The Young Merlin Trilogy by Jane Yolen

I recently took my kids to the public library and, as usual, came home with a couple of YA titles – three to be exact. They make up the The Young Merlin Trilogy: Passager, Hobby, and Merlin by Jane Yolen.

The books I read were actually three separate books (as pictured throughout) but I figured I would review them all under this one combined volume:

This is the legendary story of Merlin–from his abandonment by his parents at the age of eight to the discovery of his powers at twelve. Together, these three novels reimagine the origins of the greatest wizard of all time, giving readers a Merlin at once more human and more magical than any that has appeared before.

I found them to be interesting chapter books that explore the childhood of Merlin in poetic and dream like prose. Despite their unique style and structure they are captivating and entertaining reads.

More below.

The first thing to note about the books are how short they are as separate books (100 pages or so). But again, I see them as chapter books even if the style and subject are somewhat non-traditional.

The individual books, or as parts withing a larger work, mimic the feel of myths and legends in that they sketch and describe characters and events but lack the completeness of traditional novels.

The concept is to explore what Merlin’s childhood might have been like. Yolen has studied the Arthurian myths and legends surrounding the famous wizard and come up with her take on what happened and how that might have felt from Merlin’s perspective.

Passager covers Merlin’s abandonment at age eight until he is found and taken in by a kindly bird tamer.  A Passager is “a falcon caught in the wild and tamed but that is not yet an adult bird.” Yolen uses this theme to explore the idea of being a wild child lost in the woods and what it would be like to come back to a home and a makeshift family.

This first volume introduces Merlin and sketches out his personality and perspective. It also uses Merlin as a lens with to view both the nature of the wilderness but also the contrast with domestication and homelife.

As noted above, it has a poetic and dream like quality to it as you watch Merlin survive in the harsh conditions and being to relax under the care of humans again. He tries to make sense of his identity in the contrasting places and dynamics.

A Hobby is a “small Old World falcon or hawk that has been trained and flown at small birds.” And this volume beings with tragedy. Merlin is forced to leave his adopted home and set out alone once again.  Along the way he hooks up with a traveling magician – or mage – and his beautiful wife. But after interpreting some dreams for a Duke and Duchess things go awry yet again and he is left to fend for himself alone.

The focus of Hobby is on the relationships Merlin develops and how his identity and perspective changes when part of a group and accepted as such (or at least appearing to be). Merlin also begins to try and sort out his dreams and what they might mean both for him and for those in the dreams and around him.

The final book deals with Merlin as he is coming to grips with his magical potential – not fully mastered but beginning to understand the outlines. He meets an entire village of wild folk but his dreams once again cause conflict and lead to tragedy.

The book puts Merlin, who is now fully his own person making his own decisions, in a society that is more like his wild/nature side but it is also clear that his dream set him apart and keep him from fitting in. They in fact lead to conflict and end in tragedy just as they have before.

But in a strange way, Merlin finds a friend and a way to face the future.

What is interesting about the stories is their episodic and provisional nature.  They don’t really tell a definitive story with clear cut beginning middle and end; although there are aspects of this involved. Rather they sort of sketch out a way of looking at the legend of Merlin; of trying to see how this character might have developed and how he came to be the wizard of such fame.

I am not a student of Arthurian legend so I can’t really comment of Yolen’s interpretation of Merlin’s youth. But I found the impressionistic stories interesting and evocative even if they did lack any resolution.

You sort of have to set aside your expectations and just enjoy the writing and the unique story a they come. If you are looking for tight plots and lots of developed characters your will be disappointed.

But if you are interested in Arthurian legend and myth or just enjoy unique and imaginative storytelling then I think you will enjoy this trilogy.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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