It’s been a good few years since I’ve read a book that approaches Keeper of the Crystal Spring in sheer quality. It is set in 11th century Dorset (England) which later proved fertile ground for Thomas Hardy. The very first chapter which shows the conquering Normans via Lord Ralf mercilessly dealing with the inhabitants of Sceapterbyrig (Shaftesbury) immediately hooks the reader into this gentle yet powerful tale.
The novel is based on the known history of England in the years following the Battle of Hastings, and the co-authors mischievously take licence with that which is unwritten. The Normans have subdued the Saxon population. Life goes on as best it can in the village of Enmore Green. And it is in the portrayal of everyday life that the authors excel; the characters of the village, their work and play, the turning of the seasons. The attention to detail of the times is remarkable. You could set up shop as a herbalist just by reading this book.
Sirona, the village elder, is charged with keeping the healing waters of the nearby Crystal Spring where the Goddess is worshipped. Her apprentice is Aldyth who becomes the main character in the tale. Aldyth learns the art and science of healing from Sirona. She understands, not without misgivings at times, that she is destined to be the next Keeper of the Spring. She therefore devotes herself to the Goddess and her works. Nevertheless she is attracted to and wooed in turn by the Saxon outlaw Bedwyn and Lord Ralf’s son Gandulf, an unusually empathetic Norman who is despised by his father. This love triangle forms the underlying theme and main plot of the book. With great restraint she keeps herself pure for the Goddess. There is the most poignant of love scenes between Aldyth and the man she is destined to wed as they lie dying together in a dungeon.
The research involved must have been phenomenal and the co-authors are still treating us to new archaic words 400 pages in.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea though at 160,000-ish words. Slashed in half this would be a good read. However this would have been such a waste of some great writing even though the galaxy of characters started to merge together somewhat towards the end.
I’m not sure what success or acclaim this book had upon its release in 1998. With its many twists and turns it takes the modern reader patience and a love of crafted writing. I believe though that it is an epic and is, I think, in my top five books of all time.