Merlin, celibacy and power in Mary Stewart’s novel The Crystal Cave is a topic I wrote about back in 2007 and I found it whilst cleaning files on my laptop. Enjoy! It was written for a class on Arthurian Legend. Text starts here: What I mean by power is a tension in society between those who have privileged knowledge and those who don’t. Power is not a stable constant. It is contingent upon shifts in knowledge within society itself. The avenues by which celibate roles gain an upper hand, depends in part where the non-celibates have control and vice-versa. These roles cross over and get distributed. There are significant shifts in the power knowledge divide, which Foucault calls “epistemic shifts.” This is the basic struggle or tension between power and knowledge that can be traced out through history through an archaeology — a search for origins. To see how celibacy has held sway in history, especially among those like Merlin, who represent powerful celibate men, is to dig out the origins of this power and name the origins.
The “Sight” gives Merlin an epistemological upper hand but it also marks him as separated from men. But, Merlin chooses this life. Merlin, by choosing celibacy, chooses to devote his life to solitude. Stewart says that “There is so strong a connection in legend (and indeed in history) between celibacy, or virginity, and power, that I have thought it reason to insist on Merlin’s virginity” (493). Stewart is correct to say this. Celibacy throughout history has been associated with holding some kind of power, both religious and political. The Vestal Virgins in Roman society, for example although severely punished by being buried alive if caught breaking their vow of celibacy, held considerable clout in the temple. And if they were able to remain celibate during the prime of their life, when they got old enough, and had served their time, they lived into old age in style. They were fed and cared for and given a place to live. As another example, priests and shamans, in some cultures and religions, practice celibacy. Either they practice celibacy for life, as do Catholic priests, or they abstain from sex for a prescribed amount of time.
For Merlin, his choice of celibacy is connected to this religious idea of “priestly celibacy.” The idea is that the celibate person is closer to God because other distractions, such as sex, marriage, children, do not complicate his life and he is able to free himself to contemplate holy things. What this does is provide a community with a figure who can offer spiritual advice, by setting himself apart from the community, he has the freedom to gain access to knowledge other people are to distracted to notice or not disciplined enough — or not gifted enough — to acquire.
Merlin’s celibacy empties himself of distractions and he is able to commune with the gods who invade his dreams and his waking life. For example, he has visions of the old Roman mithraic gods and he hears the gods speaking. Here, Stewart is setting up a divide between old religion and something different, an epistemic shift in power/knowledge. The origins of the story of Merlin are Roman in Stewart’s interpretation of the Arthurian legend, but for the story to continue, a shift occurs. Perhaps it is a shift into what we would call in the 20th century, a changeover from religious thinking to psychological thinking. Stewart is tapping into the psychological discourse of her time and applying it to the Arthur legend. Because Merlin is celibate, he is able to be emptied out for this purpose. He becomes a vacant vessel. Because of this, he is able to tap into the new discourse of power that his celibacy has allowed.
It is not a coincidence that the gods live in the hollow hills. And Merlin has a fascination with caves, with hollowed out places. He climbs into the hypocaust underneath the house, a hollowed out place to heat Roman homes. He searches out these secret places, these empty places, so he can escape and be alone, to fill his psyche with images and divine revelations. But, also so he can be with himself. Merlin is a loner. He desires to be by himself. Merlin shuts his eyes in the crystal cave, becomes “Empty of vision, [and] raved the broken, brilliant beams” (54).
His decision to be celibate releases him from the trappings of conjugal obligations. He does not have to submit himself to a heterosexual relationship nor does he have to buy into and play the game of male politics, like Ambrosius or Arthur. Merlin’s psychic development is not to be a king like Arthur, not to get involved with the politics of love and war, directly. Nor is he a catamite. He is not subservient to another man’s sexual desires, even though Ambrosius thinks this about Merlin. He chooses to separate himself not only from other men and homosocial bonds, but also the bonds that would otherwise tie him to a wife and to domestic obligations. His celibacy separates him from those bonds and also bestows on him a certain power that he would not otherwise have. He could have chosen these other social structures, but the role of celibacy seems to serve his shift into a psychological perspective — it fulfills his immediate needs — and at the same time reserves a place for him within society.
Merlin in the novel says, “What mattered to me — I see it clearly now — was to be alone in the secret dark, where a man is his own master, except for death” (18). Merlin desires the solitude of the single life so that he can master his craft and gain power for himself. Marriage would chain Merlin. It would isolate him from the “sight” and from his own desire for solitude. The desire for celibacy, while perhaps a need to escape from his own fate, is also a desire to see things that others do not see. Because he has been emptied out by his willful renunciation of the marital life, the life of a nobleman, the life of a ruler, he makes himself able to see things others cannot see. As a boy he says, “I could escape from the bigger boys and play my own solitary games..." (16). In other words, Merlin is choosing not to bond with other men. He choose to play the game(s) alone.
By removing himself from the triangulations of men — the other Arthurian male players — he does not enter into the violent and overtly sexual tug-o-war of Mallory’s Arthur. Stewart’s tale, while focused on the male perspective, is not about sex and violence. This is not the Iliad. It is a spiritual Iliad. The relationship Merlin enters into is not the homosocial triangle that Sedwick talks about. Merlin does not seem to be insert himself directly into the concerns of other men. Or other women, for that matter. As we mentioned in class, this novel is devoid of the power struggles set up between men and their women in the way that Mallory and other Arthur texts are deep into these homosocial bonds. Merlin, although not involved with women, is involved with something different than the men. His decision to step away from the life of sex marks him as on a different path.
When he is given the poisoned apricot to eat, he knows it is poisoned. "I don't want it. It's black inside. Look you can see right through." I argue that this is not a mere sleight-of-hand card trick Mary Stewart is posing, but actually a mirroring of Merlin’s own celibate role. He refuses the poisoned apricot but that is not what disturbs him. He sees not only the poison but a foreboding of his own future. He can see right through. And what does he see? He sees the blackness of the poison. Inevitably Merlin will be duped and stuck in a cave until the end of time. The apricot is a foreshadowing of his future doom. He is doomed to remember the future and forget the past. His refusal to eat of it is only a temporary hold. Merlin knows he is doomed to a nothingness. He knows he cannot escape death. But he also knows that he has a gift that will allow him some respite from his fate. He has to carve out a place for him — in his psyche, to survive and to stave off death. This is the reason he does not have relationship with women. Women would take something away from him, that is his. A relationship with a man, would do the same thing. As he gets older, he does become involved in the politics of kingship but he inserts himself only as a harbinger, not as a player. He retreats to his cave. He goes back into his mind.
The novel sets up Merlin’s own understanding of his role in society as a bildungsroman. He comes to this epiphany in time. This is what makes the novel so satisfying. The story brings you into the journey of Merlin’s own self-discovery. Merlin says of his chosen role, “Now, I know why; but then, I only knew that I was a boy who had found somewhere new, something he could perhaps make his own in a world where he owned nothing” (49). Stewart is setting up a different kind of coming of age novel. While most male coming of age stories depict the boy starting at a state of innocence and moving into a world of experience (usually through sex), Merlin is different. He does not go through the typical boy stages of growth and development. Merlin’s rite of passage is the discovery of the cave of his mind. Merlin discovers the Jungian cave. The collective unconscious. This is not Plato’s cave. Merlin does not discover the immutable forms or some semblance of the Christian heaven. Stewart is setting up a very 20th century paradigm for the Arthurian legend. What Merlin is privileged to discover is the geography of the psyche. He is able to tap into the archetype, whatever those may be, and peer into an older story of the world. Merlin stumbles upon the mind and the hollow recesses of the collective unconscious.
But there is one thing that I need to mention that I have avoided until now. It is kind of like a surprise. It has to do with Merlin’s own origins and his motivation to enter a different set of power relationships that set him off from his peers. It has to do with the mother issue. But I am not sure how to relate it exactly, but I have an intuition that there is a relationship. Merlin’s mother in the Stewart text has the same name as the woman who traps him in a cave for all eternity. It is as if Stewart is suggesting that Merlin search for the collective unconscious is really just a cover for an escape from his own history of origins. Or, to put it another way, it is a way for him not to deal with his origins. He is raised by a surrogate mother. He is a forgotten child. About his mother: even though we know his mother’s name, Merlin disassociates himself from her. But this too sets him up to fail for in the end he cannot escape from mother. Remember, Stewart gives the same name, Ninianne, to Merlin’s mother as he does to his entraptor, Ninianne, who seduces him into a cave where he is trapped for all eternity. So, in the end, he does get what he asked for — the cave — but not in quite the same way that he probably would have desired. About his father: Merlin has no real connection with his father even though he discovers his identity. Stewart does set up the recognition scene rather nicely, but I think this is merely a literary device to win the reader’s sympathy. It is the classic Freudian triangle. I know I did not end with a real conclusion, but this is all I am writing.
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