, Arthurian legend is supposed to have taken place in the early dark ages- from the fall of the Roman Empire around 500 to almost 700 is an appropriate range. This setting is not one that is conducive to a lot of what we think of as Arthurian Ideals- Those weren't even introduced until the Victorian age of Romanticism. Instead we are in a land where there are shambles of government, Generals without direction, old roman baths and homes from several generations ago being reused or used as a base for newer buildings, and many superstitions and beliefs that are slowly starting to meet and undergo a mutation into Christianity. It is a time of Transition.

Our Merlin (or Myrddyn if you're into the Welsh part) is just as human as those around him here. He is a bastard son from a roman general who had an affair with a young woman- who then let everyone believe her son was devil spawn rather then admit she'd slept around. hm. OH, and did I mention that the general was Arthur's Uncle? And it gets more convoluted on a human level.

But Magic! where's the MAGIC? Oh young grasshopper, that's where Stewart handles this best. You see, rather then the all mighty mystical Merlin from Sword in the Stone, We have a young Boy who learns Tricks and illusions from an aging teacher, with a little bit of pagan magical practice as well. In fact, the first thing he learns is fire starting. Overall, this is a more human approach, and I prefer it.

Another point to note- This isn't Arthur's story. This, my friends, is Merlin's. The first book (this one) follows him from a young boy through his coming of age- Identity issues and all. Coincidentally, This first book ends at the Conception of Arthur.
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
485 reviews121 followers
April 28, 2022
Looking back now, I see that much of what happened has been changed in my memory, like a smashed mosaic which is mended in later years by a man who has almost forgotten the first picture. Certain things come back to me plain, in all their colors and details; others—perhaps more important—come hazy, as if the picture has been dusted over by what has happened since…

My last interaction with anything having to do with Merlin was when I watched the BBC tv series from 2008 with actor Colin Morgan who played young Merlin. That was a fantastic show to watch with my young sons. Admittedly, it’s been awhile since I’ve read a proper fantasy novel as well but I used to regularly read the genre years ago and knew that all I needed was to just get myself immersed into the world to fall in love. It was easy to do just that!

Mary Stewart’s version of Merlin’s story begins with a very young 6 year old Merlin whose mother, Niniane has kept his father’s identity a secret from him and from her father, the King of Demetia. Merlin’s illegitimacy greatly concerns his royal family members (what if his father wants to claim the throne through Merlin? That just wouldn’t do.) but it won’t do for Niniane to give up the information. His own grandfather despises him and believes the stories that Merlin is the son of the Prince of Darkness. However, Ninane’s protection of both Merlin and his father sends a very clear message to her father, - you can’t touch them. And much of Merlin’s upbringing we find him by himself, wandering around and taking note of the natural world around him. He finds that he is better suited to solitary amusements. One day he meets a hermit named Galapas who teaches him all he can about the natural world and healing with herbs. Galapas knew Merlin would seek him out someday and he is the one who shows Merlin the crystal cave. Merlin is mesmerized by the power in the crystal cave and here is where he becomes aware that he has a very rare gift of the Sight. His coming of age and quest for discovery in The Crystal Cave is centered on his knowledge, growth and acceptance of his fate and role he will play in the future kingdom of Britain and the coming of King Arthur.

Merlin’s ability to see the future with his visions is the central focus of the magic in this book. From a boy, Merlin is taught by mentors and becomes well-learned in mathematics and engineering as well as languages and religion. All of his education comes together with his ability toward visions to create a very realistic but subtle “magic”. To any onlooker, Merlin moved the stones with magic and not knowledge and science. Merlin is quite the believable magician/educated man in the hands of Mary Stewart who gleaned the clues about him from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and then transformed him into a flesh and blood character who has been one of the most puzzling figures in British folklore.

I think what men fear is the unknown. They fear pain and death, because these may be waiting round any corner. But there are times when I know what is hidden, and waiting, or when—I told you—I see it lying straight in the pathway. And I know where pain and danger lie for me, and I know that death is not yet to come; so I am not afraid. This isn't courage.

Set in the 5th century, Britain is a divided country after the Romans have left and now the smaller kingdoms are loosely united under a High King named Vortigern. This story read like a history as opposed to a fantasy and one of the things I really enjoyed about it. There are real places mixed into the made-up events with different names than we know them. One of the places is described so vividly that I knew she was talking about Stonehenge. I visited Stonehenge in 2005-2006 time frame so the visual was already in my mind. I loved the way that Stewart was able to mix legend with history and fantasy and write with such vivid atmosphere to keep me wanting to read on and on.

Many thanks to my wonderful friend Sara for the urge to read this excellent book! I highly value GR friend’s opinions and this is one recommendation that I can wholly get behind.
Profile Image for Leila.
442 reviews212 followers
April 2, 2018
I have spent most of this morning reading this book right to the end. It is an outstanding book and the author Mary Stewart has done a brilliant job in the writing of it.

The Crystal Cave is the first of Mary Stewart's excellent Arthurian books, telling the story of King Arthur this time from the exciting perspective of the great wizard Merlin. We are so used to reading books about Arthur and Merlin where Arthur is the key figure but this book is definitely Merlin’s story and I loved reading it.

The legend of Merlin begins when he is a young boy born illegitimately to a Welsh Princess and despised by the King. It is set in the fifth century. There are lots of books written about the life and times of King Arthur and of course the mysterious wizard Merlin. Legends lend themselves to many interpretations.

This version is for me one of the very best of them all. Mary Stewart writes beautifully with a fantastic imagination and a real way with words. She makes Merlin so much more human by giving him a family background. He comes across as a real person rather than someone whose background is shrouded in mystery. The detailed story is so well written it absorbed me totally and I felt I was there with the characters living in their world.

The book shows evidence of first class research into what little information we have but the end result is eminently readable as a novel.
Profile Image for Gary.
948 reviews209 followers
June 14, 2021
In the early Dark Ages Britain has fragmented into a number of kingdoms and tribal entities, as the island struggles to resist invasions by the Saxon tribes from Germany which are slowly colonizing south-east England and in the west marauders from Ireland.
The fatherless son of the Welsh princess Niniane, Myrriden Emrys - better known as Merlin faces a perilous and unwanted and dangerous childhood and on the death of his grandfather the king of Dyfed must flee for his life from the murderous plans of the new king, his uncle Camlach. Captured by pirates, he takes a perilous journey to Brittany where he joins the service of King Ambrosius, who learns that he can benefit from Merlin's psychic abilities (the sight). He discovers the identity of his true father. Five years later he is a powerful young nobleman and 'magician'and returns to Britain where he is captured by the power-mad High King Vortigern, and prevents being put to death by the latter when he discovers through his mazing abilities why the great castle the king aims to build keeps collapsing. He also prophesies the death of Vortigern and the great battle between the 'red and white dragons' which will ravge the country and end with the victory of the red dragon. He sees his mother Niniane at the abbey she has retired to and experiences a hint of romance with a young girl serving there by the name of Kerridwen.
After Vortigern is defeated and killed by Ambrosius, Merlin travels with Ambrosius to Ireland to obtain a great treasure which the High King believes will give him greater power, and Ambrosius meets his end there. The novel ends with Merlin helping the new King Uther to lie with the Cornish princess Ygraine, who Uther has become besotted and obsessed with. This results in bloodshed and conception of the the future saviour of Britain Arthur.
The book is written in a way that is highly accessible to modern readers without losing the magic, mystery and awe. The characters are engaging and one really gets a feel for them. A skilled blend of history, mythology and imagination, Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy is perhaps the greatest work of historical fantasy written in the 20th century.
Profile Image for Adrienne.
516 reviews122 followers
December 11, 2019
The Crystal Cave, book1, Arthurian Novels.
A fantasy story of King Arthur and Merlin. Absolutely wonderful. A fascinating read. Made all the more intriguing because it 'reads' as historical fiction. This was my first 'fantasy' read. I expected looseness of writing and a plot that wobbled. This despite the great reviews I had read. And that Mary Stewart is the author.j
BTW Mary Stewart based her characters on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Which she asserts is not held in high regard by serious historians.
Merlin presents initially as an ignored child: known as 'Merlin the bastard'. Since no-one knows who his father is. He finds it easy to entertain himself. Being fascinated by nature. In his teens he meets a man/wizard, who lives in a cave. He vastly extends Merlin's educational borders.
Merlins runs away and eventually, accident or fate, who is his true father. And a king. Who eventually becomes the King of a United Britain.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
March 13, 2011
It's hard to put my finger on what bothered me about The Crystal Cave. On the surface, it's something I should love: other people whose taste I trust loved it, and tore through it; it deals with Merlin, whose life I'm interested in; it's set in Wales; I enjoy elaborations on less explored facets of the legends... But somehow, it just took me far too long to get through it, and I happily abandoned it for whatever else looked interesting, given half a chance.

Merlin's voice never quite felt real to me, for a start. I know that it's a retrospective voice, but it's so very measured, and few parts felt truly passionate. The one image that's likely to stick in my head is actually the image of Merlin travelling back to England with the king-stone stolen from Ireland, while Ambrosius lies in bed dying. The relationship between those two, I enjoyed. Mary Stewart's Ambrosius was quite similar to Rosemary Sutcliff's Ambrosius, though, which didn't do this book any favours, since I got to the part with Ambrosius after having read Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset.

The whole thing about Merlin needing to remain a virgin bothered me a little. I dislike the 'women are eviiil and will steal your poweeer' trope, even if it is balanced a little by the strong and clear-headed figures of Niniane and Ygraine -- although I would have loved to see more of those two women as women, and not just the concern about who they were sleeping with. And there were several throwaway comments about women that made me disinclined to like Merlin, e.g. "Duchess and slut alike, they need not even study to deceive."

I was also fond of a couple of minor characters, who died, which doesn't help with my disinclination to read the rest of the series. Maybe someday, not now.
Profile Image for ❀Julie.
97 reviews82 followers
March 3, 2016
3.5 I struggled a bit on how to rate this even though I think Mary Stewart is an amazing storyteller. This is the first in the Arthurian Saga series, told from the perspective of Merlin from the age of a young boy into early adulthood. I was really taken in by the story of Merlin himself and the people he encountered. I liked learning about the humanity of his character and what his magic was really about, and reading about the mystery behind his father. Some of the parts on war and politics were a little slower for me though, but thankfully the ending made up for it. After I read “The Legend” and Author’s Note in the back of the book I thought how nice it would have been if those were in the beginning! I’m not accustomed to reading this time period but will say it was a nice change of pace. Overall I enjoyed it and am intrigued enough to try the next book in the series since I'm a fan of Mary Stewart's and love her writing style.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews539 followers
December 8, 2014
Who was Merlin? Was the famed magician of Camelot & King Arthur's court really a sinister, all-powerful being from another world? Was he truly a Prince of Darkness? Or was he a man with the passions of other mortals? A man with unique intelligence & unusual gifts? Why was he so feared? How did he come by his occult powers? Why was the crystal cave so important to him?

5th century Britain is a country of chaos & division after the Roman withdrawal. Born the bastard son of a Welsh princess who will not reveal to her son his father's true identity, Myridden Emrys--or as he would later be known, Merlin--leads a perilous childhood, haunted by portents & visions. But destiny has great plans for this no-man's-son, taking him from prophesying before the High King Vortigern to the crowning of Uther Pendragon & the conception of Arthur--king for once & always.
The author based this novel on a semi-mythological, romantic account, written in Oxford by a twelfth-century Welshman (or possibly Breton). As there was quite a measure of chaos after the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, many place names suffered for it, since Celt, Saxon, Roman and Gaul shuttled to and fro across the turbulent and divided Britain.

The novel relates the events prior to the birth of King Arthur, estimated around A.D. 470. It is a fictitious tale that bears no historical accuracy. The historical events was taken from Geoffrey Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, which was semi-fictitious as well.

It was a good read. I am not interested in kings of any kind, might be a stupidity of mine, which I duly acknowledge, but enjoyed most of the book.

Fascinating history, really. However, I lost interest in the last 150 pages of the book and skip-read most of it, since it was all about war and war and war. It ends with a prediction of the coming birth of King Arthur and in the end felt like reading history in novel form. I was not impressed enough by the closure to rate it higher. The ending bored me to tears.

This is the second book of Mary Stewart that I have read. The author is a 'new' selection of the golden oldies I wanted to add to my reading.

Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,041 followers
October 23, 2014
I first read this back in the 70's & it was a favorite. Merlin tells his story from his boyhood. Read by Stephen Thorne, it's even better.

Merlin tells this tale in his old age, but usually the story moves along as if it were in the present. I liked that perspective, but it means you do have to listen closely at times. He glosses over much of his 'magic' at times, explains it at others, & that generally makes for a sense of mystery that would have otherwise have been lacking in a more straight forward account.

This book is all about Merlin the boy to a young man, from his humble beginnings to the conception of Arthur. It's an interesting journey finding out how he became the figure of so much legend and much is just that - legend. Much of his 'magic' is just due to his keen mind & excellent education, not to mention good math & hard work. It's mostly rumor & tales that change his prosaic works into high enchantment, although there is magic, but not of the kind where he turns people into frogs or anything. It is more mysterious & subtle.

An excellent book. I'm looking forward to the next, The Hollow Hills (Merlin, #2).
May 31, 2023

💀 DNF at 59%.

When a story isn't bad bad and you are moderately interested in finding out what happens next (even though you kind of know what happens next because Arthurian legend and stuff), but you get to the halfway mark of the book and it begins to feel like you started reading it 15 years ago, not last Friday.

And on that note, I'm off to rewatch Excalibur. Toodle-oo and stuff.

✉️ A very private message to Uther Pendragon: don't tell anyone but Margaux calls you The Little Shit 😬.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,016 reviews1,179 followers
April 14, 2018
I have always loved the Arthurian legend : whether you like fantasy, adventure, romance, crazy family sagas or war stories, you’ll find something to like on that classic tale of wizards, questing knights, fainting ladies and court plotting. The problem is always finding a version of the story that manages to balance these elements out and keeps the story engaging at the same time. My favorite used to be “The Mists of Avalon”, but a re-read last year made me feel like it didn’t stand the test of time very well ( A friend of mine recommended the Mary Stewart’s “Merlin Trilogy” as one of the better versions out there and I decided to check it out.

Merlin is the illegitimate son of a Welsh princess, and because of the dishonor his birth brought to his family, he is more often than not left to himself, and grows up solitary and bookish. On one of his lonesome wanderings outside the castle walls, he meets an old hermit named Galapas, who immediately notices that the young boy is not like others, but blessed with the Sight. Galapas teaches young Merlin not only how to better use his gift, but also to be at the right place at the right time, which proves to be just as important a skill…

This first tome covers the life of Merlin from his birth until the birth of Arthur, and the central plot point is the struggle between King Vortigern and Ambrosius for the throne of England – those who are familiar with Arthurian stories know Merlin plays a key part in this conflict – which Stewart paints as more political and military than supernatural. The tone of the book is generally more historical than fantastical, subtly weaving element of Dark Ages superstition and folklore rather than playing the high fantasy card, which I appreciate.

But to be honest, I was mostly disappointed by this novel, which while promising, turned out to have under-developed characters and uninteresting writing.

I was a bit surprised by how clumsily written some passages were: it took reading the paragraphs a few times to make sense of what was going on and I wasn’t getting a sharp sense of settings or events. The pacing is generally quite good, moving the plot forward fast without any real lags in the narrative; but every once in a while, elements that could have been very interesting are just skipped over in a few sentences as where other irrelevant details are developed much longer than necessary.

I think that what bothered me the most was that the story and characters lacked in moral ambiguity and dimension. Merlin is basically buoyed through the events by a sense of destiny, which weakens his agency. I thought that was odd, but perhaps that opinion is tainted by my idea of a Merlin who usually knows much more than he lets on and is usually the one pulling a few invisible strings to move things along. He is also considered incredibly wise, yet has extremely limited life experience to develop his wisdom from... Merlin's attitude about sex is also incomprehensible to me: the author writes in her afterword that she based that on some of the legends, since it was falling in love that made him lose his powers, but here I thought re-telling meant you could move away from the blueprint and make stuff up...

The other characters are not developed either, whether male or female - but as other reviewers have pointed out, the women in this book definitely don't do much besides giving it up to men, as if sex and fertility were the only value and power they have to work with. The final conversation with Ygraine is interesting, but not enough to redeem the book. I might have overlooked that if Merlin hadn't been drawn up in such a wooden and boring way, but the combination ruins a story that could have been very interesting.

It's really a shame to retell a story of such potential by simply keeping to the stereotypical tropes and not trying to think outside the box. It would appear that my quest for a layered and engaging version of the Arthurian legend is not over... I don't think I'll be reading the rest of this series.
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,446 reviews547 followers
January 16, 2009
The first, and one of the very few, books that has ever reconciled me to Arthurian myth. After slogging through hideous Victorian sentimental priggishness everywhere else, this is a breath of fresh and magical air into a tired story.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book164 followers
July 8, 2023
“I do not think he himself thought of them as anything but songs of old magic, poets’ tales; but the more I thought about them, the more clearly they spoke to me of men who had really lived, and work they had really done, when they raised the great stones to mark the sun and moon and build for their gods and the giant kings of old.”

I’ve long loved the legend of Merlin and King Arthur. My version, my Merlin, has always been the one from The Once and Future King, so for a while I was wary of Mary Stewart’s very different telling. I shouldn’t have been! She created a spellbinding, page-turning adventure, and I loved every page.

The Crystal Cave takes us from Merlin’s birth through to his role in the coming of King Arthur. It’s a coming-of-age story and a high adventure, a blend of universal human experiences and the magical deeds of heroes and legends. Stewart takes a long time with Merlin’s childhood, which I loved, from his early experiences of having “the sight,” to his search for his father. The adventure then begins to build and broaden. His experiences become more fraught and politically weighted as he becomes prophet and servant of King and country.

Stewart’s writing feels modern and easy to read, yet she gives us a strong feeling of being in Fifth Century Britain through Merlin’s narration. For example:
“I had never seen a map before. At first I could not see how it worked, but in a while, as he talked, I saw how the world lay there as a bird sees it, with roads and rivers like the radials of a spider’s web, or the guidelines that lead the bee into the flower.”

One of my favorite parts was Merlin’s involvement in the “Dance of Stones” at Stonehenge.

If you’ve seen or read about this magical place, you know it defies the senses. It’s impossible to imagine how, thousands of years BC, stones weighing over 20 tons were placed with such exact precision. Stewart touches on some possible explanations that I found enticing, including the use of music and rhythm as well as advanced engineering and mathematics. Aided by magic, perhaps. :-)

I’m thrilled to have read this, and will read on to the other books in the trilogy. The only question is, will I begin a wider reading of Arthurian literature before, during, or after I finish her other books? One thing’s for sure, she has set me on a quest, and I’m eager for the next book, whichever one it turns out to be.

I recommend The Crystal Cave to anyone in a reading slump, anyone who feels they’ve lost touch with the joy of reading they had as a child, anyone who is looking for an engaging escape from the everyday present … basically, anyone!
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,387 reviews581 followers
March 26, 2018
This was done so beautifully yet holding such immense intelligence cognition/ definition that I will think about this for some long hours as I write this. It's a composite of a man who was a poet, priest, scholar, engineer, doctor, sometimes Prince, and wholly too a massive and ultimate manipulator. Merlin is done here to his humanity as much as to his wizardry. The language skills and descriptive sense of surroundings to grasp the internal meanings are fully poetic. Sometimes expressed in poetry forms and sometimes not.

So here it is, my reaction:

This is extremely complex. As complex as the man. The man himself without a father, Merlin. This is his first 23 years; those years before the days of his longer life goal/ fate with the once and future king.

I've read the other reviews. My take on this book was rather different from most other readers. I've had too much Cognitive and Social Psychology practice, possibly? What I learned from the read was that the mixture of the eventual man, Merlin- it's functionally cored on separateness and also a wholly formed self-identity BY the self alone. And he becomes the ultimate manipulator from that arrogance of knowledge of "nothing to lose" in connection to the humans of his youth. His personality also and always stays clasped to the internal spirit "sight"embedded in his physical reactions. One that relates feelings of intuition to him, and also visions of past or forward coming events? But always with Merlin himself on the "outside" looking in. An observer, not the "doer" until there is a specific physical task.

And all of his most loved and closest to friendship and devoted in servitude? All those become destroyed by his usual "modus operandi". Even from his childhood there is never direct opposition to the bully or the "trouble" by Merlin himself, but another is placed to counter that negative case or outcome "for" Merlin. Hmmm!

This writing was masterly. And the portrayals of his mother, his kings, his servants, his teachers of every sort- just beyond perfect. They were.

And still Merlin is "outside" of their sphere. All of them, regardless if he becomes embedded within associated plans. Skills. Or practices. Every time, he is alone. And changes also the directions of "truth" conveyed at any one time and within several greater powers of authority. And not only because he can. It's also growing his own hypnotizing domination when he fails to appear or speak.

Mary Stewart hit the power embedded in his wizardry in this book from his earliest days and within a type of thought pattern practiced and practiced. One that did not accept any negativity of a victim mental status or "eyes", but instead became "outside" and "over" the sensibilities of the lowly "feelers" all around him. Not just a single or a dual thing to be "separate" from either. And one that is untouched by the deep feelings of sexual contact, sibling type affection, family devotion or truly any singular loyalty to a godhead or any "we think" agenda. It's all combined to "what works" that he wants to know. Not just the facts but the processes to apply them. He wants a REAL bite from that "Tree of Knowledge" in the Garden of Eden. And he needs no "other" to divert him from the snake's distraction that other men seem to fall for, either.

So now he has contrived to receive a baby at the bottom of the stairs. So I'm looking forward to book #2 of the Arthurian Saga.

Let others tell you of the exquisite word and ethnic trilling in 4 or 5 kinds of tribal and identity languages: this is beyond me to translate. But the magic of his mind- it's there. And it is not kindly as much as others think it is.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
815 reviews614 followers
September 2, 2015

How does Mary Stewart do what she does?

With the best of her books she takes me into another world so completely that I am snarling "What???" at anyone foolhardy enough to try to make me look up from the pages of her book.

The descriptions are beautiful & often poetic.

Consider this;

Then she saw me watching her. For perhaps two seconds our eyes met and held. I knew then why the ancients armed the cruellest god with arrows; I felt the shock of it right through my body.

I wasn't familiar with the early story of Arthurian legend and found Stewart's telling of it compelling other than part of Book 2. For this reason I have knocked half a star off the rating.

I think I still prefer Stewart as a teller of romantic suspense because when she is at her best Stewart is quite unique. This book did remind me quite strongly of Tolkein.

I have put the sequel The Hollow Hills on my to read list. Can't wait!
Profile Image for Wayne Barrett.
Author 3 books107 followers
April 14, 2017

This was a reread for me. It didn't quite thrill me as much as it did the first time I read it but I still think it rates a 5.

I love Mary Stewarts take on the Arthurian tale in this series, especially this opening book where she she begins with Merlin as a child and draws out the history through him. Stewart has taken some liberties and added her own special twist to the story which, to me, brings a unique viewpoint to the legend.

Enter the pages of this series and discover the true creator of Stonehenge. ;)
Profile Image for Maureen.
Author 7 books42 followers
May 23, 2020
As a child, I loved this series to death. I can blame Mary Stewart and Hallmark's telemovie, Merlin, for my obsession with a historical basis for the Arthurian legend, and in particular, for my obsession with a realistic Merlin.

On re-reading, Stewart's prose is as lyrical and as lush as ever, with her love for Welsh place especially shining through. My favourite sections were those towards the beginning of the story before Uther and the familar tread of well worn legend kicked in. The attention to historical detail makes some sections tough to get through, but the detail also adds a layer of authenticity to the proceedings.

Though some have criticised Stewart's portrayal of women, I found it to be far more believable than say, that attempted by Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon. I don't think it is entirely fair to relegate Stewart's female characters to whore, witch or matyr. To some extent these are the problems any author who tackles Arthurian legend must face as the stories place women in these roles but of course, in recent times, people have challenged such premises. First of all, these books were published in the 70s when the idea of western gender equality was still quite new. Besides, I think that Stewart does challenge female roles but in a more subtle way than authors like Zimmer Bradley. I found the scene between Ygraine and Merlin towards the end of the novel to be especially illuminating.

The Crystal Cave and its sequels are stories of power; who has it and how people use it. Niniane is not denied further power because she is a woman, but rather because she turns to Christianity, a religion which does not allow for a power that requires belief in a different kind of God. Kerri tries to get power in the only way allowed to someone of her gender and station in that era- by sleeping with the right men. Merlin does not judge her because of this. Rather he is forced to let love go lest he follows in the footsteps of his mother. And Ygraine is wiser and stronger than Uther and Gorlois put together. She has a dream and uses that which is put in her path to follow that dream. These things are seen in small scenes because Merlin sees women briefly and this is his first person tale- not because Stewart is sexist- but because in Merlin's world of Dark Ages Britain, it is the man who directly have access to hard power and because Merlin is bound to the celibacy his mother forsook if he is to see his dream of a uniting British King come to fruition.
Profile Image for Obsidian.
2,789 reviews960 followers
April 5, 2019
I read this for the Dead Writers Society Genres for Everyone September 2016 challenge.

You know when I was a young girl the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round-table fascinated me. I read every book about Arthur I could find and even read Le Morte d'Arthur and had to go digging in my dictionary to figure out certain words. There was something about Camelot, the idea that a King who believed in truth and justice and was surrounded by men who were loyal to him (we will discuss Lancelot later) that inspired everyone around him. I also kind of hated Guinevere. I just never got how she and Lancelot did what they did and I was also not a fan of Merlin. In every story of Merlin, he was always a manipulator of everyone around him and didn't seem to really care for Arthur all that much either.

This work by Mary Stewart really goes into Merlin's backstory, who he was, who his family was and how he is also related to King Arthur (which I loved).

Told in the first person, we follow Merlin from when he was a young boy til he is in his 20s (I am guessing here in the end). Merlin is despised by his maternal grandfather, a man who is a Welsh King. Technically Merlin is a son of a princess, but his mother refuses to name his father, so he is harassed and beaten by those around him for being nothing more than a bastard. When Merlin's uncle Camlach comes home, Merlin hopes this means better things for him and his mother. Instead, he realizes he is seen as a threat to his uncle and eventually he will be done away with.

I really thought the character of Merlin was so complex in this book. He wants to just serve someone, anyone, and have just a drop of affection spilled his way. Hell I thought his mother, Niniane barely spoke of any love for her son. She saw and had to know what was being done to him, and she just wanted to be off to a convent and didn't seem to really care about what would happen to her son until way later in the story.

When Merlin finally manages to escape from his uncle's clutches, he finds himself off and figuring out who his real father is. I thought that was a great surprise and I loved how Mary Stewart weaved everything together.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters in this one like the servants who love and will die for Merlin (Cedric and Cadal) and he does find himself a purpose.

I really wish we had gotten a point of view or something from Merlin's mother though. I definitely felt like I got insight into his father's character throughout the book. But Niniane remained a mystery to me even after we figure out who Merlin's father is and why she never said his name. She just seemed really focused on joining a convent and that was it (foreshadowing to Guinevere maybe?)

We get introduced to Arthur's parents in this one, and wow I still hate the characters of Uther and Ygraine no matter what book I read. These two are seriously selfish. And their justification for the crap they do (love) and then how Uther tries to blame Merlin I pretty much rolled my eyes too.

A lot of the writing in the book I thought was a bit too hazy on details and often we just skipped over things that I wish we had spent more time on. I wish we had not fast forwarded through Merlin's years with his father. I would have loved to read more about that. Frankly I wish the first book had not ended the way it did, but I guess we had to get to the whole subject of Arthur much faster in book number two.

The flow was pretty slow though throughout the book (one of the only reasons why I am giving this four stars). I loved what I was reading, but after a while my eyes did start to glaze over a bit. It only really gets going when Merlin is interacting with others. Otherwise there is just a lot of and then this happened, and then this other thing happened, and oh yeah one more thing happened.

The setting of a Britain prior to it being unified under one King was something else. And I do recall reading about the Saxons later on in high school and college, but seriously all of the battles started to run together to me. I got so bored and was glad when I got past those.

The ending set things up for book #2 with Merlin knowing that he is going to be given Arthur and mold him to be king one day.
Profile Image for Stephen Robert Collins.
581 reviews52 followers
May 7, 2018
I know read this but years ago & the author died in 1983 so this new edition it in style of T H White not brilliant it's no Karelian Maitland more Pear S Buck romantic than true lot of Barbra Cartland than 'real' villant knights what some people claim 'a woman's book'
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
October 23, 2014
There's still a lot about The Crystal Cave that bothers me, but I think, on balance, I liked it better now than I did the first time I read it. As I've said, it's Misogynistic Merlin, which is my least favourite flavour -- you have some clear-headed, quick-thinking, powerful women, but then you have lines like this: "Duchess and slut alike, they need not even study to deceive." And the whole bit about weak female magic and Merlin needing to be a virgin and blahblahblah. Could definitely have done without that.

Still, not having recently read Sword at Sunset, or anything else of Rosemary Sutcliff's, this managed to have something of that flavour without the narration, and the characterisation of Ambrosius, being too much overshadowed by Sutcliff. I know for sure which one is the better book, and which one I enjoy more, but this doesn't stand up so badly when it's not right up against something by a master like Sutcliff. I got more into the relationships this time, though I wish Merlin didn't leave such a trail of servant characters dead in his wake. I liked Cerdic, liked Cadal; their deaths because of their faith in Merlin were pretty hard to take. I know he does acknowledge a measure of that but still, gah. The relationship between Merlin and Ambrosius really does work, though, the slow realisation of what's going on there, and their closeness. Also the fact that Merlin isn't forced to be a warrior (though that makes the ending, where he is, doubly odd).

The mix of magic and science here is a little weird. The standing stones are raised using math, but the prophecy really is second sight; the dragons are just symbols, but the vision is real. It's like a step between out-and-out fantasy and realism. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I tend to prefer things that go at it a bit more unequivocally! If Merlin can see the future, why is there no other magic in the world?

Anyway, I'm going on to the other books now, though I seem to recall from summaries there's more flavours of misogynistic Merlin awaiting me.
Profile Image for Louise.
375 reviews119 followers
June 21, 2012
Crossposted from my blog

2 Stars

I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.

It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood, he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced so that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.

The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why? He’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.

And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who exactly it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults either.

Eventually, the author’s note at the back of the book clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I hell, I was hoping that they would be interesting and relevant characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.

Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s novel and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong and unpleasant with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite observing the way she was treated, even despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.

All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.

I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother.
Profile Image for Shannon.
482 reviews57 followers
February 14, 2018
I really loved this one. It kept my attention throughout, and I'm excited to read the rest of the series. King Arthur legends are always exciting and fun to read!
Profile Image for booklady.
2,317 reviews65 followers
January 2, 2022
Two years ago I read this on my own and loved it. Recently I read and finished the bridge book, The Hollow Hills and the final book in the series, The Last Enchantment. They have returned me to Camelot... I am back in my childhood when my Mom used to play that music all the time and O! the first time I saw the movie! It fired my imagination at the time as this inspired and inspiring Never-Never Land of Hope and Happiness. As it has done for so many others throughout the ages... Why else would the legend have persisted for so long?!

As I have been talking about these books so much, decided to redo the whole series this time listening to them with dear husband. These books are the sort that once is certainly not enough. Just a short time in, DH was as thrilled as I was and listening is much better than reading.

The series is from the perspective of Merlin who is like, and at the same time very different from, every other Merlin you might have read or heard about. Stewart's Merlin is brilliant, vulnerable, likeable, enigmatic, stubborn, solitary, but above all, utterly devoted to the Good as he understands it, and in turn to Arthur. This first story ends with a huge cliff-hanger which will introduce the larger-than-life figure waiting in the background all along, the great High King, Arthur.

2020: Have always wanted to read a good version of the Arthurian legend. Really enjoyed this.
Profile Image for Emily.
705 reviews2,045 followers
October 31, 2017
I recently saw Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which was batshit insane and thoroughly enjoyable. Alas, King Arthur bombed so hard that Guy Ritchie will not get to make his Merlin movie, which is too bad because (a) it would have been LIT and (b) it could have followed the plot of this book without straying too far out of Ritchie's universe. There are several plot elements in this book that make little to no sense , would still have made little to no sense in a movie, but would have been super cool once Guy Ritchie spent $200 million on CGI to make them pop. And Jude Law could reappear as angry Vortigern. Let's do it, billionaires!! I need you to fund my passion project!

Anyway, it's possible that I came to Mary Stewart too late to really love her Merlin origin story. My absolute favorite part of this book was the reveal of Merlin's father - I thought that was a really neat and interesting twist on the existing myths and Merlin's family tree. I also appreciated how firmly set this story is in time and place. This is a Britain recently abandoned by Rome: Merlin runs around in the hypocaust in the old Roman house where his grandfather lives, the armies move at "Caesar-speed," and the mix of cultures - from Saxon to Roman to Breton - feels colorful and alive in an organic and interesting way. But aside from that, the rest of this was average. I got whiplash as Merlin traveled between kings, and his magic felt a little too mystical for it to work for me.

I may continue on just to see what Stewart does with Arthur.
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