Jane Yolen,
illustrated by Li Ming,
Merlin & the Dragons
(Cobblehill Books, 1995)

OK, I'll admit it up front. I'm a sucker for a well-told Arthurian tale.

Jane Yolen makes the grade with Merlin & the Dragons, which is presented in the form of a late-night fireside chat between the elderly mage and the newly crowned boy-king, Arthur. To chase away Arthur's night terrors, Merlin relates a dream of his youth ... for, as he tells the lad, "a dream told is a story."

The tale is that of another young boy, Emrys, a fatherless Welsh child troubled by dreams of dragons and stone. Fate brings him to the attention of ruthless King Vortigern, whose seat on the throne is an unsteady one. Yolen skips over the details -- Vortigern earned the hatred of his people after inviting the land-hungry Saxons onto Britain's shores to provide a buffer between the largely defenseless Britons and various European invaders -- telling us only that Vortigern's position as High King was threatened by revolution.

Vortigern plans to use young Emrys as a sacrifice to secure the construction of a mighty tower, but the boy tells him that two sleeping dragons beneath the tower's foundations will cause it to fall each time it's built. And, indeed, workers uncover the sleeping worms, one red and one white, whose fiery battle portends Vortigern's own battle with his British foes. And, soon enough, a large British army led by Arthur's future father, Uther Pendragon, soon topples Vortigern's tower and the king is slain.

Yolen's rendition of the old story is fresh and exciting, easily able to capture the attention of young readers and older Arthurian fans alike. For young readers, it will hopefully set the stage for future reading into British and other legends and tales.

The story is complemented by large, lush illustrations. Li Ming's artwork is vivid and lifelike, painting the post-Roman era in British history with an eye for historic detail and realistic characters and settings. His dragons are sinuous and fierce, their fiery breath startlingly bright. His landscapes are picturesque, and the lines in the older Merlin's face are almost real enough to touch.

For a good introduction to early Arthurian sagas or just a fresh perspective on an old tale, Merlin & the Dragons is an excellent choice.

review by
Tom Knapp


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