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The Lost Years of Merlin
T.A. Barron
Philomel Books

Volume 1 The Lost Years of Merlin
Volume 2 The Seven Songs of Merlin
Volume 3 The Fires of Merlin

Art: Mike Wimmer
The Lost Years of Merlin
The Seven Songs of Merlin
The Fires of Merlin
T.A. Barron
T.A. Barron grew up in the mountains of Colorado. He wrote his first novel at Oxford University, between trips to Scotland and Wales. He now writes in the attic of his Colorado home, assisted by his wife Currie, and their five young children.

ISFDB Bibliography
More on Merlin I
More on Merlin II

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

In these three books -- the first of a projected set of five -- the author details Merlin's childhood. Accounts of Merlin's life in the late 5th-early 6th century, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's early Prophetiae Merlini (1134) and Vita Merlini (c. 1150), or the later metrical romances such as the 13th century Merlin attributed to Robert de Boron, portray Merlin's birth as resulting from the union of a maiden and an incubus. His subsequent purification by Christian baptism makes him a type of dual individual; a homunculus of sorts. Merlin, who according to Geoffrey is supposed to have built Stonehenge, is likely the Christianized version of Myrddin, an early Celtic bard as well as a Celtic Sun God thought to have been worshipped at Stonehenge. Until a teenage Merlin tells king Vortigern why his royal tower continually collapses, very little about him is known.

As early Christians did for Jesus in the apocryphal "Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ," Barron sets out to tell the story of Merlin's "lost years." He proposes that Merlin must have disappeared from Earth itself, and lived and developed as a wizard in the world of Fincayra, a bridge between Earth and Heaven.

In The Lost Years of Merlin, a young boy, Emrys, is washed up on the coast of Wales suffering from amnesia. He saves a woman from a mad boar (the evil entity Rhita Gawr) with the help of a mysterious stag (the good God Dagda) . Emrys grows up with the healer-woman Branwen, who claims to be his mother but will tell him nothing of his past. He develops powers of telekinesis, and when Branwen is to be burnt at the stake, he saves her. In attempting to save the perpetrator from the fire as well, he himself is badly burned and loses his sight. While he does develop a magical "second sight," he vows never to use his powers again, believing that God has punished him for his evil deeds.

Searching for his origins takes him across the sea to the mythical Fincayra, a land "neither wholly of Earth nor wholly of Heaven, but a bridge connecting both." There he befriends an earthy and intuitive wood-nymph named Rhia and an ornery merlin (bird of prey) nicknamed Trouble. The evil king Stangmar, a minion of the evil Rhita Gawr, is gathering up the seven treasures that give one control over the strategically important Fincayra. The seventh and unifying treasure is a glowing stone called the Galator that Branwen presented to Emrys when he left to find himself. Rhia, Trouble and a dwarf giant with a Gollum-like speech impediment have various adventures and encounter sources of information and wisdom as they seek to remove the blight that is spreading over Fincayra.

In The Seven Songs of Merlin, Emrys, now renamed Merlin, is given the task of playing an enchanted harp and re-greening the blighted areas of Fincayra before Rhita Gawr can get a foothold again. Headstrong and wishing to see his mother again, he leaves the mission he is pledged to and summons her magically, but she falls victim to a poison flower send by Rhita Gawr to poison him. Burdened by the Fincayran equivalent of a hopelessly bad standup comedian, he is left with only a month to find the antidote. The same wise seashell who told him how to summon his mother tells him that the antidote can only be obtained from the Dagda. To reach the Otherworld he must master the meaning of the seven songs of his grandfather, who perished in a similar quest because of his overbearing pride.

In The Fires of Merlin, the dragon Valdearg, on which a sleeping spell had been cast, wakes to find its offspring slaughtered and is out for revenge. Summoned to dispose of the dragon by Urnalda, queen of the dwarves, Merlin finds himself double-crossed. Meanwhile, kreelixes, huge bat-like creatures long thought extinct that live by feeding on the magic of people and things, set out after him. Saved by a pair of human-deer shapeshifters, he escapes and attempts to save a hidden, apparently dying, dragon baby. Along with the deer-woman, he sets off to consult an oracle to determine who has stolen the Galator, supposedly essential in the defeat of the dragon.

The first book of this series is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. The novels are excellent fantasy, and seem to meld well with what is "known" about Merlin, though the parentage issue is modified somewhat. The characters are interesting, well developed and presented in a clear straightforward way. There are plenty of entertaining adventures and nasty beasties beyond those noted in the synopses above. The Celtic background is also well done. Merlin's development, his learning of his limitations, his struggle to repress his overbearing pride and "damn the world I'm doing what I want" attitude, and the practical and moral lessons of the seven songs all contribute to an excellent portrayal of what went into forming the great Merlin.

For the adult reader, given that the books are written for the juvenile Market, they lack the subtlety, innuendo and double-entendres found in the adult fantasy works of James Branch Cabell or James Stephens. Similarly, they do not have the textual richness of a Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith. This however will certainly make them far more accessible to today's average juvenile reader. The books also tend to be highly episodic, a bit like a role-playing game led by an inexperienced dungeon master. At times, particularly in the first two books, each chapter seems to simply be a story serving to introduce a new character or a new conflict to resolve. Also, it seems that almost every time Merlin gets into real trouble, one of his friends has to either risk or sacrifice his/her life (e.g. Trouble, Rhia, and Eremon the shapeshifting deer) to save his butt. Why do they still hang around with him? Another point, which may be overlooked given the targeted audience, is that Merlin, a healthy teenager, in close contact with Rhia, a very pretty wood nymph, under many dangerous and nerve-wracking situations, and not yet knowing she is his sister, has not the least physical attraction to her. Admittedly, the most basic human instinct -- reproduction -- is seldom portrayed in fantasy... but Merlin is a healthy teenager.

Despite these criticisms, the Lost Years of Merlin series accomplishes well what it sets out to do, and is worth a read as a counterpart to the recent network television extravaganza "Merlin." One might even hope that it might lead some young people to read that great myth-maker Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose imagination also created much of the Arthur story.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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