Song of the Sparrow
by Lisa Ann Sandell
16-year-old Elaine lives at the army encampment with her father and her brothers, Tirry and Lavain. Nine years earlier, Elaine’s mother was killed by Picts, and since then she has lived at the encampment, sewing the men’s clothes and healing them after the battles. Being the only girl in camp can be lonely, and Elaine longs for a friend. But when Gwynivere joins the camp, betrothed to Arthur, she and Elaine take a dislike to each other, and not only because of their mutual attraction to Lancelot. The two women are very different: Elaine is accustomed to the freedom of camp life, and Gwynivere is a lady in every way. As the threat of the Saxons increases and great peril threatens Britain, can the two women overcome their differences and find friendship?
Song of the Sparrow is a beautiful novel in verse which tells the story of Elaine, the Lady of Shalott. Author Lisa Ann Sandell attempts to paint a realistic picture of the time in which Arthur might really have lived. All the familiar aspects of the Arthurian stories are here, but portrayed in a way that they might really have happened. The sword in the stone, for example, is a symbolic gesture: Merlin thrusts the sword in the earth for Arthur to draw forth as a symbol of his role as protector of the land.
Sandell’s rich imagery brings to life the world that Elaine lives in, from the beauty of nature to the horrors of war. The verse form works well with the realism of the story; it creates a vivid sense of place. There’s plenty of excitement, too, as this Elaine is not the type to stay at home while the men go off to war.
The characters, especially the women, are three-dimensional and interesting. Sandell felt that the women in the Arthurian stories are treated poorly: most are shallowly defined characters that are either victims or villians. She felt that the women of Camelot deserved better, and set out to do justice to the women by create real, fully fleshed out characters. In this, she succeeded brilliantly. The Lady of Shallot is no longer a pale, tragic figure who dies of heartbreak (as if someone could really die of heartbreak!) She’s a powerful character, a strong woman trying to do the best she can in a man’s world. Even if you aren’t a fan of the Arthurian tales, this is a story you can enjoy for its own sake.
An author’s note at the end discusses King Arthur in a historical context, the few historical mentions of him and the development of the legends. It’s clear that Sandell has done her research. (In fact, she wrote her college thesis about Lancelot). A bibliography provides suggestions for further reading.
I interviewed Lisa Ann Sandell at BEA, and will be posting that soon.