Folk and fairy tales go on being told and retold by each new generation of storytellers because these tales--tales of human nature, of its strengths and weaknesses--go on being true for every new generation of listeners, even when those listeners think they know better than to believe in dragons and in ghosts, and in impractical quests for glory and honor.
Some storytellers make an old tale fresh by subtle new insights into old characters, by sharp new adjectives applied to old adventures. Some tellers prefer to take an old story as a jumping-off place, a background for new stories. This latter impulse is the origin of Merlin Dreams, text by Peter Dickinson and illustrations by Alan Lee (Delacorte Press: $19.95; 167 pp.). Merlin lies sleeping under a great rock deep in the earth, but the earth shifts and breathes; the passing of the seasons whispers to the sleeper and he dreams. (Readers who remember Dickinson's "The Weathermonger" will find an extra edge to these tales of Merlin's dreams). From the first pages, when Dickinson sets out a tale of Merlin and Nimue much likelier and more satisfying than is the usual version, to the last page, a short tale of the last knight of the last king discovering--perhaps--the truth of the old folk tale of the sleeping mage, Dickinson and Lee lead their readers through a maze as varied and magical as one would want Merlin's dreams to be. There are tales (I will not say which) that give themselves away in their first lines, for those quick enough to catch them at it; there are those others that unroll seemingly quietly to inevitable conclusions, which twist on the page at the last. Dickinson's work has wit and style and imagination; Lee's moody drawings and watercolors are the perfect complement to a mage's dreams. Illustrations too often flatly depict the text (or, dreadfully, misrepresent it); Lee's illustrations bring the reader farther into the stories, expand and enhance them. It is also a delight to see a book for all ages, as this one is, so lavishly and lovingly illustrated. Picture books are so automatically assumed to be for small children that the phrase "picture book" means for small children, unless further description is hastily added. This is a shame and a waste.