Reading historical novels is always interesting – diving into a different time period , and finding out all the details of people’s lives, and how they lived, and what they ate, and what they thought (even if they are made up by the author) is so intriguing to me. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Seeing Stone is a wonderful example of a book set in a different time that is written in such a way that I felt that it could really be true. Set in 1199 on the border of England and Wales, there were so many details that flushed out the medieval world, from the lessons Arthur (the narrator) is taught, to what his family ate for Christmas dinner, to the types of taxes were paid to Arthur’s father, the lord of the manor… Wonderful, luxurious detail. The research the author undertook must have been enormous.
One thing that struck me when reading The Seeing Stone was the narrator, thirteen-year-old Arthur’s attitude to what was going on around him. In many instances, he seemed to have a slightly more modern outlook than what I believe would be that of a typical ‘son-of-the-lord’s ideology at the time. He doesn’t understand why he is unable to help his friend Gatty with her fieldwork and yard work, and thinks it is unfair when he gets reprimanded for doing duties that are supposed to be beneath him. He thinks it is unjust when his brother gets the housemaid pregnant, and she is dismissed from service and forced to leave the village, but his brother goes unpunished. He questions to himself the feudal system of peasants having to give his father taxes, when everyone in the village is struggling to get by. He thinks someone’s punishment of having their hand cut off for stealing is unfair, although the punishment is in fact lenient in his father’s eyes – usually a thief would be hanged.
Now, to us, a modern audience, we obviously agree with Arthur on these things – we see the feudal system through modern eyes, who believe in equality to all, and that people should obtain rewards based on merit, rather than birth. However, would Arthur, a young boy who has enjoyed a life of privilege as the son of a lord really think the same way as we would? I’m not sure.
Is it right to implant modern-day values on a historical, fictional character? Maybe, to highlight the inequality of life in medival England? Does this affect the integrity of the authenticity of the work? I don’t know. Perhaps if Arthur hadn’t been sensitive to these issues, and accepted them as everyday life without comment, he would not be a likeable character to modern readers, particularly children reading the book. I can see the positives and negatives. What do you think?