Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kevin Crossley-Holland

So far I have only seen the first two books of Kevin Crossley-Holland's "Arthur Trilogy," reviewed below. The third book, The King of the Middle-March, has been on my bookshelf for some time, alongside the next books in 100 other series; I expect I will read it if God gives me time.

Crossley-Holland lives and writes in Minnesota, though he is of English parentage. His trilogy is about a little boy named Arthur de Caldicot living in medieval England, at the time of the crusades, but who is connected by means of a "seeing stone" to a rather similar Arthur of an earlier age. If you've re-read all the Harry Potter books enough times for now, perhaps you will find this trilogy worth your while.

The Seeing Stone
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Recommended Age: 12+

This first book of the Arthur Trilogy finds young Arthur de Caldicot living on a manor near a deep, dark forest in medieval England. Arthur is pushed around by his older brother who is favored over him, befriended by a philosopher named Merlin, and wants nothing more than to become a squire and then a knight. If you think I'm talking about another version of The Once and Future King, you're in for a surprise. For this "Arthur" is not the "King Arthur" Arthur, but a little boy by the same name living centuries later, between the reign of Richard Lionheart of Crusades fame and King John of Magna Carta fame. And it's possible that the "Merlin" in this story is not the same Merlin who counseled King Arthur of the round table. Whether he is or no, I cannot tell just yet.

But though they are different persons, the two Arthurs in question are connected somehow, and I think it has to do with more than their name and general circumstances. For Merlin has given young Arthur de Caldicot a stone of obsidian in which he begins to "see" the parallel career of his royal namesake.

As 13-year-old Arthur de Caldicot begins to write down his thoughts, experiences, and dreams at the turn of the 13th century, he lives on the manor of Calicot, where he has been raised as the son of Sir John and Lady Helen, a wonderful couple who also have an older son (Serle), a younger daughter (Sian), and three sons who died in infancy (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Right in the middle of the family is Arthur, a left-handed boy with a blob nose and ears that stick out, who (because no one will let him do anything left-handed) can never seem to do well-enough at jousting or swordplay, though he's a fair wrestler and an excellent archer. He is also, most unusually, learning to read and write, under the tutelage of the village priest Oliver, and he practices on his own by writing these memoirs.

Meanwhile, he is learning a different sort of lesson from a mysterious philosopher named Merlin, who gives him a magic stone in which he is able to see the parallel history of King Arthur from infancy on up. Parallel, I say, because very often what he sees in the stone matches or contrasts directly with something going on in this young Arthur's life.

It's a warm story, full of historical detail and character color, as well as such exciting plot developments as a trial in which justice is miscarried, an illegitimate birth, sibling rivalry, bull-fighting, rescuing someone fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, puppy love, and being wounded by a sore loser in a fencing contest. But the plot is basically about how Arthur comes to realize that Sir John is not his real father, and that his past is clouded by adultery and murder, and how this knowledge begins to change Arthur's future as well...

These books come with neat little maps and lists of characters and, don't you know, they pretend to be written by young Arthur de Caldicot himself, in a charming and colorful way though not in a straightforward, one-thing-after-another narrative. Reading it is, in fact, somewhat like putting together an enjoyable little puzzle. You have to love young Arthur, though, who worries about his tailbone (he thinks he's growing a tail) and becoming a knight (being left-handed doesn't help) and marrying his pretty cousin and who gets in trouble, right off the bat, for helping one of the farm-hands round up a runaway bull, which is a very brave thing to do but "below his station." It's also fun listening to Merlin and the priest, Oliver, arguing in the language of medieval scholastic theology.

I just like the way this book is written. The first paragraph is perfectly crafted to make you fall in love with the narrator in ten seconds flat. And he really seems to think like a child, going off on little digressions and sometimes, but not always, coming back to the previous point. The world he lives in seems at the same time like a wonderful and a terrible place to grow up in. Sadness, joy, mystery, and adventure are already gathering on the horizon, and the saga has only just begun!

At the Crossing Places
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Recommended Age: 12+

This second book of the Arthur Trilogy recounts the next year in Arthur's life, as the 14-year-old boy becomes the squire to Lord Stephen de Holt, chooses his warhorse, has his first suit of armor made, courts his master's niece, and prepares to follow Lord Stephen on the Fourth Crusade. The story also involves a murder mystery, a case of blackmail and clergy sex abuse, more complications in young Arthur's romantic and family life (particularly as he tries to search for his birth-mother), as well as wonderful stories, medieval traditions, developing character tensions, and other adventures.

Meanwhile, in the seeing stone, Arthur continues to watch the story of the King by the same name, as he marries and gathers the Knights of the Round Table around him, and they go out on quests and have their share of triumphs and failures. As Arthur's Knights are on the cusp of the Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur de Caldicot finds himself finally on his way to the crusades...and knighthood!

Once again, the second book has some nice maps, poems and songs, cleverly retold Arthurian legends, and the sort of observations about life that a very intelligent, 13th-century adolescent boy of Arthur's upbringing might make. He's a character to love and cheer for, in a world more richly colored than most children's novels can offer (particularly in the area of deftly concealed sexuality). Arthur, innocent that he is, is always the last person to figure out what's going on when hanky panky is afoot, and he is really getting a hard time from the girl he wants to marry--particularly because the girl he previously wanted to marry hasn't forgiven him for turning out to be her half-brother!

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