Guardians of the Hoard

By Crossley-Holland, Kevin | School Librarian, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Guardians of the Hoard

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, School Librarian

The son of a composer and musicologist (whose teacher was John Ireland) and a nationally-known potter, Joan Cowper, and the elder brother of a would-be dancer with Ballet Rambert, I was born into an artistic family, and lived for most of my childhood in the Chiltern Hills. But I had little appetite for reading and, rather curiously, neither my parents nor my teachers got onto my case. I have owned up to all this--well, I've documented it!--in my memoir of childhood, The Hidden Roads.

I could report that the first two school libraries I can remember, and the little public library in the village where I lived (it was a barn, right opposite Rumer Godden's cottage) were poorly lit, poorly stocked and gloomy. They were. But the truth is that like all too many boys, I was more interested in sport, outdoor activities, girls, than in reading. The notion and experience of 'reading for pleasure, to appropriate OFSTED's current catchphrase, somehow completely escaped me.

And yet ... and yet ... I listened spellbound to the folk-tales my father said-and-sang to my sister and me, accompanying himself on his Welsh harp, as we lay on our bunk beds; I kept assiduous, talkative diaries; and aged 12, I embarked on a modest enterprise, writing 'A History of the World'--after seventy-seven pages I accepted that I'd rather overdone it and scaled it down to 'A History of the British Isles. When I was 16, I began to write poems, ironing out knots in the grain of things; and I was increasingly conscious of the music of language.

Perhaps this is partly why, after first hoping to become a radio commentator--my mother told me I could talk the hind leg off a donkey!--and then an archaeologist, I decided the right career for me would be the priesthood. Sonorous language ... the power of ritual, asserting continuity ... I'm not sure that I think Michael Gove handled the gift of a copy of the King James Bible to every school in Britain in the best way, but of course I'm with him all the way in hoping children, teenagers will one way or another tune into its incomparable language.

It was as a student at Oxford that language, story, poem, books, became so crucial to me. I began to understand the reasons why our language, our great word-hoard, derived half from Anglo-Saxon and half from Latin, has more than twice as many words as any other language, and how all the good, short, tough, bright, fierce, keen words, the words to do with the stuff of life, come from Anglo-Saxon: womb, woman, man, earth, sea, ship, plough. As well as writing more poems and scraps of stories, I began to translate:

Hige sceal be heardra, heorte be cenre, mod sceal be mare, be ure maegen lytlao! Harder heads and hearts more keen, spirits on fire as our strength flags!

(Translation Workshop: Grit and Blood)

Throughout my twenties, I worked by day as a publicist, then as editor, for the publishing House of Macmillan; and by night I wrote--poem upon poem, unpublished novels, stories for children. My first books were based on medieval romances, Havelok the Dane and King Horn, and retellings of traditional tales--myths, legends and folk-tales--often stories that I'd heard first from my father.

Decades later, I'd rather regretfully set aside any intention of writing full-length fiction. I thought I just wasn't cut out for it. But in finally addressing the matter of how to retell some of the Arthurian legends--the Himalayan range of Western traditional tale--I found myself caught up in the merry dance, the intricate jigsaw of a novel: and the result was The Seeing Stone, and its successors, At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March.


To my mind, language, literacy and the power of story are the hub of the Arthur trilogy because, as one critic put it, 'stories and storytelling ... are central to the process of discovering and building one's identity as an individual'. …

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