The final instalment in Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy, "King of the Middle March", takes his protagonist far from his familiar surroundings on the Welsh borders. It is the year 1203, and Arthur de Gortanore (formerly de Caldicot) is now sixteen, on the verge of manhood and about to become a knight. He and his lord, Stephen de Holt, have travelled to Venice to join what will become the Fourth Crusade as it begins its long journey towards Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Guiding Arthur on the way is his obsidian seeing-stone, a magical artefact given to him years before by the wise man of his village, which reveals to him another world: that of his namesake, the King Arthur of legend, and of his Knights of the Round Table.
On crusade Arthur is confronted by new challenges as well as old enemies, but he is a different character to when we left him at the end of "At the Crossing-Places" - older and slightly wiser - and it is interesting to see how he deals with those challenges. In particular it is refreshing to see him forge a friendship with his cousin and one-time bully Serle, while even Arthur's father, William de Gortanore, previously depicted as boorish and unprincipled, is shown to have some redeeming qualities. Indeed few characters in the novel are truly good or evil; each has his contradictions, his own demons. It is this kind of realistic touch which makes the world that Crossley-Holland has created so believable. Arthur finds that love can be complicated, that it is not always easy to do the noble thing, that the difference between right and wrong is often unclear - all of which allows the reader to closely identify with him.
The device of the seeing stone is also used to greater effect in "King of the Middle March". Whereas the first two books dealt with the founding of the Round Table fellowship and the adventures of the various knights who comprised it, this one sees its dissolution: an event which is mirrored in the crusaders' own internecine struggles, in which ideals are often cast aside in pursuit of power and of wealth. Again, the seeing stone reflects Arthur's own experiences, showing him that life is messy and that happy endings are not guaranteed, but take effort to achieve. The same message pervades the book's ending, which cleverly leaves a number of issues unresolved, showing that whereas the stories of legend often have a discernible structure, real life is seldom so neatly divided: our stories and journeys, like Arthur's, are ongoing.
"King of the Middle March" is an an excellent climax to the Arthur trilogy: a complex and enchanting coming-of-age tale which will appeal to all ages, meditating as it does on the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the compromises we all have to make in life. It will be interesting to see how the author develops the same themes in "Gatty's Tale", a semi-sequel to this trilogy featuring Arthur's best friend from the first two books.