The centrepiece of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy, the ‘seeing stone’, actually exists. It’s an obsidian paperweight that Crossley-Holland has had on his desk for year,; in which he can see himself. One day he looked into the stone and had a flash of inspiration.

“What if this was a way a boy growing up saw his own hopes and anxieties and ambitions and joys reflected?” he asked himself.

From that insight grew the Arthur trilogy, which has captured the imaginations of readers worldwide, oddly enough. Odd, because the Arthur stories have been so told and re-told it seems unlikely that there could be anything more to say about them. Yet that obsidian paperweight opened up a whole new vein of stories that have captivated the elusive ‘crossover’ market, meaning those books that appeal to children and adults alike. Crossley-Holland himself believes that the legends of King Arthur have a long way to go before they can be exhausted:

“The stories of King Arthur are a huge quarry. It’s a huge mirror, a huge hoard—a bit like the Old Testament of stories that represent the whole range of human experience.”

Kevin Crossley-Holland, born in 1941, attended Oxford University. At first he seemed an unlikely prospect to become a writer, failing his first exams: I swanned through Oxford reading a mixture of tennis and love, and read precious little Anglo-Saxon, he says. 

Crossley-Holland says that at some point during his second year, he fell in love with the cadence of Anglo-Saxon, the “wonderful, rough, cacophonous language. I had a marvellous letter from Tolkien, egging me on,” he says. “We corresponded quite a bit.”

Anglo-Saxon became a passion—though it wasn’t the first time he’d been in love.

“I had the good sense to fall in love when I was 17 with a girl whose father was a cricket writer for The Observer,” recalls Crossley-Holland. He says the girl’s father challenged him to “become a good vehicle, so that when you do have something to say you have a way to say it.”

It was advice Crossley-Holland took seriously. After graduating he became the Gregory Fellow in Poetry at the University of Leeds, and then went on to lecture in Anglo-Saxon at the University of London. Since then he has produced a literary hoard of his own, including adult poems, numerous re-tellings of legends, plus plays, opera libretti and a highly regarded version of Beowulf. His ghost story for younger readers, Storm, won the Carnegie Medal in 1985. But it is the Arthur books that have brought him before a huge, international audience. What raises him above many writers who have tackled the Arthurian stories is not simply his good story-telling skills, but an extraordinary facility with words.

The Seeing Stone

Crossley-Holland’s trilogy opens with Arthur: The Seeing Stone, shortlisted for the Smarties Prize and the Whitbread Award, and winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2001. The time is the year 1199, and the place is the border between England and Wales. Arthur de Caldicott is not the Arthur of legend. Rather, he is a boy of 13 practicing his writing skills while learning the ways of the page boy. One day the mysterious Merlin, a family friend, gives him a black stone in which Arthur learns that he can see events unfolding in another time and place. He is looking into the world of King Arthur.

“I thought it would be a worthwhile way of coming near to the legends, which would also allow me to explore the earthy experience of growing up around 1200, when life was gruff and tough and rough,” says Crossley-Holland.

The book’s arrangement into 100 short chapters owes its structure to Crossley-Holland’s love affair with music. His father was a musicologist and regaled the young Crossley-Holland with Welsh stories and music played on a Welsh harp.

“I came to writing the trilogy off the back of writing [the opera] The Wild Man, composed by Nicola Le Fanu,” he says, adding that it seemed that an opera libretto offered an intelligent way to vary the pace within each book.”

Like an opera, the story is divided into short, rich moments of reflection, varied with longer, simpler passages. The short chapters are intended to be the arias, the moments of high emotion, while the narrative sections are like recitative, the passages which capture the action: “I wanted to get away from action, action, action on every page. To reflect the rhythms of our life, which are anticipation and reflection, and then on to action.

The short chapters also allow Crossley-Holland to keep control of a vast cast. Readers are immersed in the young Arthur’s life, which means they have to remember all the members of his noble family; plus the retinue of servants; plus all the people in the nearby village. Then there are all the farm animals, horses and dogs, each with its own name. 

It helps that the characters are down-to-earth. Not for them are a mouthful of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. In fact, it’s easy to forget that you are immersed in a mediaeval world, until the strange details come along:

“Erk!” exclaimed Sian. “There’s a squirm in this cheese!”

“Put it on the floor!” my mother said.

“Another one!” wailed Sian. “Look!”

“Just give it to the dogs,” said my mother. “Don’t fuss so!”

Arthur: The Seeing Stone p66

Crossley-Holland’s own speech is filled with music. One moment a rumbling and tumbling of Anglo-Saxon comes down the phone; in the next come adverbs and adjectives and nouns pouring out in triple time and four-square rhythms. “The act of writing is a musical act,” he says, “and the music is part of the meaning.”

At the Crossing Places

In the second book, Arthur: At the Crossing Places, Arthur is now squire to Lord Stephen de Holt. He explores the crossing place between childhood and adulthood, while immersing himself—and us—in the simple agrarian rhythms of the day. He learns more about duty and knighthood, and has an introduction to love. There’s his love for his half sister, his flirtations with Winnie, and his friendship with the labourer girl, Gatty. 

Crossley-Holland brings all his historical knowledge to bear on rendering Arthur’s world faithfully. Despite the supernatural device of the ‘seeing stone’ that underpins the story, Crossley-Holland insists he is a historical novelist in the tradition of Rosemary Sutcliffe, author of Eagle of the Ninth, rather than a fantasist like his friend Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Crossley-Holland takes his responsibility to history seriously, quoting Jill Paton Walsh: “You can put in the ‘not known to be true’, but you can’t put in the ‘known not to be true’.” He adds that he wants his readers to feel they’re in safe hands.

“When my Arthur rips a boot and has to have it stitched up, it’s not a matter of going to the cobbler down the lane,” he says. Instead, Crossley-Holland researched how leather was processed and stitched, and how boots were put together. For the last book in the trilogy, where Arthur goes on a Crusade, Crossley-Holland followed the Crusaders’ route through Venice and Croatia, in the company of historian Richard Barber.

But isn’t there a problem with how compassionate young Arthur is? After all, this was indeed a “rough and tough” period, so why is a young nobleman so willing to help out with the dirty work? And why is he always asking hard questions about the social order of his day? Crossley-Holland denies watering down the reality of mediaeval life.

“The Arthurian legends themselves talk about the different ways of being a knight. One way is brawn, but the other way is the way of the heart,” he says. “It’s unthinkable that people who were writing this kind of stuff were not influenced by what they saw and experienced.”

Crossley-Holland keeps his writing light so abstract moral questions, although implied, never interfere with the story. This lightness is a carefully considered stylistic technique. 

“You should see my writing,” he says. “I’m Neanderthal. I write by hand and I make notes down from the margin, upside down. I write and rewrite and rewrite. Thirty per cent of my time is rewriting. Every word, every syllable and every silence counts.

He says he aims for “something rapid, elusive and absolutely clear”. One way he achieves this is by choosing Anglo-Saxon words, rather than Latinate ones. 

“After all,” he says of Anglo-Saxon, “the good, short, tough quick, clean words in our language come from that source. They’re the stuff of life. It’s the quick, keen way.”

Speaking of language quickly brings him to the great stories of the past. “I love the glorious ‘a-to-zedness’ of the Icelandic sagas, which don’t inspect their own navels,” he says. “I love the allusive quality of a poem like Beowulf, which hints at far more knowledge than it actually displays.”

Crossley-Holland knows his sources intimately. His Merlin, for example, takes its lead from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. “He’s a bit of an educator. His method is one my father had—he never replied to a question directly, but closed his eyes and asked me another one. If you formulate the questions correctly, then the answer is there.”

King of the Middle March

Many writers have tripped up on the third book in a trilogy. The last book can be the hardest, because the protagonist has now grown up and has to deal with more complex problems, as well as answering all the questions raised in the first two books.

Crossley-Holland found Arthur: King of the Middle Marches particularly difficult, taking twice as long to write it as the other two. In this third volume, Arthur is on the verge of adulthood and finds himself on the doomed Fourth Crusade. As the crusaders reach Venice, their great purpose falls into disarray. Suddenly their quest isn’t about God at all — it’s about finding enough money to pay the Venetians. Squabbling turns to bloodshed. As Arthur comes face to face with the horrors of war, the Arthur of the seeing stone finds his great Round Table falling apart.

Crossley-Holland’s light touch makes some of the incidents even more horrible, such as the description of the Crusaders putting a small boy into a catapult:

Wido picked up a coil of rope and he and Giff wound it round the boy’s body, pinioning his arms. Then they brought his knees up under his chin, and wound more rope round his back and shins.

“This’ll surprise them,” said Godard.

That’s when I knew for sure.

They dumped him in the cup. He was silent now, his eyes shut, eyelids tight.

Then they released the engine’s arm, and the torsion rope howled. They hurled him high. They hurled him right back over the wall.

Arthur: King of the Middle March p206

“There was a minute when I was writing,” says Crossley-Holland of this third book. “I burst into tears suddenly. A tear lollopped onto the page. I mentioned it to Philip Pullman and he said there is a moment where the sheer emotion of a situation gets to you.”

Not surprisingly, the writing in this third book is darker. Alliteration, another feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs through the book like a stream. 

“I’ve always allowed alliteration to colour the way I write,” says Crossley-Holland. “You can use it to bind together ideas or to achieve momentum. You can achieve a great forward swing. You can thump the drum.” 

The book was difficult for other reasons. The Crusades were, after all, the crucible of the clash between Christianity and Islam, playing itself out today. And Crossley-Holland was writing while witnessing momentous events.

“I was in New York two weeks after September 11,” says Crossley-Holland, “staying within sight of smoking Ground Zero, just ten blocks away.”

 “Then there was the gathering energy and disposition to attack Iraq. I and my wife Linda went on marches against it,” he says. “What was happening around me of course had a bearing on what I was writing.”

He says that every time he zips up to London he’s aware it can be tomorrow’s Madrid.

The questions that many people are grappling with in our time turn up in the book. “Is it right to bomb the hell out of people you disagree with? Should there be rules of conflict? Is there a way to keep the innocent out of it?”

Crossley-Holland worked hard to show another side of the contact between Christianity and Islam, putting in such details as the trade between the two civilizations. 

His care was well received. As Kathryn Hughes wrote in The Guardian:

“King of the Middle March makes a fittingly elegiac end (there is loss as well as hope as Sir Arthur spurs into his own version of Camelot, head full of grand plans) to a remarkably grown-up sequence of make believe.”

Another book on its way

Crossley-Holland receives about sixty fan letters a month from around the world. Many of his younger correspondents are desperate to know what happens to Arthur’s poor, illiterate childhood companion, Gatty.

And herein lies a problem. Crossley-Holland had been forced to relegate his females to the background, to more honestly reflect life in the mediaeval world. Fortunately, Crossley-Holland’s old friend, mediaevalist Richard Barber, has convinced him of a way he can put Gatty into the foreground. Crossley-Holland has begun writing the book he says is going to “lift her out of the fields and send her on a great journey into literacy and on a pilgrimage—to Jerusalem!”

Meticulous with language as ever, Crossley-Holland repeats the sentence, indicating exactly how it should be written: “Pilgrimage dash to Jerusalem exclamation mark!”

This article first appeared in Magpies magazine in 2007.

Related Articles