The stuff that heroes are made of

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Jan Mark reads of children whose epic adventures are part of their journey to greatness

The King of the Middle March By Kevin Crossley-Holland Orion Children's Books pound;12.99

Pirates By Celia Rees Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;12.99

Heroes: Theseus; Perseus; Hercules By Geraldine McCaughrean Oxford University Press pound;4.99 each

With The King of the Middle March, Kevin Crossley-Holland triumphantly concludes his trilogy about the two Arthurs: Arthur de Caldicot, the 13th-century boy from the Welsh Borders, who watched the story of the legendary king unfold in the "seeing stone" of the first book; and the real Arthur who the second book leaves dreaming of a chivalrous future, embarking on the Fourth Crusade with the same fervour as the Knights of the Round Table setting out on the Grail quest.

But as the seeing stone reveals, King Arthur's high ideals founder on human failings, and the crusading coalition, mired in Venice by infighting, political manoeuvring and chronic underfunding, disabuses Arthur of his belief in a noble enterprise. The Fourth Crusade infamously ended in an attack on Christian Constantinople instead of Saracen-held Jerusalem, but before that Arthur has returned to England having learned that, as General William Sherman would caution young men almost seven centuries later, war is not all glory but all hell. Whatever the cause, whatever the weaponry and whoever the enemy, Christians and Saracens are flesh and blood, and death is not glorious - killers are not chivalrous. The soldiers'

retaliation to a bunch of stone-throwing children is a reminder that, away from the rhetoric of civilian demagogues, people continue to die as horribly as they have always done.

The boy Arthur, wide-eyed chronicler of his life and times who introduced himself to us as a child, only four years previously in The Seeing Stone comes home a man to his own small Camelot, equipped to rule it with the wisdom of another man's lifetime. "Keep asking," his old mentor tells him.

"Asking the right questions." Readers from Year 6 upwards will enjoy growing with Arthur through the trilogy.

First-person narrative doesn't always best serve historical fiction, which may benefit from the wider perspective of an omniscient author. Arthur's breathless diary entries have an immediacy and wonder that have been refined out of Pirates by Celia Rees. Nancy Kington, daughter of a Bristol merchant and slave-trader, tells her own story, announcing that she intends to place her manuscript in the hands of Daniel Defoe, which may account for the sly overtones of faux-repentance reminiscent of that author's Moll Flanders.

Dispatched to Jamaica as the prospective bride of a sugar planter, Nancy discovers that she has been traded by her brothers, no more free to determine her own fate than is the slave Minerva, her personal servant. The girls become friends and after Nancy kills Minerva's would-be rapist, they run away to sea. In the republican democracy of a pirate-ship's company they experience many adventures that just miss being hair-raising. The story is absorbing, full of surprises, moving and revealing. The Amazonian Minerva is a splendid figure, but Celia Rees has given Nancy the restrained, almost stately prose style of an 18th-century author, rather than the voice of an 18th-century girl. Conversations are recorded in detail, but a battle at sea can be over in a couple of sentences, the Atlantic crossed in a phrase.

The Greek heroes may have had supernatural conceptions, but they were men, not gods, and it is on their human aspect that Geraldine McCaughrean concentrates in her latest retellings: simple good-hearted Hercules, never knowing his own strength, born into the implacable enmity of the goddess Hera; modest but steadfast Perseus; and Theseus, brought low by his own hubris. The style and assurance of the writing brings a smile of pleasure on every page. For instance, the infant Hercules, strangling the serpents in his crib, is shown in an entirely new light: "Then his mother came runningI He turned on her a pair of doleful eyes, then looked over the side of his cot at one of the snakes and said, with a trembling chin, 'Broke it'."

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