Read Merlin's Booke Online

Authors: Jane Yolen

Merlin's Booke

BOOK: Merlin's Booke
4.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Merlin's Booke
Thirteen Stories and Poems about the Arch-Mage
Jane Yolen
For Terri and Mark

to Emma Bull, Father Robert Coonan, John Crowley, Charles de Lint, Ed Ferman, Bob Frazier, Dr. Justina Gregory, Dr. Vernon Harward, Zane Kotker, Patricia MacLachlan, Robin McKinley, Shulamith Oppenheim, Ann Turner, Will Shetterly, Susan Shwartz, Andrew Sigel, all of whom played some part in the magic show, and especially and always for the arch-mage himself, David Stemple.


Introduction: Hic Jacet Merlinnus

The Ballad of the Mage's Birth

The Confession of Brother Blaise

The Wild Child

Dream Reader

The Annunciation

The Gwynhfar

The Dragon's Boy

The Sword and the Stone

Merlin at Stonehenge

Evian Steel

In the Whitethorn Wood




A Note from the Author

A Biography of Jane Yolen

Hic Jacet Merlinnus

eputed to belong to Arthur and Guenevere was opened in the twelfth century by impecunious monks, only bones remained in the strong oak casket. That tomb—marked
, if you believe the seventeenth century antiquary Camden or
if you favor Sir Thomas Malory—was long a favorite touchstone of the pseudo-scholars. And, so the legend continued, alongside the bones was a tress of braided hair
yellow as golde
which, as soon as it was touched, turned to dust.

No tomb for the mage Merlin or Myrddin has ever been found.

Still the figure of the shape-changer, Druid high priest, wizard
counselor to kings bestrides the story of Arthur and his court like a colossus. Merlin's own part in the legendary history is culled from sources as diverse as Malory; the thirteenth century Burgundian poet Robert de Boron; the scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth of twelfth century Oxford; Nennius; Wace; a variety of folktales from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France; and bits that have traveled from as far away as India and Jerusalem. That history begins with a strange birth in a nunnery, continues through Merlin's childhood talents as a seer for King Vortigern, through the tales of a wild, mad Welshman living in the wood of Celyddon, through the troubling prophesies sometimes credited to Nostradamus, and ends in an enchanted sleep in the forest of Broceliande. In between the folk mind has gifted the mage with powers to move stones and to transform a rough, bearish military commander into a great good king of Christendom.

Merlin's greatest power, though, is that centuries of listeners and readers have believed in him. They believed in Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, in Sir Thomas Malory's version, in T.H. White's version, in Mary Stewart's version—even though the Merlin in each of these and hundreds of other recreations is never the same. But then was not Merlin a shape-shifter, a man of shadows, a son of an incubus, a creature of mists? There is not one Merlin, but a multitude, some dark, some light, some mystical and some substantial. Merlin is our magic mirror.

And so you have in your hands a book in which Merlin wears many faces and shapes. He is set in no one time and walks through a landscape now real, now unreal. This is revisionist mythology, stories and poems I wrote over a period of almost five years.

It is important to remember that the only thing to link these stories is the figure of Merlin and he is a different character in each tale. This is not a novel but a series of stories, each looking in toward the mage. But whether it is Merlin as seen through the eyes of the priest who baptized him in “The Confession of Brother Blaise” or through the cynical eyes of a minstrel who recreates the tale in “The Gwynhfar” or through the amnesiac eyes of the feral boy in “The Wild Child,” or through the rheumy eyes of the old magician beguiled and ensorceled in the tree in “In the Whitethorn Wood,” or through a reporter's notes in “Epitaph,” it is the arch-mage seen, as he has always been seen, through a storyteller's eyes, a dreamer's eyes.

The facts about Merlin are few, the spyglass of history being both corrupted and purified by its mythic lens. Yes, there were priests and seers, shanachies and wizards, counselors of war and teachers of Latin in the times past. And some of them may have actually been involved with The Matter of Britain. But what is actual is not necessarily what is true. Merlin was all of these—priest, seer, shanachie, wizard, counselor, and teacher. And he was none of them. He is rather a character touched by fancy. And:

Tell me where is fancy bred,

Or in the heart or in the head?

The answer is, of course, both.

Jane Yolen

Phoenix Farm

Hatfield, Massachusetts


“Many of those who shall read this book or shall hear it read will be the better for it, and will be on their guard against sin.”

the infant Merlin to his confessor, Father Blaise in
Vita Merlini
by Geoffrey of Monmouth

The Ballad of the Mage's Birth

The maiden sits upon the stair,

(The power's in the stone)

And births a son twixt earth and air,

(Touch magic, pass it on.)

And at her feet a burning tree,

(The magic's in the stone)

That is as green as green can be,

(Touch magic, pass it on).

And at her back a mossy well,

(The glory's in the stone)

For water does complete the spell,

(Touch magic, pass it on).

Earth, air, fire, water—

(The naming's in the stone)

Attend the infant mage's birth,

(Touch magic, pass it on).

She leaves him there, still bright with blood,

(The dying's in the stone)

Hard by the green and burning wood,

(Touch magic, pass it on).

“On my faith,” said she, “I know now. Only daughter was I to the king of Demetia. And when still young, I was made a nun in the church of Peter in Carmarthen. And as I slept among my sisters, in my sleep I saw a young man who embraced me; but when I awoke, there was no one but my sisters and myself. After this I conceived and when it pleased God the boy you see there was born. And on my faith in God, more than this never was between a man and myself.”

—Historia Regum Britanniae

by Geoffrey of Monmouth

The Confession of Brother Blaise

Osney Monastery, January 13, 1125

along the stone floor was the abbot's first warning.

“It is Brother Blaise.” The breathless news preceded the monk's entrance as well. When he finally appeared, his beardless cheeks were pink both from the run and the January chill. “Brother Geoffrey says that Brother Blaise's time has come.” The novice breathed deeply of the wood scent in the abbot's parlor and then, because of the importance of his message, he added the unthinkable.

It was to the abbot's everlasting glory that he did not scold the novice for issuing an order to the monastery's head as a cruder man might have done. Rather, he nodded and turned to gather up what he would need: the cruse of oil, his stole, the book of prayers. He had kept them near him all through the day, just in case. But he marked the boy's offense in the great register of his mind. It was said at Osney that Abbot Walter never forgot a thing. And that he never smiled.

They walked quickly across the snow-dusted courtyard. In the summer those same whitened borders blossomed with herbs and berry bushes, adding a minor touch of beauty to the ugly stone building squatting in the path before them.

The abbot bit his lower lip. So many of the brothers with whom he had shared the past fifty years were housed there now, in the stark infirmary. Brother Stephen, once his prior, had lain all winter with a terrible wasting cough. Brother Homily, who had been the gentlest master of boys and novices imaginable, sat in a cushioned chair blind and going deaf. And dear simple Brother Peter-Paul, whose natural goodness had often put the abbot to shame, no longer recognized any of them and sometimes ran out into the snow without so much as a light summer cassock between his skin and the winter wind. Three others had died just within the year gone by, each a lasting and horrible death. He missed every one of them dreadfully. The worst, he guessed, was at prime.

The younger monks seemed almost foreign to him, untutored somehow, though by that he did not mean they lacked vocation. And the infant oblates—there were five of them ranging in ages from eight to fourteen, given to the abbey by their parents—he loved them as a father should. He did not stint in his affection. But why did he feel this terrible impatience, this lack of charity toward the young? God may have written that a child would lead, but to Abbot Walter's certain knowledge none had led
The ones he truly loved were the men of his own age with whom he had shared so much, from whom he had learned so much. And it was those men who were all so ill and languishing, as if God wanted to punish him by punishing them. Only how could he believe in a God who would do such a thing?

Until yesterday only he and Brother Blaise of the older monks still held on to any measure of health. He discounted the aching in his bones that presaged any winter storms. And then suddenly, before compline, Blaise had collapsed. Hard work and prayer, whatever the conventional wisdom, broke more good men than it healed.

The abbot suddenly remembered a painting he had seen in a French monastery the one time he had visited the Continent. He had not thought of it in years. It represented a dead woman wrapped in her shroud, her head elaborately dressed. Great white worms gnawed at her bowels. The inscription had shocked him at the time:
Une fois sur toute femme belle …
Once I was beautiful above all women. But by death I became like this. My flesh was very beautiful, fresh and soft. Now it is altogether turned to ashes. … It was not the ashes that had appalled him but the worms, gnawing the private part he had only then come to love. He had not touched a woman since. And that Blaise, the patrician of the abbey, would be gnawed soon by those same worms did not bear thinking about. God was very careless with his few treasures.

With a shudder, Abbot Walter pushed the apostasy from his mind. The Devil had been getting to him more and more of late. Cynicism was Satan's first line of offense. And then despair.
He sighed.

“Open the door, my son,” Abbot Walter said putting it in his gentlest voice, “my hands are quite full.”

Like the dortoir, the infirmary was a series of cells off a long, dark hall. Because it was January, all the buildings were cold, damp, and from late afternoon on, lit by small flickering lamps. The shadows that danced along the wall when they passed seemed mocking.
The dance of death,
the abbot thought,
should be a solemn stately measure, not this obscene capering Morris along the stones.

They turned into the misericorde. There was a roaring fire in the hearth and lamps on each of the bedside tables. The hard bed, the stool beside it, the stark cross on the wall, each cast shadows. Only the man in the bed seemed shadowless. He was the stillest thing in the room.

Abbot Walter walked over to the bed and sat down heavily on the stool. He stared at Blaise and noticed, with a kind of relief crossed with dread, that the man's eyes moved restlessly under the lids.

“He is still alive,” whispered the abbot.

“Yes, but not, I fear, for long. That is why I sent for you.” The infirmarer, Brother Geoffrey, moved suddenly into the center of the room like a dancer on quiet, subtle feet. “My presence seems to disturb him, as if he were a messenger who has not yet delivered his charge. Only when I observe from a far corner is he quiet.”

BOOK: Merlin's Booke
4.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

All The Way by Charles Williams
The Jamestown Experiment by Tony Williams
A Taste of You by Grace, Sorcha
Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale
The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor
The House by Lee, Edward
Aftertaste by Meredith Mileti
Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston