[(essay date June 1993) In the following essay, Kellogg offers a comparison between four books that take different approaches to retelling Arthurian legends for an examination of how quality works can faithfully portray Merlin as a character of depth and interest.]
Retellings of traditional stories have always been an important type of children's literature. Such stories are fundamental to creating a child's personal and social identity, as well as a sense of continuity with the past. But when these potentially powerful stories are retold badly or shallowly to a generation of children, they lose their power to transform, to, as Jane Yolen says, "touch the true magic inside us all" ("America's Cinderella" 23). I have chosen the example of King Arthur's Merlin, a figure embedded as deeply as any in Western literary, folk, and mythic traditions, to explore the implications of the dumbing of children's literature.
The figure of Merlin has a rich medieval legacy. He has his origins in Myrddin of Welsh legend, a sixth-century bard presumed to have the gift of prophecy. He is the "child without a father" (though in some versions is begotten by a devil or an incubus), and it is only through his mother's virtue that his dark, supernatural gifts can be turned to good. In earliest tradition he is associated with the Anglo-Saxon king, Vortigern, and later with the legendary King Arthur. In the most familiar medieval version, that of Sir Thomas Malory, it is Merlin who orchestrates much of Arthur's power.
Merlin assumes many shapes, guises, and roles, He is an enchanter, a magician, a prophet, and poet in the mythic Arthurian world. He is a "shifter, a trickster, joker, arbiter of value and of meaning" (Bloch 2), with special knowledge of the past and future. Associated with the devil yet in the service of God, a wild child/man inhabiting the forest yet a bringer of culture, a military strategist and master manipulator yet a mediator and peacemaker--he is a paradox.
This illusive and elusive figure continues to fascinate, as attested by such modern renditions as those depicted in T. H. White's Once and Future King, the Mary Stewart Arthurian tales, Marion Zimmer Bradley's best-selling Mists of Avalon, and the film Excalibur, to name a few. In addition, such figures as Gandalf in Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring and Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars are certainly derivative. Out of this abundance of retellings, I have chosen four works to discuss that point to Merlin's unique importance in Arthurian legend: two children's picture books, Carol Heyer's problematic Excalibur and Hudson Talbott's more successful King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone, Disney's cartoon version of Sword in the Stone, and Jane Yolen's remarkable Merlin's Booke. As King Arthur's mentor and friend--in many ways his very creator--Merlin has a profound impact, for the values, attitudes, and ideological paradigms he transmits to Arthur in each of these works are also transmitted to the children who are reading or watching the stories.
Although more beautiful...