The Stones of Green Knowe starts in the distant past, shortly after the death of William II, aka William Rufus, just decades after the Norman invastion, when the countryside is still using two languages: Anglo-Saxon (which author Lucy Boston, for simplicity’s sake, calls English) and French.
Osmund d’Aulneaux is building the great stone house that will eventually be known as Green Knowe on the estate he holds from his father-in-law. The house has several purposes: it will, of course, be more comfortable than the old wooden house the family currently uses; it will be more appropriate to their rank; it will prove that they are very stylish and up to date (a few paragraphs of the book are dedicated to discussing the most fashionable place to build a fireplace) and it will offer the higher ranking members of the d’Aulneaux family some privacy. Most of all, it will offer safety and security, not just to the family, but to the nearby villagers, who will be able to shelter inside when, not if, war returns. As Ormond bluntly explains, he does not expect peace. But he can expect this solid, carefully built stone house to survive.
As readers of the previous books in the series already know, it has.
Roger, Ormond’s son, finds the stone cutting and building process fascinating—not least because the stonecutters have all kinds of interesting stories about people coming back from the dead and other only slightly less gruesome tales. In his daily life, Roger doesn’t actually have that much to do: as a second son whose younger brother is already training for the church, he has very few lessons, beyond some training in swordplay and horseback riding, and almost no chores to do. As a result, he’s able to learn something of stoneworking—not enough to become a stoneworker (not something in his parents’ plans in any case) but enough to recognize the type and quality of the stonework on two large, freestanding stones he encounters while exploring in his copious free time. That, in turn, allows him to recognize the standing stones as something far more than ordinary boulders: standing stones.
As in the earlier books, Boston never bothers to explain what, exactly, Green Knowe’s magic is, only that when gorillas aren’t around, the magic most definitely is. She doesn’t bother to explain it here, either, but the stones are most definitely magical, since soon enough they are transporting Roger forward—and a little bit backwards—in time.
His first stop is to the time of Toby, Linnet and Alexander, and here, I have to call shenanigans on the part of Boston. For the record, I had no problems when Tolly was able to speak English with the three of them in the first book. First, by this point they were magical ghosts. Second, they were magical ghosts that thought hanging around their house and continuing to chat with all of the new residents was fun, allowing them to keep up with changes in the English language. And third, the English of Charles II was hardly that different from contemporary English: some changes in meaning and a few other things, but contemporary people can understand the dramas and literature of the period without specialized training. So that was fine.
The “English” of Roger’s time, however, is not at all the same English, and just having Roger think that Toby, Linnet, and Alexander (let alone Susan and Tolly, still coming up) speak a little oddly is not enough. None of them should be able to understand a word Roger says without specialized training, which none of them have, since his English is not the language of Charles II, or even Chaucer, but something not that far removed from Beowulf. This is more than, as Boston puts it, “queer,” and none of the characters later in the time line should be able to understand him. It does not help that while speaking “English” Roger uses several words that entered the language through French during and after his time period.
I can’t even handwave this by saying “magic,” because Roger specifically recognizes the English Toby, Linnet and Alexander use as the English his grandmother uses—in contrast to the French his mother wants him to use. I have no particular problem with Roger being bilingual, mind you, or finding, as he does, that people in his future have difficulty understanding his Norman French. It’s the insistence that the Englishes are the same that gets me.
However, enough linguistics for now. Back to the story, which features Roger visiting all of the children from the previous books—who can all see him, and, thanks to their own adventures, find it very natural. I should have said, almost all: Roger does not meet Ping, Ida, Oskar or the gorilla, presumably because none of them are his descendants so the standing stone is less interested in them.
When not time travelling, Roger does the usual things he would do at home: serving his father as a page, learning how to conduct medieval justice (from Roger’s point of view, very boring since the peasants won’t shut up, but his father is much more sympathetic and also willing to do his dury) and learning how to use a sword and shield. Except for the court stuff, this is all great, but Roger desperately wans to see the future, and know what happens, and so he continues to seek out the stones.
For readers of the entire series, it’s arguably not all that interesting—after all, we already know what will be happening to all the characters, with the only really suspenseful moment happening when Roger appears in the 20th century and suddenly has to deal with the disappearance of most of the woodlands and fields, not to mention, cars, which he describes as iron dragons, and is astonished to see people actually inside. I suppose finding out what eventually happens to the stones (its a little sad) is also suspenseful, or at least bittersweet.
But if the book doesn’t really provide a lot of suspense, it does provide a lovely, warm wrap up to the series, and another look back at characters like Linnet and Susan and Alexander, answers to some of the mysteries of the series (when exactly did that statue of St. Christopher show up, and why is it magical?) as well as a hint that the magic and adventures will continue. I’ve read several much weaker series conclusions in these rereads.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.