It was like watching part of some half-lost hero tale, something that belonged to an older and darker and more shining world than mine.—Rosemary Sutcliff, The Shining Company
In my personal quest to find worthy reads for my middle school students, I am returning to novels published decades ago. I want my students to learn not just about peoples, places, and dates, but also to experience a time, a life, in the range of centuries known as the medieval era. I didn’t plan it, but each story happens to take place in Great Britain.
Elizabeth Alder’s The King’s Shadow (1995) is a magnificently detailed historical read for upper middle grade and young adult readers. Beginning in 1063, this living history follows the life of thirteen-year-old Briton, Evyn, during the reign of Edward the Confessor. As a serf, Evyn lives on a feudal estate in Wales with his widowed father. The Easter feast approaches, and we quickly learn Evyn has been invited to present The Song of Roland as a storiawr or storyteller. But the sumptuous feast is interrupted by the presence of his father’s drunken brother Morgan who insults the sons of the powerful Lord Gryffin. At their rage, Evyn’s uncle runs away, but the Gryffin men are quick to retaliate. They murder someone they think is Morgan and cut out Evyn’s tongue. It is a horrible shock early in the story. Morgan rescues the boy but sells him into slavery on the vast estates of the common-law wife of Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex.
Reminiscent of G.A. Henty, the following chapters are a unique travelogue as we journey through England from the dark hills of Wales to the fields of Exeter. Maimed for life, Evyn serves the Lady as a slave before she sends him to a monastery where he learns about medicinal herbs and later learns to read and write. Over time he is made the personal servant, then squire, and finally foster son to Earl Harold. The two travel the countryside together, and Evyn is present for all the significant battles: Carmathen, Stamford Bridge, and the Battle of Hastings. History, of course, records that Harold, the last Saxon king of England, dies at Hastings. But what happens to Evyn, now sixteen? Overall, The King’s Shadow is a fitting tale for strong readers who enjoy detailed British history which includes the violence of the day.
Another serf who lived under the shadow of the label outcast is Asta’s son, also known as Crispin in Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2001). In 1377, he and his mother had always lived in poverty, barely noticed by their village, but when she died, his life was thrown into turmoil. He is suddenly framed for murder, and the only one to help is the old priest who says Crispin must run away to freedom in a large town. If he is not caught for a year and a day, he’s free forever. Fleeing to the forests, Crispin earnestly prays to God for safety as he finds his way alone. He struggles to understand why his life has been upended.
Avoiding roads and villages swept by the plague, Crispin soon encounters a street performer like no other— Bear, a gruff, itinerant juggler who forces him to become his slave. In his misery, Crispin seeks God, but also begins to learn all that Bear has to teach him: hunting, trapping, fighting and juggling. Bear claims, “Our task is to stay alive and measure this great kingdom with our feet, our eyes, our ears.” But that is not all Bear teaches him—there just might be a revolution underway. In fact, Avi’s tale predates the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 in London.
By the time the two arrive in Great Wexley for the gatherings on Midsummer’s Day, we are thoroughly immersed in the 14th century. From the countryside to the city, from the poor to the privileged, Avi creates a rich tale of a boy seeking God and finding himself, an adventure story perfect for middle-grade readers.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shining Company (1990) introduces us to a younger Britain in 600 A.D. In the north, Saxon invaders from across the ocean have been steadily encroaching on Celtic lands. Thus, King Mynydogg the Golden summons 300 of his finest warriors to his palace in what is now Edinburgh to become a fighting brotherhood prepared to take on the Saxons in southeastern England.
Within this setting, we meet Prosper, an obscure second son. For his 12th birthday, he receives the gift of his own bondservant, Conn, a boy stolen by slavers who raided Ireland. Over five years the boys forge a close friendship, although they both come to love the same girl. While Prosper hopes to be a warrior, Conn is drawn to the forge, determined to create shining weapons for freeborn warriors. A chance encounter with a magnificent white hart in a distant forest cements the kinship of the three young people. Once Prince Gorthyn arrives, he inspires Prosper to swear fealty when he matures. Soon enough, Prosper’s story intertwines with true historical figures, and he is summoned to become a humble shieldbearer in the service of an aging king. From there, Sutcliff expands on this lost history based on the ancient poem “The Gododdin” by the bard Aneirin, a tragedy that brings to life the times, the peoples and their traditions, the honor bonds, war-lust, and dreams of glory. It combines her beautiful prose amid detailed research that includes the horrors of hand-to-hand combat yet vividly evokes the rivalries and loyalties of men whose joys and hopes she makes kin to our own. Not for the faint of heart, I would recommend it for mature readers.
- 3 Medieval Fiction Novels for MG and YA Readers - March 8, 2023
- George MacDonald’s Fantastic Imagination - March 9, 2022
- The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo - November 17, 2021
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