Kevin Crossley-Holland is a sure-footed time traveller and pitch-perfect reporter, steeped in stories – Norse myth, English legend and folktale – but never weighed down by detail. Instead, he can build whole worlds with the simplest sentences and the lightest observations, whether fifty years ago or a thousand, in England, Venice, Constantinople or Jerusalem.
Storm must be one of the briefest books ever to win the Carnegie medal, and its brevity probably doesn’t do it many favours: forty-two illustrated pages keeps it almost exclusively in the baby pool of beginner readers, and while I’m all for beginner readers meeting great writing early on, it’s maybe hard to appreciate the wonderful, rich, spare (not a contradiction), allusive language when just reading the words is still something of an effort. Besides which, confident readers miss out – on eight-year-old Annie’s mother complaining of being “stiff as a whingeing hinge”, Annie’s father “mild and milky” since his stroke, and so many more bright, deft descriptions, not to mention a lovely, gentle East Anglian ghost story.
Annie comes back with room for a bigger story of her own in Waterslain Angels – deeply rooted in Norfolk past and recent, in the old troubles of the Puritan iconoclasts and the newer ones of the Second World War, American airbases and GI brides. A beautiful painted wing has been found in the rector’s attic, the last remnant of the carved and painted angels that once supported the Waterslain church roof and have not been seen since the Puritans came to smash statues and whitewash wall-paintings hundreds of years before. Annie is convinced that the angels weren’t destroyed, and sets out to piece together their history and to find them if she can. She makes unlikely friends and enemies, and runs both seeing and unseeing into danger, and finally finds her answers between dreams and luck and down-to-earth determination.
Perhaps Crossley-Holland’s greatest success has been the Arthur trilogy, loved by readers and writers alike. Anne Fine (no slouch herself) writes, “A book that lasts has to create a world so real that you can run your fingertips over its walls… and remember the people who lived there for a lifetime. Kevin Crossley-Holland has done it,” and Cornelia Funke (ditto) finds it “told so brilliantly that you can taste and smell it on every page”. Arthur is Arthur de Caldicot, a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in the tight-knit community of a Shropshire manor at the end of the twelfth century; but through a mysterious gift, the polished obsidian seeing stone, he is also witness to the legend of his namesake, King Arthur. One Arthur’s life finds echoes in the other, as Arthur de Caldicot uncovers mysteries in his own family, leaves Caldicot and comfort to become a squire, and embarks on the great and terrible adventure of the Fourth Crusade.
Nine years ago, I remember finishing the trilogy with some frustration when Arthur returned to a maddening cliffhanger: finding his betrothed, Winnie, impossibly torn between Arthur and his half-brother Tom, and his dearest childhood friend Gatty gone away on a pilgrimage herself. Gatty’s Tale is a triumphant conclusion, the outcome of that true writer’s gift, a character who takes on a life of their own. Gatty is a poor serf’s daughter with nothing to her name but a cow, seven hens, silver-gold curls and a beautiful singing voice. It seems impossible that she could even be a lady’s chamber-servant, let alone embark on a pilgrimage across all of Europe. Gatty is naïve and impulsive and brave and perceptive, a brilliant guide to the hardships and wonders, dangers and deceptions and sudden great generosities of pilgrimage in the early thirteenth century; and for all her grounded good sense, you wonder how she will ever return to the quiet life of the Welsh borders – although you know that she must, surely, be reunited with Arthur, even when that seems nearest and least possible.
Gatty is more forthright and earthy than Viking girl Solveig in Bracelet of Bones, but across two hundred years, the two have plenty else in common: determination, resilience and good heart on their impossible journeys with their ill-assorted fellow-pilgrims and crewmen. Solveig’s father promises to take her with him when he goes to join his old captain, Harald Hardrada, in exile; but when the moment comes, thinking to spare her, he breaks his promise and leaves her at home on a Norse farm. Setting out to follow him, Solveig is almost drowned before the day is out; but determination and kindness and luck bring her over land and sea with a crew of Viking traders to the legendary city of Miklagard (Constantinople). This time, there’s no frustration: a compelling story (probably my favourite of Crossley-Holland’s to date), beautifully finished but with the promise of at least one sequel, the recently-published Scramasax which I’m looking forward to reading as soon as I can. I’m only sorry that Scramasax doesn’t quite match the beauty of Bracelet of Bones’ hardback cover – hard to tell from the image above, but it gleams copper and silver like an old photographic plate, with details of runes and gold-chasing that catch your eye unexpectedly – arresting, classic and fresh all at once. If I may be allowed to envy other writers’ covers, this is one.