The Seeing Stone Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
Discussion Guide to The Arthur Trilogy
The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places,
and King of the Middle March
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Introduction to the Series
The legendary stories of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have captured the imagination of countless generations, circulating first in medieval oral tradition and manuscripts and later as one of the first books ever to be printed in England in (Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, 1485). In recent times they have been the subject of film versions and even a Broadway musical, Camelot. The stories have been retold, reworked, and rewritten many times throughout the last thousand years largely because they are an allegory for our humanity—the longing, fear, anger, despair, hope, and love that occur in all our lives. In The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places, and King of the Middle March Kevin Crossley-Holland has interwoven these legendary tales of Britain with a coming-of-age story set at the turn of the 13th Century. The story of Arthur de Caldicot incorporates the social life of a country manor in the English/Welsh border country and the cataclysmic historic events of the Fourth Crusade with an adolescent boy's longing for adventure and self-knowledge. Arthur's imaginative life in the world of his "seeing stone," a magical device that reveals to him the legends of King Arthur, informs his growing knowledge of his own world.
THE SEEING STONE
About the Book
Twelve-year-old Arthur lives in an English manor house in the Welsh borderland in the year 1199. Through a flat piece of obsidian, his "seeing stone," a gift from his father's mysterious friend Merlin, Arthur spies the unfolding story of his namesake in an earlier age whose life, though very different, seems to parallel his in strange ways. In the present, Arthur interacts with the village people — in particular his special friend Gatty, the daughter of his father's overseer — and worries about his future. Will he be able to be a squire and eventually a knight, or will he be directed toward a career in the church through his skill in writing? As the story in the obsidian unfolds, Arthur sees his namesake pull a sword from a stone and become hailed as the king of the Britons . . . and he is increasingly puzzled by the connections between his life and that of Arthur-in-the-Stone. Near the end of the book Arthur's world turns upside down when he learns that his parents are actually foster parents and his own father is the harsh man he believed to be his uncle. Merlin poses the question to him: "But who are you? And who do you want to be? That's what matters."
- How is Arthur's life changed by his possession of The Seeing Stone? Does the Stone illuminate for him questions he has about his own life, his own world? Describe specific places where this might happen.
- What is the importance of Gatty in Arthur's life? What does she mean to him? What does he mean to her?
- Compare Gatty and Grace. How are their lives different? What are the differences and similarities in their personalities?
- Compare Arthur and Serle. Why is there so much tension between them? Is Serle's treatment of Arthur simply the teasing of an older brother?
- Why does Oliver dislike Merlin so much? What does Merlin represent to Oliver?
- The character of Merlin appears both in the Stone and at Caldicot. Is he the same person? What does he represent in each story? What does he mean to each Arthur?
Setting and Theme
- How does the author establish a sense of time and place in this book? What are the images, the sights, the sounds that come to your mind as you think about Caldicot, the village, Tumber Hill, Arthur's writing room?
- How does the setting of the world in the Stone differ from Arthur's world at Caldicot? And how does that difference affect the life of each Arthur? Are their characters shaped by the times in which they live?
- Sir Pellinore, in the Stone, says, "Each of us must have a dream to light our way through this dark world." What does he mean by this? What does Arthur need to do to find his dream?
- The manor court is a pivotal scene in the book. How would you have voted when Lankin was accused of theft? Was the court a fair way to determine guilt or innocence? What did this scene mean to Arthur?
- Sir John says to Arthur: "Who we are isn't only a matter of blood; it's what we make of ourselves. And you, Arthur, are fit to be a king!" What has Arthur done throughout the story that causes Sir John to feel this way? Does this theme apply to other characters in the book? Does it reflect the general beliefs of medieval society?
- Can stories we hear or scenes we witness from another era affect the way we conduct our lives? What is the meaning of the story in the stone for Arthur's growth in 1199-1200? What stories from the past have influenced your understanding of yourself and your own world?
AT THE CROSSING PLACES
About the Book
The story continues as Arthur leaves Caldicot early in the year 1200 to take his place as Lord Stephen's squire. On arriving at Holt Castle he encounters Lord Stephen's niece Winnie, saving her when her horse bolts. Lord Stephen has decided to join the latest Crusade, and Arthur as his squire is to accompany him to the Holy Land. Preparations for the journey occupy much of Arhur's time, but he is also consumed with his desire to find his birth mother, who he discovers is a village woman from his father's estate. The circumstances of his birth have been shrouded in secret until now, and he is discouraged by everyone from trying to uncover the truth. In the Seeing Stone, King Arthur's story again parallels Arthur's in some ways and not others. He sees the young King meeting his own mother Ygerna for the first time and taking his rightful place as leader of the Britons, forming the fellowship of the Round Table. Arthur-in-the-Stone and his knights follow many quests, while Arthur seeks to understand his own needs — the quest to find his birth mother, to understand his relationship with his distant birth father Sir William, to join the Crusade, to define his future relationship with Winnie, and to comprehend the story unfolding in the Stone.
- How does Arthur's life at Holt differ from his life at Caldicot? How does he deal with his homesickness?
- Compare Lord Stephen to Sir John and Sir William. Do they have character traits in common? How do they differ in the way they conduct their households, in the way they treat their families, in the way they treat Arthur?
- Compare Winnie to Grace and to Gatty. What attracts Arthur to each of them? What do we know of Arthur through his interactions with them?
- Servants at Holt play an important part in the story, largely in their betrayals. How does the anger of Alan the armorer, the depravity of Haket the priest, and the theft of Lady Judith's jewel by Rowena affect Arthur and others in the household? What is the importance of Rahere, the jester?
- What is the importance of Arthur's trip to Wenlock priory?
- Through the Stone, Arthur views many scenes of relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives, between knights and ladies. He sees his namesake, King Arthur, tricked into being unfaithful. What do all these scenes mean to him and how do they affect his own life?
- Merlin seems more elusive in this volume, both to Arthur and to his namesake in the Stone. Why is the character of Merlin not as present as Arthur grows older? What is the explanation in the story in the Stone? What is the explanation in Arthur's story?
Setting and Theme
- When Arthur-in-the-Stone asks Sir Pellinore where he will find his quest, Pellinore replies: "Allow yourself to be lost, and you will begin to find it." What does he mean?
- What are the "crossing places" referred to in the title? What does the concept of "crossing places" mean to Arthur?
- When Merlin helps Arthur understand magic he identifies different "degrees" of magic: conjuring (trickery), understanding, concentration, and finally divine magic. What do you believe about different forms of "magic" and how these forces might be explained in Arthur's world? Do these forces exist in our world?
- Arthur says his life and the story in the Stone are "like my left and right eye, which overlap but can each see more than the other." What does he mean? How do the themes of good and evil, right and wrong, that are at work in the Stone affect Arthur's perception of his own world?
- Both the Crusades and the quest for the Holy Grail are linked to Christianity. Discuss the importance of religion in the shaping of historical events both in King Arthur's time and in the 11th-12th century. How are people who practice Judaism and Islam viewed by Arthur? By the villagers? By Lord Stephen?
- What is the meaning of Arthur's vision in the last chapter? What do you think his hopes are for the manor at Catmole, and how will the story in the Stone help him to achieve it?
KING OF THE MIDDLE MARCH
About the Book
The year is 1202. Arthur and Lord Stephen arrive in Venice where they are camped on St. Nicholas Island (known today as the Lido) with other knights, squires, and fighting men from all over Europe, waiting to begin the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians want to be paid for the ships they have built before the Crusade can be launched, but the Crusaders cannot raise the money. Arthur's father, Sir William, arrives with his mistress, Lady Cécile, and his presence further complicates their problematic relationship. Arthur is knighted by Milon de Provins and befriends Milon's young squire Bertie. The Crusaders are in a state of confusion, quarreling among themselves, until a bargain is finally struck. The Doge of Venice persuades them to help him subdue the rebellious city of Zara in exchange for part of the debt they owe the Venetians. Arthur and many of the Crusaders question this turn of events, that they will be attacking a Christian city, and Arthur especially is dismayed by the violence he witnesses in the attack. Quartered in the captured city, Arthur's growing unease is reflected in the violent events that occur in his seeing stone. His journey reaches its climax when Lord Stephen is wounded in a dispute with Sir William who, in turn, is accidentally killed by Arthur. Leaving the Crusade, Arthur accompanies the ailing Lord Stephen home to England and at last is able to claim his inheritance of Catmole, the manor he intends to rule justly and well.
- In what ways has Arthur changed from the earlier books? What are the indications that he is growing up and what are the ways in which he still acts like a boy?
- Who is Arthur's greatest mentor in this story? What role does each of the adults he encounters play in his life at this point: Lord Stephen, Sir William, Milon, Milon's fighting men, Lady Cécile, Sister Cika?
- What is the importance of Bertie in the story? What does Bertie's friendship mean to Arthur?
- Discuss Arthur's relationship with his father as it develops in this book. How does Arthur feel about his father's death?
- Arthur says, "Sometimes I think I'm almost at war with myself because I'm anxious and in a hurry, but Sir Launcelot and Tom are both easygoing." What do you think of Arthur's assessment of himself? What makes him compare Tom to Sir Launcelot?
- Discuss the character of King Arthur in the stone. How are his life and his kingdom changing and how does he react to these changes? How does Arthur de Caldicot react to the increasing violence in the stories of King Arthur's knights?
- Describe Arthur's feelings for Winnie and their betrothal. Does he expect Winnie to wait for him to come home from the Crusade? How does he react to the news that Gatty has gone to Jerusalem? Discuss Arthur's meeting with his natural mother. Does it meet his expectations after he has waited so long?
- Discuss the character of Merlin. Why is he seen so seldom in this book, both in Arthur's life and in the story in the stone? Why does Merlin take the stone back from Arthur as he is approaching Catmole?
- Arthur says, "My stone is much, much more than a mirror or a pond. It is a world." What does he mean? What role does the world of the stone play in Arthur's life?
- Discuss the setting for the Crusaders on St. Nicholas Island. Why do the Venetians keep them on the island? Why is there so much fighting among those camped on St. Nicholas?
- How does the experience of being in Zara affect Arthur's feelings about the Crusade? How does the capture of Zara affect the way the Crusaders behave? What is the effect on Arthur of finding Sister Cika's garden?
- What emotions does Arthur experience when he returns to England? Discuss how he feels in each place he visits — Holt, Caldicot, Verdon, Catmole. What are his dreams for Catmole? Do you think he will be able to create the community there that he has imagined?<
- What is the meaning of being a knight? Arthur has many role models, good and bad. Discuss the various lessons he is given, in his own life and in the Stone, and what they mean to him. How would you react to those experiences?
- What does Lord Stephen mean when he says a knight must have two hearts, one hard as a diamond and one soft as hot wax? Identify places in the story where Arthur's heart must be hard and where it is soft.
- What does the Holy Grail represent in the story in the stone? Why is it so difficult for the knights to ask the right question in the presence of the Grail? What is the equivalent of the quest for the Grail in Arthur de Caldicot's time? What meaning does the quest for the Grail have in our time?
- In the stone, Sir Gawain says, "we often do things we believe for the best, and then they turn out to be for the worst." How does this phrase apply to the story in the stone? How does it apply to the Crusade?
- Arthur exclaims, "All this hatred and suffering. How can one person make any difference at all?" Does he find the answer to that question? What is the answer to that question for you?
- The Crusades produced much bloodshed and tension between nations and cultures. Were there any positive results of the Crusades? What did Arthur learn about himself and his own values from his experience in the Crusade?
COMPARING THE NOVELS
- Discuss the format of these books. Each is written in a series of exceptionally short chapters. How does this style affect your comprehension of the story?
- Why do you think the author chose to use the diary format for telling this story?
- Discuss the use of the intertwining stories and the device of the Seeing Stone. How is Arthur's understanding of himself and his world affected by the stories he sees in the Stone?
- The themes of good and evil, right and wrong, war and peace are interwoven throughout these three novels. Give examples of how these themes are worked out. What other themes can you identify that occur in the parallel worlds of Arthur's life and the story in the Stone?
- Discuss the idea of a quest. What does it mean in King Arthur's time? What does it mean for Arthur de Caldicot? What does it mean in your own life?
BOOKS FOR FURTHER READING
Bailey, Linda. Adventures in the Middle Ages. Illustrated by Bill Slavin. Kids Can Press, 2000.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Beowulf. Illustrated by Charles Keeping. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The World of King Arthur and His Court: People, Places, Legend, and Lore. Illustrated by Peter Malone. Dutton, 2004
Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. Oxford University Press, 1999
Kerhaghan, Pamela. The Crusades: Cultures in Conflict. Cambridge University Press, 1993
Macaulay, David. Castle. Houghton Mifflin, 1977
Rice, Chris, et. al. Crusades: The Struggle for the Holy Lands. DK Publishing, 2001
Snyder, Christopher. The World of King Arthur. Thames & Hudson, 2000
Cadnum, Michael. The Book of the Lion. Viking, 2000
As a knight's squire, Edmund travels through Europe and across the Mediterranean, during the Crusade led by King Richard. While awaiting the arrival of the king, he learns the everyday reality of Crusader life-heat, poor food, sickness, and boredom.
Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. Clarion, 1994
A feisty 13-year-old girl living at the end of the 13th century keeps a daily record of her life, most notably her efforts to keep her father from marrying her off, providing insight into medieval life as well as her own lively mind and spirit.
____________. The Midwife's Apprentice. Clarion, 1995
When a homeless waif decides to take charge of her life, she becomes the helper to the local sharp-tongued midwife and learns much about courage, fear, and becoming responsible for her actions.
Gregory, Kristiana. Royal Diaries: Eleanor of Aquitaine: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136
Fictionalized diary of Eleanor, first daughter of the duke of Aquitaine, from 1136 until 1137, when at age fifteen she becomes queen of France. Includes historical notes on her later life when she married Henry II of England, mother of King Richard and King John.
Jinks, Catherine. Pagan's Crusade. Candlewick, 2003
Pagan Kidrouk, an enterprising urchin, joins the Knights Templar in late 12th Century Jerusalem in a desperate attempt to escape the violence of the streets. His quick wit is a foil for the devoutly serious Lord Roland as the two live through the city's capture by Saladin. The adventures continue in Pagan in Exile (2004), Pagan's Vows (2004), and Pagan's Scribe (2005).
MCaffrey, Anne. Black Horses for the King. Harcourt, 1996
Galwyn, a mistreated lad, is chosen to accompany Lord Artos because of his facility at languages and handling horses. The Lord has a vision of using great, black Libyan stallions to carry him and his Companions into battle against the Saxons in 6th century Britain.
Temple, Frances. The Ramsay Scallop. Orchard, 1994
Elenor and Thomas, unhappy and confused about life, are sent on a pilgrimage by their village priest in 1299. As they travel to the shrine in Spain, they learn much about fellow travelers, themselves, and the world around them.
Weil, Sylvie. My Guardian Angel. Scholastic, 2004
Feisty 12-year-old Elvina lives in Troyes, France at the time of the First Crusade and can read and write, rare skills for a girl of her time. When three Crusaders pound at her door one cold afternoon, she has to make a difficult decision that may be a matter of life and death.
Beckman, Thea. Crusade in Jeans. Front Street, 2003
Winner of the Gold Medal award in the Netherlands, this riveting tale follows a 20th century teenager who is transported by a time machine to the 13th century and becomes embroiled in the Children's Crusade.
Retellings of the Arthurian Legends
Morris, Gerald. The Squire's Tale. Houghton Mifflin, 1998
The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady. Houghton Mifflin, 1999
The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf. Houghton Mifflin, 2000
Riordan, James. Tales of King Arthur. Illustrated by Victor Ambrus. Rand McNally, 1982
Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. Morrow, 1970
The Hollow Hills, Morrow, 1973
The Last Enchantment, Morrow, 1979
The Wicked Day. Ballantine, 1996
Sutcliff, Rosemary. The Light Beyond the Forest, Dutton, 1980
The Sword in the Circle, Dutton, 1981
The Road to Camlann, Dutton, 1982
Thomson, Sarah L. The Dragon's Son. Orchard, 2001
White, T. H. The Once and Future King. Putnam, 1958
The Book of Merlyn. University of Texas, 1977
About the Author
Despite failing his Anglo-Sazon exams, Kevin Crossley-Holland developed a passion for the Middle Ages and Anglo-Saxon literature while he was a student at Oxford University. While working as a children's book editor after graduation, he began writing his own retellings of medieval legends as well as his own poetry. He has taught in various universities, including extended periods in America, and now lives with his wife on the coast of the North Sea in Norfolk, England. Kevin Crossley-Holland is best known for his many retellings of folk tales and legends, including his version of Beowulf. His Arthur Trilogy combines his interest in folklore, and particularly the tales of King Arthur, with his study of the Middle Ages and the period of the Crusades in a vibrant series that has won much praise and many readers around the world.
Interview with Kevin Crossley-Holland (August 24, 2004)
by Connie Rockman
Many of your earlier books are retellings of folk tales and legends. What led you to write a story set at the turn of the 13th Century?
When I was a boy, I took over the shed at the bottom of the garden, and displayed fossils and potsherds and coins in it, and proudly called it my 'museum'. I charged people to come in, and my most prized possession was a Saracen shield dating from the Crusades. Since then, I have been absolutely fascinated by the medieval world — its passion and piety and color. It's true that much of my work has been with traditional tales, but actually my first two books, Havelok the Dane and King Horn, were novels based on medieval Romances.
Would the stories of King Arthur, interwoven into this narrative, have been familiar to a boy living in the year 1200? How did you decide which of the Arthurian stories to have the Stone reveal to Arthur de Caldicot?
The reason for setting the trilogy at the turn of the 13th century is that this is when stories of King Arthur were just, but only just, becoming known in Wales and England. King Arthur is the central figure in the priest Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey died in 1154, and during the following generations many medieval writers were attracted to his portrait of a warrior-hero-king, and made use of it. My choice of episodes was determined by two objectives. I wanted them to throw light on what was happening to Arthur de Caldicot in his own life, and on the values underpinning it, and I wanted my readers to experience a full-bodied version and exploration of the King Arthur story.
What types of research helped you to create such a vivid picture of the middle Ages?
Total immersion! I read and read and read; I listened to early medieval music; I went to museums and galleries and stared at artifacts and paintings; I talked to friends more expert than I in the medieval world; I traveled to places named in the novels (Ludlow in England, Venice in Italy, Zara in Croatia) and stripped away their modern clothing and soaked them up. I imagined.
You give many details of life in earlier times in these books, and yet the writing is so fresh, the voices so compelling. Could you tell us something about your writing style and the way you approached the series?
For each detail I include, I throw dozens away. So I guess the first trick is to pick the right details, the most revealing details. Then I think one must simply write quick, clean, bright prose. For me, this means rewriting and rewriting: almost never adding, almost always cutting. It also means listening to the music my language makes, and constantly tuning it. This is never more important than with direct speech. Each of us makes his/her own music. I think that my work as a poet and librettist (writing words for opera and music theater) have colored the way I approached the trilogy. The little short chapters, for instance, are like arias: moments of anticipation or reflection, rather than full of action. And they're written in quite intense prose. That's OK for a few paragraphs, but the reader would probably die of indigestion if I went on like that for page after page. I handwrite my books, incidentally, with my lovely Waterman pen. Black ink. A waiting page
What do the old legends mean to you, to all of us in the present day?
The Arthurian legends are not the product of one person or place or time. The very opposite, in fact. They're a great treasure hoard, a great quarry, like the Old Testament stories or the Greek or Norse myths. And within them they contain stories revolving around just about every aspect of human behaviour. Our idealism and generosity of spirit and laughter and energy and resourcefulness but also our greed and dishonesty and even crueltyAll this is there in the Arthurian legends and in traditional tales as whole: and that's why they are just as startlingly alive and relevant now as they have always been. They show action and consequence. They are concerned with the utter joy and predicament of being human. They give us back ourselves.
The character of Merlin, present in the lives of both Arthurs, is a mysterious figure. What does he represent to you?
My Merlin gives Arthur de Caldicot his seeing stone, moves between worlds, and educates both Arthurs (as often as not by answering their questions with questions). He points out that the best way we can learn is to work out things for ourselves. In his person, the best of Christianity and Paganism combine; he is eclectic and tolerant. In a way, Merlin makes all this happen- the legends of King Arthur, and Arthur de Caldicot's exposure to them. He is a sort of magical impresario.
It's hard to imagine that we are finished with Arthur's story. Do you have any plans to write more about him and his life at Catmole?
I'm writing a novel about Gatty, the village girl who is Arthur de Caldicot's friend. I'm sending her on a great journey. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When she comes home, Arthur will be there, won't he, there and eager to hear her story. And then? Who knows!
Discussion guide prepared by Connie Rockman, Children's Literature Consultant, Adjunct Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults at the University of Bridgeport and Sacred Heart University, and editor of The Eighth and Ninth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (H.W. Wilson).