Monday, May 14, 2007

The Making of a Wizard: The Young Merlin Trilogy

Jane Yolen's The Young Merlin Trilogy offers a wonderful introduction to the Arthurian/Merlin cycle which is the basis of the English quest genre.

Set in fifth century Britain, where the declining Roman civil structure allows constant warfare between native Britons and encroaching Saxons, Passager, book one of the trilogy, introduces the young Merlin as an eight-year-old child abandoned in the deep woods by two mysterious women. The child survives for a year, thin, dirty, and almost unclothed, living as a solitary wodewose, or wild one, gradually forgetting language and social interaction. However, when he comes across Robin, a falconer gentling a young hawk, he feels a compulsion to follow the man and learn more about the hawk to whom he feels a strange connection. Robin's kind and insightful ways gentle the wild boy and reintroduce him to the ways of settled folk, giving him the name Merlin after a small breed of hawk. Young Merlin becomes the passager, a wild-caught immature hawk, and through his prophetic dreams catches glimpses of his future magical powers.

In Hobby (Young Merlin Trilogy,) the second book of the trilogy, now twelve-year-old Merlin's haven at Master Robin's farm ends when, waking from such a prophetic dream, he finds Robin's hut and mews aflame and all--folk and birds--burned to death. Merlin flees with the farm horse and cow and is captured by a brigand who calls himself Fowler. When Fowler's cruel hand cause the old horse to throw him off, Merlin leaves him for dead and falls under the protection of a magician and a singer who are performing at a nearby town fair. Merlin, who calls himself "Hobby," a term for a trained tercel, is tricked by the the two performers into interpreting dreams before the ruthless Briton leader Vortigern. When the two charlatans disappear with Hobby's earnings, he is pursued again by Fowler and takes refuge once more in the deep woods.

The final book, Merlin: The Young Merlin Trilogy, begins as Merlin is rescued from a pack of wild dogs by a shaggy, bear-like man who leads him to a settlement of the woods folk. There Merlin is fed and questioned and soon comes to the attention of the women, who intuit that he has been sent to replace their old Dreamer, recently dead. He is imprisoned in a wicker cage and forced to drink a drugged potion which induce dreams which he is forced to relate. In such a dream Merlin sees the group deep in blood, dead in their meadow. When a child begs Merlin to use his magic to escape, Merlin finds that he indeed has such powers and the two melt into the forest to survive together. Merlin, following his dream of a bear wearing a crown, names the child "Artus" (Bear) and promises to care for and teach him as he grows into the future King Arthur.

The books of the Merlin trilogy are slender, under 100 pages each, and are written in spare, poetic language. Although sentences and chapters are short and easily accessible to young readers of eight or nine, the vocabulary is less so, particularly in the use of terms which require some knowledge of medieval life. These books, loosely based on the Merlin stories interwined with the Arthurian legends, are a good starting point for readers who are attracted to the fantasies of early Britain.

The story of young Arthur is continued in Yolen's The Dragon's Boy: A Tale of Young King Arthur and The Rightful King: A Novel of King Arthur.

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