At Jamboread, the library had tables set up where we could purchase books by the authors who would be speaking that day. I didn’t own any books by Jane Yolen, so I purchased a storybook about lady pirates and The Young Merlin Trilogy, a collection of chapter books that Yolen wrote about the legendary wizard as a young boy.
My copy of the trilogy contains all three in one volume, though they were originally published separately. Each title comes from a falconry term that somehow represents Merlin’s stage in life, so not only did I enjoy a good story that contains bits of Arthurian legend, but I also learned about birds and stuff. 🙂
The first book Passager is about Merlin’s abandonment by his mother, who could no longer afford to care for him (think “Hansel and Gretal”). Merlin–who, at the time, is an unnamed character to the audience–is eight years old, and he lives in the woods for a year, slowing losing his civilized nature. Finally, he spots a falconer training a falcon, spies on them for a few days, and then follows the falconer home (after the falconer left an intentional trail). The falconer–named Robin–adopts the young boy and begins to civilize him and care for him. When Robin takes the boy out to see his hawks, he introduces the boy to the merlin, which is a small falcon that, despite its size, is rarely captured by predators. When the boy hears the word “merlin,” he, of course, recalls his own name, and symbolically becomes part of Robin’s family. The title of this first book is from “passager,” a falcon caught in the wild and trained, but not yet mature.
Warning: spoilers may follow.
The second book Hobby begins with a tragic house fire in which Merlin, now twelve years old, is the only survivor. He sets off with a cow and a horse, the only farm animals to survive, and heads into the woods towards a town, where he plans to sell the animals to buy food. Before he reaches the town, he comes across a set of ruins, where a scary, mean man who calls himself Fowler and his dog Ranger are. Though Fowler captures the young Merlin–who has begun to call himself Hawk–Hawk eventually escapes and arrives at a fair in town. Here he meets Ambrosius, a mage, or magician, and Viviane, a beautiful musician, who are traveling entertainers. (And both are characters that appear in Arthurian legend.) Hawk joins them after Ambrosius realizes that Hawk is a dreamer (and a dream-reader). He uses one of Hawk’s powerful dreams to entertain a certain duke and his lady, though Ambrosius incorrectly explains Hawk’s dream. After Hawk has been with the two entertainers for a few days, they send him back to the fair and escape, fearful of Hawk’s ability to dream and his interpretations of those dreams. It’s becoming evident in the plot that Merlin is very powerful, though he does not realize it. The story is written in such a way that even a young reader (mid- to late-elementary age) will be able to see how Merlin’s dreams are symbolic of the future. In regards to falconry (as I’m sure you’re all eager to learn about birds, too), a “hobby” is “a small, Old World falcon or hawk that has been trained and flown at small birds.”
[By the way, did you know that a falcon is merely a female hawk? And that a male hawk is technically called a “tercel”? I always assumed that falcons and hawks were two separate species. Then again, science was never really my strongest subject.]
The final book in the trilogy is called Merlin. In this book has fled from the town and is on the run again. Now, his power is becoming more evident, as his dreams while sleeping are now joined by dreams while he’s awake. He seems to become part of a pack of wild dogs even while they are chasing him; he swims with trout in a river though he sits on a rock, completely dry. He doesn’t yet understand why he has these experiences, but others older than he are figuring out that he’s quite powerful. One dream fascinated me–Merlin dreams of a bear wearing a golden crown, and though the bear should be frightening, it seems powerful yet gentle. I’m familiar enough with Arthurian legend that I realized this dream symbolized that Merlin was soon to meet the young Arthur (from artus, or bear), whose presence actually made this last book my favorite.
Soon after the dream, a great, bear-like, wild man saves Merlin from a pack of wild dogs. This man, one of the legendary “wild ones” that Merlin has heard about, takes the boy back to the camp. The people he meets are kinda scary; they’re semi-nomads who take in orphans and children otherwise abused or who have run away, and when they realize that the boy is a dreamer, they put Hawk-Hobby (which he is now going by) into a wicker cage and feed him food spiked with a drug intended to create more dreams. A lot happens in this last book, but the most important events are that Hawk-Hobby meets a young boy named Cub, who one day brings him a dead robin. Hawk-Hobby is able to breathe life back into the bird, realizing even more of his magical potential, and when he finally flees the wild people, Cub follows him, adopting him, in a way. When they return to camp, they realize that Hawk-Hobby’s one dream about the wild people has come true, and they have been slaughtered by an army led by Fowler, the bad man from the second book, who has died in the battle as well. The boys are now really and truly on their own, and Merlin takes the job of raising Cub, finally telling Cub what his true name is. Cub is such a wonderful little character, and the epilogue to the last book is an older Arthur reflecting on how Merlin changed his life.
This is a seriously long synopsis for three relatively short books, but they were quite good and I wanted to share. Yolen is a masterful storyteller, which I already knew, but I love how she integrates Arthurian legend and falconry into these stories. The legends of Merlin are so numerous, and each one tells a different side of the story that it’s impossible to know what aspects of the story are true, if such a man named Merlin really did exist. And even if Merlin only exists in our collective memory, I’m so glad that Yolen is adding to the lore.