Book of the Week

4th August 2000 at 01:00
THE SEEING STONE. By Kevin Crossley-Holland. Orion Children's Books pound;9.99.

Every age needs its hero slumbering under the hill until need awakes him. All thanks to Kevin Crossley-Holland for this wholly wonderful awakening.

It is 1199. A century is ending, a king dies. The demise of absentee Richard I vacates the throne for King John; in far-away Outremer, Crusaders confront Saracens, but at the Manor of Caldicot in the Welsh Marches, change comes slowly, with the seasons.

Thirteen-year-old Arthur de Caldicot sees his future plain. His father's page, he will become a squire, then a knight, and marry his cousin. This is how things are, how things should be, but already Arthur's short life holds mysteries and contradictions. His Welsh mother and grandmother are constant reminders of the threat from the west. His aunt has confided a secret that haunts him, his elder brother manifests more than normal fraternal rivalry and, although spared the miseries of today's adolescents, he is convinced that he is growing a tail, which will mark him as the devil's own.

Moreover, among the simple and familiar villagers, down by the mill lives one Merlin, inexplicable, unexplained. One day he gives Arthur a slab of obsidian in which, over the subsequent months, Arthur sees unfolded a story of which he knows nothing but which increasingly parallels his own circumstances. It is the retelling of Merlin's earlier life, centuries before, when he contrived the birth of the child who became King Arthur.

Thus the novel gives us two stories, those of Arthur de Caldicot and Arthur of Britain, the once and future king, whose story is as new to many contemporary young readers as it is to Arthur. Encompassing all this, however, is the portrait of England 800 years ago, of attitudes to life and death, childhood andmarriage, religion, politics, justice, revealed in the 100 short chapters recorded in Arthur's secret diary.

Although a boy who foresees himself as a man of action, he is at heart a poet and treasures his rare literacy. When his baby brother Luke, ailing throughout the book, dies aged 10 months, Arthur struggles to compose an epitaph for a life barely lived. "The more words I think of, the more difficult it is to choose." He has discovered a discipline. He writes a carol. Words pour from him, but like those of the narrative, these are the short plain words of a young language, without flourishes and flamboyance, seemingly artless, that speak of lives full of passion and energy because they are lived so close to death.

This is a hard existence made harder by ignorance, superstition, arbitrary legislation and summary justice, but the date of the story, 1199, is significant. The Seeing Stone, the first part of a trilogy, ends with Arthur learning the truth about his parentage and preparing to ride to Jerusalem as squire to a crusading knight.

The cusp of two centuries is a crossing-place - a term often used by Arthur - and changes are coming. King John's repressive laws are leading him to Runnymede and Magna Carta, 15 years hence. The rumoured Arabic science, Islamic art and architecture will travel to Europe with the returning Crusaders. Great cathedrals and universities will arise.

The fourth strand of the book is its record of a mind growing up, learning to question what it has taken for granted, the cruelties and inequalities of society, in the same spirit that led that earlier Arthur to establish the Round Table. Every age needs its hero slumbering under the hill until that need awakes him. All thanks to Kevin Crossley-Holland for this timely and wholly wonderful awakening.

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