No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011/56-8: Arthur trilogy -- Kevin Crossley-Holland

Sometimes what happens in my life echoes what happens in the stone, sometimes it's the other way round. But my stone also shows me people and places I've never seen before -- the fortress of Tintagel, King Uther, Ygerna, the hooded man. (The Seeing Stone, p. 301)

I've owned these books for many years, and only read them recently (enforced inactivity plus Indian summer). The first volume was lauded for the quality of the prose and the format (one hundred short chapters): it was awarded the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Tir na n-Og prize, and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize bronze medal, and shortlisted for the Whitbread Awards.

The trilogy begins in the year 1199. Arthur de Caldicot is thirteen years old, living in a castle in the middle Marches (English / Welsh border) at the heart of a community of sixty. He fights with his elder brother Serle, comforts younger sister Sian when her cat goes missing, trains to become a squire and eventually a knight, and cherishes dreams of marrying his cousin Grace.

Merlin, a mysterious and unholy wanderer who comes and goes as he pleases, gives Arthur a piece of polished obsidian, telling him it's the most valuable thing he will ever have. Arthur sees visions in the stone: he watches, and recounts, the story of the legendary king whose name he shares, colouring what he sees with his own experience, perception and perspective.

The first novel, for me, is the most successful and the most interesting: it contrasts an intimate and vivid description of medieval life, the rhythm of the seasons and the equalities and inequalities of feudal society, with the glories of King Arthur's birth, youth and ascension to the throne.

The second novel, At the Crossing-Places, is about the imminence of change. Arthur, now wiser as to his own heritage, is preparing to go on crusade with Lord Stephen de Holt. He's becoming more aware of the wider world, and thinking more rigorously about his place in it. And in the stone, he sees the glory that was the legendary Camelot -- and begins to wonder if he, too, might bring about an age of justice and honour.

There's a long hiatus, in story-time and in Arthur's personality, between the second and third novels. Some of the events that occur in that hiatus are described, with benefit of hindsight, by Arthur: others are merely alluded to, or left implicit.

King of the Middle March -- the title itself is the spoiler -- mostly deals with Arthur's experiences abroad. There's a great deal of frustration: Crossley-Holland really brings to life the sheer logistic challenge of mounting a crusade; recruiting tens of thousands of fighting men, feeding and watering and transporting them, and keeping them spiritually pure.

Arthur comes to question the morality of war against the 'infidel': he meets Saracens, sees the horrors perpetrated against them in the name of God, and watches as Arthur-in-the-stone strives for, and fails to achieve, peace.

King Arthur is standing on the beach at Dover, under the white chalk cliffs. He's up to his knees in water, and around him pairs of men are locking, arrows are whirring, pikes are jabbing, swords are swinging, soldiers are lurching, landing-skiffs are bobbing, blood is staining, words are cursing and praying, ordering, threatening, begging... (King of the Middle March, p. 311)

The language is lovely, with Anglo-Saxon rhythm balanced by Arthur's own lyricism and knack for the detail that unlocks a description and makes it real. (Ocean waves make 'short sounds without memories'.) The parallels between his story and that of Arthur-in-the-stone aren't always as clear as they might be, but over the course of the three novels Arthur progresses from wondering if Arthur-in-the-stone is himself to turning away from the blood-stained history he perceives in the polished obsidian. Crossley-Holland ties in myth, folklore and superstition -- hunting the hare on Easter Sunday, turning back from a journey if there are too many bad omens -- with Arthur's own Christian beliefs and the pervasive influence of religion in his world. That contrast brings to life the medieval period, and makes for an absorbing and fascinating read.

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