Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A distant mirror

Due to computer problems that have gone on wa-a-ay too long, I was in need of a quick WMA download in order to not be without something to listen to (oh, the horror!).  I have a small wishlist on my Library2Go account, and the only one immediately available was Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Seeing Stone, the first book in his Arthur trilogy. This book isn't immediately captivating, but it does reward the patient listener. I turned the corner on the story when I tracked down a print copy and found the list of characters and a map there. From then on, it was smooth sailing.

It's the cusp of a new century, as 1199 is in its last few months. Arthur de Caldicot, second son, is living with his landed gentry family and servants in a manor house and village in the Welsh Marches and he's worried about his future. He wishes to be named squire to a local knight, but he fears that his father -- because Arthur has shown such aptitude for reading and writing -- will insist he join the clergy.  He is 13 years old, bright and observant and enjoys spending time with the manor's servants and workers as much as with his priest/tutor and the man known as Merlin, who drops in occasionally for a visit. One day Merlin hands Arthur a gleaming black stone, where he can see his reflection. Arthur quickly discovers the obsidian's magical qualities, and is able to observe the activities of another young boy -- also named Arthur -- whose life, lived a good 500 years earlier, bears a resemblance to his own. Arthur de Caldicot is not the boy who pulled Excalibur from the stone, but another young man wondering what his destiny might be.

Crossley-Howard's leisurely storytelling leaves lots of time for vivid descriptions of medieval life and society, including a pig butchering that was pretty graphic even for me. Through short chapters, we see the sadness of a family that has lost too many babies, the social divide and the odd closeness between the lord and his people, lessons in swordfighting and jousting, and the ceremonies that marked the passage of the seasons. There were aspects of the novel that seemed really adult (the circumstances of the legendary Arthur's conception, notably), and it's not going to appeal to a King Arthur fan expecting a lot of knightly (i.e, jousting, etc.) activities. Young Arthur is a delightful character -- chatty in his journal, friendly to all (even to older brother Serle who seems to hate him), bookish. It would not be a hardship to devote another 20 hours to his story (although I confess myself concerned as he seems destined for the Crusades).

If I listen on, it will be because of the book's narrator, the actor Michael Maloney, who is very, very good.  I listened to him read John Boyne's fable, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, many years ago and enjoyed his narration of a not-enjoyable book, but here I thought he was excellent.  He reads Arthur's first-person narration with a pleasant, boyish voice that doesn't sound fake or strained. Then, he approaches each in the vast cast of characters as an opportunity to try many different voices. It might just be a different pace, or volume, or deeper, but everyone in this audiobook sounds authentic and appropriate. The Welsh lilt of many of the characters was just delightful.  (I know I made notes about one or two of the characters, but I am not where my notes are.) It might have been Maloney's skilled narration that got me over the initial what-is-actually-happening-here skepticism and allowed me to just sit back and listen.

I still find myself in search of that definitive King Arthur story (which I thought this was).  Children's literature seems to either riff off the legend (including Elizabeth Wein's excellent trilogy/pentalogy) or focus on knightly derring do.  I started with T.H. White thinking that was what I wanted, but his version (or at least the first book) has all that modern commentary. Maybe it's time for Mary Stewart again (whose romantic suspense I gobbled up as a teenager, but The Crystal Cave, not so much). Well, it's not like I don't have anything else to read.

[At his website, Crossley-Howard says that Stokesay Castle was his inspiration for the Caldicot manor house.  This photo of the Castle was taken by SMJ as part of the geograph.co.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Seeing Stone (Book One of the Arthur Trilogy) by Kevin Crossley-Howard
Narrated by Michael Maloney
Listening Library, 2009.  7:51

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