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ISSUE 116 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/4/2002

Old legends revisited: Crossley-Holland explores Arthurian story

By Bethany Jacobson
Staff Writer

Friday, October 4, 2002

Author and former St. Olaf professor Kevin Crossley-Holland spoke on Sept. 24 on Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, his life and his writing. Crossley-Holland said, “A life lived without full use or full access to words, to images and musical sounds, is an impoverished one.”

Crossley-Holland discovered his love for Anglo-Saxon literature while studying at Oxford to retake his Anglo-Saxon exam. He translated “Beowulf” in his 20’s, and his version remains one of the most popular and definitive in publication today. His latest project is a retelling of the King Arthur stories (in trilogy format) from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy in 12th-century England. The stories weave historical fact with fantasy as the reader follows the boy, Arthur, through his everyday life as the child of a squire and his discovery of the story of King Arthur by means of a magical seeing stone.

After Sept. 11, Crossley-Holland was signing books in Boston and read from a section of “The Seeing Stone” in which Arthur grapples with the idea of tolerance and God’s love for ‘infidels,’ while discussing the Crusades with his priest. While the trilogy is written for children, its sophisticated treatment of modern topics has created many young adult readers.

In writing The Seeing Stone, as in his translations, Crossley-Holland said he struggles to keep the flavor of Anglo-Saxon speech while conveying complex ideas. In English, abstract terms tend to be Latin in descent, while “all the good, hard, short, quick words come from Saxon.” Also, Anglo-Saxon poetic forms tend to be different than modern forms and strict adherence to these forms tends to distance the reader. According to Crossley-Holland, though, this is a problem more in translation than in fiction writing. The difficulty, he said, is in striking a balance between preserving the spirit of the Saxon, the “sturdiness, piety and passion” of Old English, while still taking into account cultural and linguistic differences between early Saxon audiences and modern ones.

“History is repetition with variation,” said Crossley-Holland, in reference to the difficulty in separating the historical Arthur from the mythological one. The first Arthurian tales were not written down until nearly 600 years after the time in which Arthur would have actually lived. Before this time the stories were passed on in oral form, with each storyteller adapting the tale to fit the desires of his audience. All that is certain is that a leader emerged in 525 A.D. who halted the Anglo-Saxon invasion for 12 battles. These ambiguities allow for authors to take considerable license in telling the Arthurian story.

Crossley-Holland has published six volumes of poetry for adults and has written or co-written several librettos.

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