Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, though he little knows it, only gradually discovering the echoes for himself as he uses a polished obsidian stone as a speculum. In it, the seeing stone of the title, Arthur de Caldicot descries the legendary Arthur — in medieval garb to be sure but then we read this novel in the English of the 21st century, which is equally anachronistic but proves no less magical — and learns all manner of truths about himself and his destiny.

But this is no roman à clef, to be nodded at sagely purely by those in the know. This is very much a human portrait, of a life on a manor that straddles two linguistic cultures, two social strata and two countries (as well as two centuries) and which, for a sensitive adolescent, throws up profound questions at a stage of life when growing up is already difficult. This is also a portrait of medieval society, told with sensitivity by a scholar who nevertheless doesn’t wear his learning on his sleeve; for example, the mostly short chapters, many just a page or two, divide the story into easily digestible morsels.

A delightful gem, then — and the good news is that The Seeing Stone has its sequels, At the Crossing Places and King of the Middle March, plus a later addition to the trilogy, Gatty’s Tale. I’ve not, I’m sorry to say, got round to reading these, which includes Arthur travelling to the Middle East to take part in what we now know was the rather less than glorious Fourth Crusade. Though these have received mixed reviews for me there’s still a sense of unfinished business in not completing the extended trilogy.

A slightly revised review from 2002

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4 thoughts on “Two societies, two cultures, two lives

  1. I *love* this series of books, and actually I think my favourite is ‘Gatty’s Tale’. I haven’t read them in years – thanks so much for the reminder! I have a TBR pile as tall as myself, but I think perhaps I’ll revisit this lovely story world this weekend instead.

    1. Your TBR pile can’t be as high as the tower by my bedside! I’d like to finish this series but too much else clamouring for my attention at the moment, not to mention a house move in the near future, fingers crossed…

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