"A brilliant and gorgeously illustrated retelling of the Arthurian legend for very young children; even kindergarteners or first graders could appreciate its stately but simple language paired with Hyman's magnificent pictures." G. DeCandido said.
"This book is a wonderful gift for any child between 6 and 10. And for many an adult.
Its illustrations have just the exact amount of beauty and dream like quality the foggy ages of the Arthurian saga demand.
Children are confronted with the beauty of ideals, the necessity of moral strength, the real possibility of the arising of enemies even in your own family -like the brother wanting the glory of having taken the sword from the stone for himself, almost steeling Arthur's destiny- the mysterious forces at work to help fulfill one's life aims, either noble or evil, thus the eternal war among good and evil in and outside ourselves. And finally, the reality of death. Even the bravest have to die. All these truths of life expressed in a clear simple language, with the strength of one of the main myths of the western mind, the story of King Arthur, what a gift! This is the wonderful encounter of what was already there -the old chunk of Arthurian litterature- with what was created by the authors, the simple, powerful telling and the jewel like images." I bow to Gentle Voice said.
"You could be forgiven for thinking that it was about time for Margaret Hodges to rest on her laurels. Consider her widespread accomplishments. In 1983 she takes Edward Spencer's "Fairy Queen" and turns it into a Caldecott winning picture book that is readable by children ("Saint George and the Dragon"). As I write this the woman is nearing her 95th birthday and is still going strong. Heck, she's so important that her papers and correspondence are kept in the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room of the University of Pittsburgh (which, I might add, Hodges founded in the first place when she was a Professor Emerita there). Yet here she is with yet another accomplished retelling of a story all children should know. As a children's librarian, I often field interesting requests from patrons. Yesterday a woman came up to me and said, "My children are really into the 'Magic Treehouse' series, especially the books that talk about Merlin. Do you have a good book that tells the King Arthur and Merlin story that they might like?". I was torn. Not because the kids were going from vapid series to a tale with origins dating back to the 1400s. Not because I had any doubt in my mind that "Merlin and the Making of the King" would be a perfect choice for the woman. No, I hesitated because I knew perfectly well that my library branch has a single solitary copy of this book... and that it was sitting on my desk at home waiting for me to review it for this website. So I recommended it whole-heartedly and am now trying to write a review of it ASAP so that I can connect these kids from modern day piffle to a tale originally known as "Le Morte d'Arthur".
Covering the entire life of King Arthur, we begin our tale in the presence of the great wizard Merlin. When Uther Pendragon defeated the Duke of Cornwall and became king of all England, Merlin appeared to the ruler in a dream and told him that due to his personal failings, the wizard was going to spirit away his soon-to-be-born son at the earliest possible convenience. Uther, apparently okay with this, sends his baby boy off without a fight and soon thereafter dies. The baby is little Arthur, and he is raised by the kindly Sir Ector alongside a boy who becomes a knight by the name of Sir Kay. One day a sword is stuck into a stone and anvil and sure as shooting, Arthur pulls it clean out and becomes king. He receives a sword from Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, and goes on to rule the round table. In a somewhat quick and dirty encapsulation, the book skips over most of the fables associated with King Arthur and just sticks with the stories connected to his life. We meet Morgan le Fay, Mordred, Guinevere, and Launcelot. Arthur fights Mordred thrice, is defeated at last, and departs with the promise that he will someday return. As for Merlin, he disappears with many rumors surrounding where he has gone. No one knows for certain.
The Arthur myth is so integrated into our public consciousness that as I read this book I was assaulted by various versions of the tale encountered during my life. When I read about Arthur and Kay I remembered T.H. White's remarkable, "The Sword and the Stone" (which, now that I think about it, would also have made a great recommendation to the "Magic Treehouse" kids). When I saw Arthur pull the sword from the stone I flashed back to the animated Disney movie made lo these many years ago. And when the Lady of the Lake emerged from her watery home, suddenly the song "Find Your Grail" from "Spamalot" was pulsing through my ears. What we adults need to remember as we read this book is that kids going through it aren't necessarily going to have the same frames of reference that we do. All these pop cultural images and ideas won't be in their heads. As such, "Merlin and the Making of the King" is an ideal place to start them on. Consider the work and care put into it. In her Author's Note, Hodges gives a brief history of the original manuscript "Le Morte d'Arthur" published in 1485 in London. Yet in 1934, another manuscript was found in a library at Winchester College that was much closer to the original story than the 1485 version. This book is a retelling of the Winchester manuscript and, as such, is perhaps the purest children's retelling of the Arthur myth ever to be published in the English language for people under the age of 10.
If I were a professional reviewer (i.e. if I was getting paid) I would sit down with the Winchester retelling of Sir Thomas Malory's, "Le Morte d'Arthur" and determine what Hodges has written down and what she has left out. Obviously, knowing a patchwork of different Arthur stories ("Camelot" probably foremost amongst them) I felt that this book left out important details. It makes it sound as if Guinevere never cheated on Arthur with Lancelot and that it was just rumor mongering on Mordred's part. But who am I to say? Maybe that's what Malory's story actually said. What I can say with certainty is that if you're looking for a go-to source of good King Arthur stories ("Gawain and the Green Knight", "Gawain and the Loathly Lady", etc.) this is not the resource you want. This book is all Merlin and Arthur, all the time.
And how is the retelling? Pretty good. A little confusing at times. Though it would have pumped up the page count I think the font definitely could have been larger and the Trina Schart Hyman illustrations more plentiful. Unless I am much mistaken, this book is perhaps one of the last works Ms. Hyman was able to finish before dying of cancer in 2004. Unlike her earlier work the book is less reliant on fine-tuned details and employs a rougher broader brush. Just the same, it's far more intricate and indicative of the illustrated manuscripts of the medieval age than most of the work done by lesser artists working today. Ms. Hyman was one of the great bright stars of her field.
Reading this book, kids with Merlin-mania will not find themselves fully satiated. What they will find is the one true retelling of the original Arthur myth. From there on in they can enjoy books like Susan Cooper's, "Over Sea, Under Stone" and Jane Yolen's, "Young Merlin" series with some excellent background knowledge of this legendary tale. Ms. Hodges has given us the definitive children's edition of Arthur in brief. A necessary addition to any complete children's library." E. R. Bird said.
"This is a gorgeous book. Also you should buy the couple other books that this author and illustrator have teamed up to create. they are all fabulous. Enchanting!" Kellie Sunday said.
"Excellent book for your Camelot collection. Interesting view of the legend. Any collector would enjoy the book. Happy I got it!" DJ said.
"I ordered this classic for the stocking of my five year old grandson. He listened with great attention to the first chapter but didn't ask for more. I think it is a little too old for him, but he'll be ready soon. It's a beautiful book for all ages." MSR said.
"Beautifully illustrated with medieval marginalia. This book is a perfect introduction for a child to King Arthur. It provides the essential story, along with illustrations to ponder and dream upon." Fredericka said.
"The illustrations are so great it leaves you wanting more. I gave it four stars only because we wish it were longer. It is definitely worth owning if you're an King Arthur fan and you're looking for a quick bed-time story version. My six-year-old son loves it too." N. Malara said.