Archetypal fantasy novels involving sorcerers, swords and magical odysseys often walk a fine line between having a classic, timeless quality and being generic and cliché. While famed British author David Clement-Davies straddles this line with The Telling Pool, ultimately the novel satisfies with a skilled blend of fantasy, historical fiction and Arthurian legend.
Set in late 12th century England, The Telling Pool tells the coming-of-age story of Rhodri, a young Welsh falconer whose father, Owen, is sent away to join the Third Crusade. During this time, he meets Tantallon, a blind, elderly blacksmith who leads him to a magical pool deep in the forest, where he witnesses the hardships his father endures on the battlefield, and his seduction at the hands of the evil enchantress Homeira. He’s also able to see in the past, and he witnesses the fall of King Arthur and the tryst between Guinevere and Lancelot. When his father returns from war in the grips of a malevolent curse, Rhodri leaves home and embarks on a journey to free him, armed with the legendary sword Excalibur and his trained rock falcon.
Although it contributes to the coming-of-age theme of the novel, and parallels the affairs of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, too much time is spent relating the love triangle between Rhodri, his friend William and a neighbor girl named Sarah. This subplot quickly becomes tiresome, and the novel’s pacing improves significantly once Owen’s return sets the main plot in motion. The other, more effective uses of archetypes are the Merlin and Morgan le Fay figures of Tantallon and Homeira, respectively.
The strength in the novel’s historical element lies in its educational content regarding the Crusades and the corruption of the Albion Christian Church, which young readers may consider a history lesson made fun. A subplot involving a Jewish girl, Rebecca, fleeing persecution with her father calls attention to the social issues of the time and place. Chances are this would be an effective book for middle and high school students studying British history and/or mythology, and it will likely spur an interest that will lead to reading works such as The Faerie Queen and Gawain and the Green Knight.
If you’re looking for an entertaining escapist fantasy that draws on classic tales, The Telling Pool would provide some degree of satisfaction. David Clement-Davies has written better, yet compared to his other novels, this one is a pretty light read that can be enjoyed at a reader’s leisure.