There is perhaps no more beloved and enduring myth in the Western canon than the story of King Arthur, his knights, Queen Guinevere, and of course, his mysterious tutor and magical advisor, Merlin. A sorcerer, sage, prophet, and teacher, Merlin’s mysterious life has inspired a vast array of classic works while giving rise to numerous conflicting legends. Here, award-winning author Jane Yolen, one of the most acclaimed fantasy writers of our time, retells Merlin’s tales as never before. Through a series of stories and poems ranging across centuries—from the days of Merlin’s childhood as a feral boy to the possible discovery of his bones in a much later era—Yolen reimagines both the glory and grimness of Camelot, recalling characters and events from Arthurian legend, while ingeniously inventing new myths and dark fables. Merlin’s Booke is a brilliant patchwork, made up of tales that explore the mysteries of King Arthur’s world and the terrible magic that pervaded it. This ebook features a personal history by Jane Yolen including rare images from the author’s personal collection, as well as a note from the author about the making of the book.
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About the Author
Jane Yolen is a novelist, poet, fantasist, journalist, songwriter, storyteller, folklorist, and children’s book author who has written more than three hundred books. Her accolades include the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Kerlan Award, two Christopher Awards, and six honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Born and raised in New York City, the mother of three and the grandmother of six, Yolen lives in Massachusetts and St. Andrews, Scotland.
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Thirteen Stories and Poems about the Arch-Mage
By Jane Yolen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Jane Yolen
All rights reserved.
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—words—
(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 MonmouthCHAPTER 2
The Confession of Brother Blaise
Osney Monastery, January 13, 1125
The slap of sandals 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. "Hurry!"
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 him. 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. 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."
No sooner had Geoffrey spoken than the still body moved and, with a sudden jerk, a clawlike hand reached out for the abbot's sleeve.
"Walter." Brother Blaise's voice was ragged.
"I will get him water," said the novice, eager to be doing something.
"No, my son. He is merely addressing me by name," said the abbot. "But I would have you go into the hall now and wait upon us. Or visit with the others. Your company should cheer them, and a man's final confession and the viaticum is between himself and his priest." The abbot knew this particular boy was prone to homesickness and nightmares and had more than once wakened the monastery hours after midnight with his cries. Better he was absent at the moment of Blaise's death.
The novice left at once, closing the door softly. Geoffrey, too, started out.
"Let Geoffrey stay," Blaise cried out.
Abbot Walter put his hand to Blaise's forehead. "Hush, my dear friend, and husband your strength."
But Blaise shook the hand off. "The babe himself said to me that it should be writ down."
"The babe?" asked the abbot. "The Christ child?"
"He said, 'Many of those who shall read or shall hear of it will be the better for it, and will be on their guard against sin.'" Blaise stopped, then, as if speaking lent him strength he otherwise did not have, he continued. "I was not sure if it was Satan speaking—or God. But you will know, Walter. You have an instinct for the Devil."
The abbot made a clicking sound with his tongue, but Blaise did not seem to notice. "Let Geoffrey stay. He is our finest scribe and it must be written down. His is the best hand and the sharpest ear, for all that you keep him laboring here amongst the infirm of mind and bowels."
The abbot set his mouth into a firm line. He was used to being scolded in private by Blaise. He relied on Blaise's judgments, for Blaise had been a black canon of great learning and a prelate in a noble house before suddenly, mysteriously, dedicating himself to the life of a monk. But it was mortifying that Blaise should scold in front of Geoffrey who was a literary popinjay with nothing of a monk's quiet habits of thought. Besides, Geoffrey entertained all manner of heresies, and it was all the abbot could do to keep him from infecting the younger brothers. The assignment to the infirmary was to help him curb such apostatical tendencies. But despite his thoughts, the abbot said nothing. One does not argue with a dying man. Instead he turned and instructed Geoffrey quietly.
"Get you a quill and however much vellum you think you might need from the scriptorium. While you are gone, Brother Blaise and I will start this business of preparing for death." He regretted the cynical tone instantly though it brought a small chuckle from Blaise.
Geoffrey bowed his head meekly, which was the best answer, and was gone.
"And now," Abbot Walter said, turning back to the man on the narrow bed. But Blaise was stiller than before and the pallor of his face was the green-white of a corpse. "Oh, my dear Blaise, and have you left me before I could bless you?" The abbot knelt down by the bedside and took the cold hand in his.
At the touch, Brother Blaise opened his eyes once again. "I am not so easily got rid of, Walter." His lips scarcely moved.
The abbot crossed himself, then sat back on the stool. But he did not loose Blaise's hand. For a moment the hand seemed to warm in his. Or was it, the abbot thought suddenly, that his own hand was losing its life?
"If you will start, father," Blaise said formally. Then, as if he had lost the thread of his thought for a moment, he stopped. He began again. "Start. And I shall be ready for confession by the time Brother Geoffrey is back." He paused and smiled, and so thin had his face become overnight it was as if a skull grinned. "Geoffrey will have a retrimmed quill and full folio with him, enough for an epic, at least. He has talent, Walter."
"But not for the monastic life," said the abbot as he kissed the stole and put it around his neck. "Or even for the priesthood."
"Perhaps he will surprise you," said Blaise.
"Nothing Geoffrey does surprises me. Everything he does is informed by wit instead of wisdom, by facility instead of faith."
"Then perhaps you will surprise him." Blaise brought his hands together in prayer and, for a moment, looked like one of the stone gisant carved on a tomb cover. "I am ready, father."
The opening words of the ritual were a comfort to them both, a reminder of all they had shared. The sound of Geoffrey opening the door startled the abbot, but Blaise, without further assurances, began his confession. His voice grew stronger as he talked.
"If this be a sin, I do heartily repent of it. It happened over thirty years ago but not a day goes by that I do not think on it and wonder if what I did then was right or wrong.
"I was confessor to the King of Dayfed and his family, a living given to me as I was a child of that same king, though born on the wrong side of the blanket, my mother being a lesser woman of the queen's.
"I was contented at the king's court for he was kind to all of his bastards, and we were legion. Of his own legal children, he had but two, a whining whey-faced son who even now sits on the throne no better man than he was a child, and a daughter of surpassing grace."
Blaise began to cough a bit and the abbot slipped a hand under his back to raise him to a more comfortable position. The sick man noticed Geoffrey at the desk in the far corner. "Are you writing all of this down?"
"Read it to me. The last part of it."
"... and a daughter of surprising grace."
"Surpassing. But never mind, it was surprising, too, given that her mother was such a shrew. No wonder the king, my father, turned to other women. But write it as you will, Geoffrey. The words can change as long as alteration does not alter the sense of it."
"You may trust me, Brother Blaise."
"He may—but I do not," said the abbot. "Bring the desk closer to the bed. You will hear better—and have better light as well—and Blaise will not have to strain."
Geoffrey pushed the oak desk into the center of the room where he might closer attend the sick man's words.
When Geoffrey was ready, Blaise began again.
"She was his favorite, little Ellyne, with a slow smile and a mild disposition. Mild disposition? Yes, that was her outer face to the world. But she was also infernally stubborn about those things she held dear.
"She had been promised before birth to the Convent of St. Peter by her mother who had longed for a daughter after bearing the king an heir. All his by-blows had been boys, which made the queen's desire for a daughter even greater.
"When Ellyne was born, the queen repented of her promise at once, for the child was bright and fair. Rings and silver candlesticks and seven cups of beaten gold were sent to the church in her stead. The good sisters were well pleased and did not press for the child.
"But when Ellyne was old enough to speak her own mind, she determined that she would honor her mother's promise. Despite the entreaties of her mother and father and the assurances of the abbess that she need not come, she would not be turned aside from her decision.
"I was, at that time, her confessor as well as the king's. At his request I added my pleas to theirs. I loved her as I loved no other, for she was a beautiful little thing, with a quick mind I feared would be dulled behind the convent walls. It was thought that she would listen to me, her 'Bobba' as she called me, sooner than to another. But the child shamed me, saying, 'Can you, who has turned his life entirely toward God, ask me not to do the same?' It was that question that convinced me that she was right for, you see, I was a priest by convenience and not conviction. Yet when she said it, she set me on the path by her side.
"She entered the convent the very next day."
Blaise paused, and the abbot moistened his mouth with a cloth dipped in a bowl of scented water that stood on the table. The scratch, scratch, scratch of Geoffrey's pen continued into the silence.
"She was eight when she entered and eighteen when the thing came to pass that led me to Osney—and eventually to this room."
Abbot Walter moved closer to the bed.
"I was in my study when the mother superior herself came bursting into the room. Ordinarily she would have sent a messenger for me, but such was her agitation, she came herself, sailing into my study like a great prowed ship under full sail.
"'Father Blaise,' she said, 'you must come to my parlor at once, and alone. Without asking a single question of me yet.'
"I rose, picked up a breviary, and followed her. We used the back stair that was behind a door hidden by an arras. It was not so much secret as unused. But Mother Agnes knew of it and insisted we go that way. As we raced down the steps, dodging skeins of cobwebs, I tried to puzzle out the need for such secrecy and her agitation and fear. Was there a plague amongst the sisters? Had two been found in the occasion of sin? Or had something happened to little Ellyne, now called Sister Martha? Somehow the last was my greatest fear.
"When we arrived in her spare, sweet-scented parlor, there was a sister kneeling in front of the hearth, her back to us, her face uplifted to the crucifix above.
"'Stand, sister,' commanded Mother Agnes.
"The nun stood and turned to face us and my greatest fear was realized. It was Sister Martha, her face shining with tears. There was a flush on her cheeks that could not be explained by the hearth for it was summer and there was no fire in the grate."
Blaise's voice was becoming ragged again, and the abbot offered him a sip of barley water, holding the cup to his mouth. Geoffrey's pen finished the last line and he looked up expectantly.
"When she saw me, Sister Martha began to cry again and ran to me, flinging her arms around me the way she had done as a child.
"'Oh, Bobba,' she cried out, 'I swear I have done nothing, unless sleeping is more than nothing.'
"Mother Agnes raised her head and thrust her chin forward. 'Tell Father Blaise what you told me, child.'
"'On my faith, father, I was asleep in a room several months ago, surrounded by my sisters. Sisters Agatha and Armory were on my right, Sisters Adolfa and Marie on my left. Marie snores. And the door was locked.'
"'From the outside!' said Mother Agnes, nodding her head sharply, like a sword in its downward thrust. 'All the sisters sleep under lock, and I and my prioress hold the only keys.'"
"A barbaric custom," muttered Abbot Walter. "It shows a lack of trust. And, should there be a fire, disastrous."
Excerpted from Merlin's Booke by Jane Yolen. Copyright © 1986 Jane Yolen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Hic Jacet Merlinnus,
The Ballad of the Mage's Birth,
The Confession of Brother Blaise,
The Wild Child,
The Dragon's Boy,
The Sword and the Stone,
Merlin at Stonehenge,
In the Whitethorn Wood,
A Note from the Author,
A Biography of Jane Yolen,