After she had read the first book in my Arthur trilogy, a distinguished writer-friend wrote to me saying how surprised she was because she didn’t think I had it in me to devise an intricate jigsaw or to lead readers on the elaborate dance of a novel. Just so!
True, I did write one-and-a-half novels as a student (one was about Anglo-Indian relationships) now in the Brotherton Collection; and true, my first two books for children were such free retellings of the 13th century romances Havelok the Dane and King Horn as to justify being called fiction. But all the same, their plots and psychological dramas derived from their medieval authors.
In 1968, Jill Paton Walsh and I wrote Wordhoard, a collection of ten Anglo-Saxon stories for children, and were bucked by Alan Garner’s praise for them. And then, in my early thirties, I wrote three short stories about an Anglo-Saxon boy (The Sea Stranger, The Fire-Brother and The Earth-Father), subsequently published as one (still short) novel, Wulf.
My next excursion into fiction was a short ghost story, Storm, set on the north Norfolk coast. To universal astonishment, this was awarded the Carnegie Medal. My great good fortune was to be in the right place at the right time, when there was a powerful lobby for the recognition of writing for younger children. What this unexpected recognition gave me was confidence – the self-belief to go further than before, and the knowledge that people would be likely to read what I wrote. But not, for all that, the confidence or even the desire to write full-length fiction.
So I came to the fiction table late, and somehow despite myself. I wanted to find a valuable and revealing way of approaching Arthurian romance and my solution was the Arthur trilogy: historical fiction incorporating, anticipating and reflecting legend.
So purists could well say that Gatty’s Tale, in which a village girl makes a pilgrimage in 1203 from the Welsh Marches to Jerusalem, was really my first full-length novel.
Waterslain Angels was my first novel set in north Norfolk. Two children set off in pursuit of the angels missing from the hammerbeam roof in the local church, but as they follow one clue after another, they’re up against stiff competition and life-threatening hazards.
The Arthur Trilogy
Before I wrote my Arthur trilogy, I tried several times to map a route through the attractive, perilous world of Arthurian legend. First, I retold little-known legends but my versions were dry as dust and I threw them away; then I attempted to write a novel about Sir Thomas Malory in prison incorporating a number of legends; I wrote six BBC radio plays; and then I was commissioned to write simple, straightforward retellings for children, grouped according to topic – magic, love, kingship, and so on. But I wanted to challenge myself, and grow, or perish in the attempt.
One day I picked up the lovely hunk of obsidian on my desk that has long served as a paperweight. I held it in the palm of my hand:
“Take it!” said Merlin.
When I stared at the stone, I could see myself inside it. It was black of black, and deep, and very still. Like an eye of deep water.
“It is made of ice and fire,” Merlin said. “Its name is obsidian. The stone is not what I say it is. It’s what you see in it.”
What if, I thought. What if… What if I were to write two stories in tandem? One would be a historical novel, in which a boy, eager to serve as a squire and to go on crusade, is given this piece of obsidian; and one would be the stories, the Arthurian legends, that this boy sees in the obsidian. These legends, I thought, would anticipate and reflect his own eagerness and ideals and anxieties and passions and sorrows. His own rites of passage. After all, as William Caxton (the first printer of Malory) wrote of Le Morte de Arthur in the 15th century, ‘Herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil.’
What, I wondered, should I call this boy? Arthur? Yes, let my Arthur discover his namesake in the stone. So when and where should the historical strand be set? At the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, I thought, because this is precisely when King Arthur was about to enter the literary mainstream and become the pan-European hero; and in some potent borderland, because my young Arthur will be crossing from childhood into adulthood, and because there will be a continuous interplay between the actual world (rough, gruff, tough, early medieval England) and the imaginative world of Arthurian legend. I didn’t have to think twice: I knew the setting should be the magical Welsh Marches so rich in Arthurian association, here secretive, there expansive, looking east to plainspoken England, looking west to dreaming Wales.
I began to research, and to plan. I immersed myself in books not only about the fabric of medieval life but, so much more difficult to get at, the temper and imagination of the medieval world.
I read Le Ménagier de Paris’s domestic advice to his young wife and contemporary accounts of the crusades not only by Villehardouin and Robert of Clari but by Islamic writers. I read and reread Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, the lais of Marie de France, Perlesvaus, Culhwch and Olwen, the Vulgate Version, the anonymous Alliterative Morte Arthure, ranging further and further afield in search of likely candidates. But I also read historical fiction for children by living writers, and if there is one book that set me on fire and emboldened me to write in the first person, it is Karen Cushman’s wonderful Catherine, Called Birdy.
I visited museums, national and local, sometimes haphazard and dusty. I talked to medievalists, especially my generous friend (and Arthurian scholar) Richard Barber, author of the recently published The Holy Grail. I visited and revisited places in the Marches, in particular Stokesay Castle, the fortified manor I adopted as my Caldicot, as well as Venice and Zadar in Croatia where, in one of the most disgraceful episodes in the disastrous Fourth Crusade, Christian crusaders laid siege to a Christian city. Zadar (once known as Zara) is the theatre for much of the action in King of the Middle March.
As I began to get to know my Arthur de Caldicot, and to think about the legends he would see in his obsidian, it soon became clear that I was letting myself in not for one book but a trilogy. Frankly, this scared me. I had only recently concluded that I wasn’t capable of writing a novel, and now here I was proposing to write three. But I also saw there was no way round this if I were to explore in some detail the fabric and temper of medieval life and to engage full-bloodedly with the three phases of Arthurian legend: that is to say, Arthur’s childhood, the glory of Camelot, and Camelot’s decline and fall.
The Arthur trilogy has now been published in twenty-five languages and has sold almost two million copies. The first book, The Seeing Stone won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, the Tir na n-Og Award, and the Smarties Prize Bronze Medal, and was followed by At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March.
Orion has also published the trilogy in their adult Phoenix editions.
‘… as bright and as vivid as the pictures in a Book of Hours. Deep scholarship, high imagination, and great gifts of storytelling have gone into this: I was spellbound.’
Philip Pullman, The Guardian Children’s Book Supplement
‘This is astonishing… a book that lasts has to create a world so real that you can run your fingertips over its walls, feels its morning frost bite at your throat, and remember the people who lived there for a lifetime. Crossley-Holland has done it and I am so, so jealous.’
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate
‘A journey full of wonders, a journey into a different time, a journey into a famous story, told so brilliantly that you can taste and smell it on every page… The Arthur of this story moves softly into one’s heart.’
Cornelia Funke, author of The Thief Lord
In the year 1203, nine companions set out on a great pilgrimage. The journey “on foot, on horseback and by sea” is fraught with danger. Not all of them will come home.
Among them is a girl called Gatty, whose whole life has been spent working in the fields, who has never been more than a few miles from home, who knows hunger and hardship and little else. Bright, eager and resolute, she is at the heart of this enthralling novel that sweeps across Europe towards Jerusalem, carrying the pilgrims through great highs and lows and knuckle-biting dramas.
Thieves and conmen; a vicious attack; storms and precipices; broken limbs and a heartbreaking bereavement; these are the challenges and terrors the pilgrims must face. But this is also a story of friendship and loyalty, bravery and sacrifice. Gatty’s curiosity and reckless impulsiveness land her in danger but also open her to new people and new ideas. Passionate with hope and love and longing, she is transformed by her experience, and discovers in herself the capacity to be far more than the simple field-girl she once was.
Will she reach Jerusalem? Will she return home, and see again the Welsh Marches and the one person she can tell her heart to?
This is the most marvellous of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s novels. It paints a picture of the medieval world, of Christians and Muslims, the great and the humble, that is dazzlingly vivid, humorous, and full of startling insights. We come to know the pilgrims intimately, as we listen to them bickering and praying and fearful and joking. And in Gatty – beloved already by readers of the Arthur trilogy “we meet a living, breathing girl who must surely rank as one of the great fictional heroines”
The hardback was published in October 2006 and the paperback in September 2007.
‘Kevin Crossley-Holland’s depiction of the medieval setting is meticulous, but ultimately this is a novel about heart and song, with the capacity to lift the spirits and move to tears.’
‘Crossley-Holland’s writing is superlative, bringing the medieval world sharply into focus. This really is a historical novel of distinction.’
‘This is an epic, sweeping book, perfectly realised. Crossley-Holland doesn’t put a foot wrong. The language is spare and direct, never flamboyant, and yet it is energetic, vivid and always dynamic in Gatty we find a heroine we really could follow to the end of time and back again.’
‘Readers will be enchanted by this rich and fascinating book. It will gladden their hearts, test their compassion, fuel their thinking and challenge their assumptions about faith, life and humanity.’
‘one of our most acclaimed and successful children’s prose writers.’
‘Chapters are wonderfully crafted, short and accessible… Passages on Gatty’s experiences in London, Venice and Jerusalem are startling in their beauty and musicality.’
Books for Keeps
‘Crossley-Holland’s taut, gutsy, ever-inventive prose lifts the Middle Ages and all its sights, smells, privations and wonders off the page. This is a classic odyssey and a crossover novel that both adults and young people will cherish.’
‘As ever, Kevin Crossley-Holland writes with his special blend of the precise, the poetic and the demotic, and imbues his tale with the colour, freshness and vigour of a Renaissance painting. And, again, his instinct for that characteristic medieval amalgam of the spiritual and the earthbound is unerring. But this is Gatty’s book. Graceful, homely, profound, beautiful, strong, dignified, and Everywoman: a great literary creation. Her presence lingers, like a perfume.’
‘a masterful celebration of the medieval world…Crossley-Holland stitches a tapestry of 13th-century art that will long adorn the wall of imaginative minds.’
‘Gatty, the feisty farm girl, stars in her own adventure, Gatty’s Tale. She is an engaging heroine, funny and self-reliant, as always. Rich in historical detail, this impressive book takes her to Jerusalem on a 13th-century pilgrimage. A very satisfying read.’
‘Crossley-Holland is something of a wizard when it comes to evoking the texture of everyday medieval life… Gatty’s Tale is a lovely addition to [his] magical re-imagining of the medieval world.’
‘It can’t be long before the name Kevin Crossley-Holland is uttered in the same sentence as ‘national institution’. His writing is evocative, lively and sharp; he brings history to life on the page so well that readers barely realise they are learning as well as enjoying fiction… There are moments when your eyes will brim with tears and when you feel inspired by such an audacious exercise to praise God. Throughout, you will be swept away.’
‘skilfully wrought and compelling… [Gatty’s] transformation from ignorant peasant to accomplished and educated young lady is encapsulated exquisitely in the image of her gorgeous silk gown emerging from he cocoon fo the rough, grey material of her pilgrim’s cloak as she is reunited with Arthur in the aisle of the church.’
‘The heroine of this novel belongs to a medieval world as luminously coloured, as closely linked to nature and as drenched in spirituality as the illuminations in a book of hours…. The medieval perception that the pattern of Christ’s life is deeply imprinted on time and human life comes across beautifully.’
‘The weight of research undertaken by Crossley-Holland is palpable… his descriptions of life on the Marches, across Europe and the Middle East resonate with grubby realism… However… the author infuses the saga with enchantment.’
The Herald (Glasgow)
NORSE MYTHS: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki
Kevin Crossley-Holland, master storyteller and winner of the Carnegie Medal, brings the gods of the Vikings to life as never before in these extraordinary new retellings, lavishly illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love. Meet Thor with his hammer, Odin with his one eye and Loki the trickster. From the creation of the nine worlds to the final battle of Ragnarok, this stunning collection brings you one of the greatest and most culturally significant stories in the world. Whether you’re a fan of Norse mythology or new to this world of ancient magic, gods and giants, this is an unforgettable collection retold and imagined by one of the literary greats of our time.
‘Kevin Crossley-Holland is the master’ Neil Gaiman
‘Crossley-Holland uncovers not only words but an entire landscape which haunts and is rich in echoes’ Helen Dunmore, The Observer
‘Kevin Crossley-Holland retells old folk tales better than anyone else alive‘ Lynn Gardner, The Guardian
‘A beautifully illustrated doorstopper of an anthology… a thrilling narrative.’ Emily Bearn, The Oldie
Kevin Crossley-Holland is a master storyteller who over the years has been the definitive re-interpreter of myth from many lands – making the stories live for children and adults alike. This isn’t the first time he’s explored the Viking heritage and I’ve personally always thought that the Norse myths are the most thrilling and most immediate. Crossley-Holland tells them here with an economy of style, using straightforward narrative and eschewing complexity in favour of the simple recounting of stories. It all looks so easy but writing like this takes years to master and you know you’re in very safe hands when you don’t even have to think about the act of reading and you can just let the tales sweep you along. The author has also been kind to us – he doesn’t assume we know anything about the Norse gods and their, inevitably, complex set of inter-relationships. To help us along he gives us a really useful who’s who and a cunning guide to the universe of this particular mythology and I found the graphic that shows us Yggdrasill (the tree of life) and the three layers of existence, along with the inhabitants of those lands, incredibly valuable in terms of understanding who relates to who.
All mythologies and creation stories share common features and I suspect that like me you’ll find yourself spotting these but this is most certainly not an academic treatise about Norse mythology; it’s a collection of fabulous and exciting – sometimes brutal and sometimes bloody – stories that you’ll want to read either because you kind of half know them or because they’re completely new to you and thrilling because of that.
I have some personal favourites – The Death of Balder that tells of a death foretold by dreams, the death of the most noble of the Gods. Crossley-Holland is also a pretty fine poet in his own right and we can see that come through in the text:
On the foreshore, everyone watched. Gods and friends of gods, foes of gods, the merely curious, they all knew that unless Hel would agree to let Balder come home to Asgard, his death – the death of the handsome god who cherished and protected whatever was beautiful, and patient, and innocent in the nine worlds – must bring closer their own death-day.
Here Crossley-Holland doing what he always does so well – finding the universal truth in the myth.
I also loved Thor Regains His Hammer and, of course, The Last Battle when fate must have its way. One of the really great little touches here is the way the author has prefaced each of the tales with a moral which flows naturally from the story. The moral for The Last Battle being:
No-one can deny Fate. Her gifts are unearned and her punishments undeserved.
The cast of characters is also irresistible and each one of them has a personality you’ll recognise – they may be gods but they’re also all of us too. We probably know many of them – the steadfast and dependable Thor; the cunning trickster, Loki; gentle and caring Balder, Odin the Allfather and Frigg his wife. But there are plenty we don’t know and should – Idun, keeper of the golden apples of youth; Sif, Thor’s wife; or, the dwarfs Fjalar and Galar who brew the mead of poetry.
Fabulous stuff in the very literal meaning of those words.
But that’s not all. This book also gives us the stunning illustrative work of Jeffrey Alan Love. Working on the big scale he uses what looks like a block or lino printing technique to create dark and menacing images. His use of the occasional slash of red colour or the tingeing of green gives the drawings a startling added dimension.
This is a gift book that will just keep giving and I’d say it’s an ageless book in the sense that it isn’t for children or adults but for both. Give it to someone but don’t just wait for Christmas – get it now!
Terry Potter, The Letterpress Project