A worthy quest

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Elaine Williams looks at books on children's rights, a new baby in the family and the Arthurian legend

rthur - the King who was and will be, who sleeps under the hill, the Celtic warlord and slayer of ogres and dragons, the man of virtue and inspirer of the quest for the Holy Grail - has been many things to many generations during the past millennium and his story lives on into contemporary "new ageism".

Recent publishers' lists are littered with a host of Arthur re-tellings, many of them flabbily nostalgic if not downright fey, so it takes a brave heart to embark on a new treatment of the legend, in particular a major trilogy.

The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion Children's Books pound;10.99), the first in this series, is a triumph by a master storyteller - a true classic. Set in 1199 on the borders of England and Wales, it charts the life of young Arthur de Caldicot, who is impatient to grow up and become aknight.

Arthur's father's friend Merlin gives him a black shining stone in which he sees stories of his namesake, King Arthur. The life of de Caldicot is encapsulated in 100 short chapters, powerful snapshots of the textured but often brutal life in a medieval manor as the seasons turn in a time of uncertainty. But the boy's fate is reflected in the life of Arthur-in-the-stone - the two intertwine so that the Arthur of legend speaks to the present and the future.

This is a thoroughly contemporary portrayal of Arthur and so far Crossley-Holland has achieved what he set out to accomplish - an authoritative rethinking of the myth. Steeped in Anglo-Saxon through his former re-tellings of Beowulf and the tales of the Fens, Crossley-Holland weighs every word in a quick, earthy language which thrills with its lean and taut style.

This book improves with every re-reading and each miniature scene is a real delight.


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