A fine tale of two Arthurs

31st August 2001 at 01:00
ARTHUR: AT THE CROSSING-PLACES. By Kevin Crossley-Holland. Orion Children's Books pound;10.99. TES Direct pound;9.99

There are two Arthurs in Kevin Crossley-Holland's trilogy: the narrator, a boy living in the Welsh Marches at the beginning of the 13th century, and King Arthur of Britain, whose life he sees unfold in parallel to his own.

Near the beginning of the first book, The Seeing Stone, Merlin, a family friend, gives Arthur a piece of obsidian through which he views the King's early years, growing up as a foster child, ignorant of his lineage. By the end, Arthur has discovered that the couple he thought of as his parents have fostered him, too. His father is the man he believed to be his uncle, someone he dislikes and fears. But the book ends on a note of hope and excitement, with Arthur about to serve a local squire and fulfil his ambition to go on a Crusade.

In At the Crossing-Places, an equally splendid sequel, Arthur is faced with the unforeseen ramifications of all this. His readiness to leave home and family is tempered by the knowledge that they are not truly his home and family; he belongs nowhere now. His real father did not want him and his mother was not allowed to keep him. His cousin Grace, with whom he anticipated betrothal, is his half-sister and although he considers himself as "ill-made" as Sir Lancelot, the little girls, already half-women, who surround him, are taking an interest. He pities Grace, offers friendship to the village girl who adores him and exchanges love letters with the capricious and equally inexperienced Winnie.

Meanwhile, in his seeing stone, the fascinating, satisfying epic of young King Arthur has developed into a troubling revelation of adult passions. The king assembles his Round Table of knights who ride out on gallant quests, but for every knight there is a lady. Love and devotion cannot be bought and may not be welcome when they are given. Women, Arthur sees, are at the heart of everything, but at last the knights leave to seek the Holy Grail, the unattainable ideal. How can a man be true to his ideals and to his responsibilities at the same time?

Back in the real world, preparations for the Crusade grind into gear, giving the lie to the popular image of religious fanatics leaping on to their horses and charging off to Jerusalem. Arthur believed that on leaving home he might be travelling to Palestine at once. Instead, things proceed at about the same pace as Operation Desert Shield at the beginning of the Gulf War. After nine months, Arthur and Lord Stephen have got as far as Soissons and into the realities of logistics. Palestine is Outremer, over the sea. The transport ships have not even been built. At the end of the book, the pair are bound for Venice to negotiate with the Doge.

Arthur is left with the promise of a knighthood and an inheritance, a chance to meet his true mother, and a profoundly troubled soul. This fine book is more oblique and elusive than its predecessor. The reader must grow up alongside Arthur to face the perplexities of adulthood.

Jan Mark

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