Book review

Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (2000)

Have you ever seen a piece of obsidian? It's like black glass, sharp at the edge like a broken bottle. It is spewed out of volcanoes when they erupt, along with all the lava and other stuff. I've got some that I picked up in Iceland. There are so many volcanoes in Iceland that obsidian is all over the place. When you find a piece it seems quite special.

Arthur has a piece in this book. That is what his seeing stone is. Merlin gives it to him on his thirteenth birthday. At first Arthur doesn't know what to make of his gift, but later, as he handles his stone he begins to see images in the shiny black surface.

Now, who is Arthur? And, for that matter, who is Merlin? Arthur isn't King Arthur. He's Arthur de Caldicot. He's the second son and page of Sir John de Caldicot and he lives in the manor house at Caldicot. In the year 1199 he is waiting to hear what his father's plans are for his future. Is he to be betrothed to his cousin Grace of Gortanore? Is he to be a squire to his uncle Sir William de Gortanore, the necessary first step to becoming a knight? Or is he to be a priest and bookman? While Arthur waits he must practise his duties obediently:

' ... What are your duties?'
'To learn to tilt and parry and throw and wrestle and practise all the other Yard-skills; to dress my lord, and serve at table, and carve; to read and to write.'

Arthur keeps a diary. In it he will tell you all about his family and the people who live and serve on the manor. I wonder whether you would relish his life? It sounds hard and uncomfortable to me and burdened with superstition.

Well, Arthur doesn't seem to be King Arthur, but is Merlin the very same wizard who we know from the ancient stories? All anyone seems to know about Merlin at Caldicot is that he came to the manor shortly after Arthur's arrival.

Merlin isn't a lord or a knight, but he isn't a priest or a monk or a friar. He isn't a manor tenant or a labourer; he doesn't do any days' work for my father. And he isn't a reeve or a baker or a brewer or a beadle. So what is he? Has he always lived here next to the mill? Why doesn't he ever talk about his mother or his father? Has he any brothers or sisters? How is he able to pay for meat and broad and ale? I realise I know almost nothing about Merlin.

It was Merlin who gave Arthur the seeing stone. As Arthur gazes into the depths of the stone a story unfolds about the young King Arthur, before he became King. As you will see, there are striking similarities in the circumstances of the two young boys, even though they are separated by many centuries. In the dark ages Merlin the wizard watched oved Uther Pendragon's son and helped him to become King Arthur, the King Who Was and Will Be. And now the same Merlin seems to be watching over young Arthur de Caldicot as he sets out on his personal quest:

'Each of us needs a quest,' says the hooded man, 'and a person without one is lost to himself.'
'Each of us must have a dream to light our way through this dark world,' Sir Pellinore says.
'So, Arthur,' says the hooded man in his deep voice, 'what will your quest be?'

This is a lovely book, beautifully written, and easy to read. It is really a story about how a young medieval boy aspires to become a knight through proper humility and chivalry, according to the codes of honour which King Arthur laid down centuries before.

Highly recommended.

What can I read next?

This is the first part of a trilogy:

  • Arthur: The Seeing Stone
  • Arthur: At the Crossing-Places
  • Arthur: King of the Middle March (not yet published)

If it is medieval life which interests you, you might like to look at this one by Ronald Welch:

But if Merlin is the main influence in your choice of book, perhaps you might enjoy these books by J R R Tolkien:

Or Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials:

Or, for slightly older readers, you could look at this one by Susan Price:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Arthur: The Seeing Stone features in these lists: