AS a long-time admirer of Cecelia Holland, I picked up Pillar of the Sky with a feeling of unease, even disappointment. It is true that most of her previous novels have dealt with times and places not usually considered likely material by historical novelists, and that her chief strength lies in making the little-known or forgotten episodes of history come alive for the 20th-century reader. But what on earth, I asked myself, could anyone do in fiction to illuminate the still unsolved archeological puzzle of that most enduring of monuments, Stonehenge? It is so remote in time, its purpose still unexplained despite a plethora of theories, that one cannot look at the ancient group of massive rocks without awe or without wondering how man, eons before wheel or steam, crane or even iron chisel, managed to cut, shape, move and -- above all -- erect in still recognizable and elegant order, such intractable masses of material.
I should have trusted Holland, for it is to answer just these questions that she has produced her latest novel and has brought to the matter the same scholarship, insight and invention that distinguish her earlier work.
Moloquin, a nameless outcast boy, dreams a great dream and spends his life trying to fulfill it in terms apprehensible by his Bronze Age tribe. He is (and the parallels are many) a David to his people: seer, prophet, general, organizer, a practical man uncomfortably and often unwillingly aware of another world that summons him to its service. It says much for Holland's manifold gifts as a story-teller that she never loses her grasp on the character and motivations of this single man from such a distant period of pre-history, gives him great veracity and has, moreover, built up around him a society that is complex, engaging and believable to the point that one soon forgets to ask whether things could really have been so, and takes her word for it.
Following Moloquin from his miserable boyhood through slavery to the leadership of his people and a despotic old age, Holland beguiles the reader with legend, history and myth, tribal organization, trade and war, all incorporated into and furthering the main theme of her story with the inevitability necessary to acceptance. Sometimes, it is true, her ponderings on the very modern study of anthropology are a little obvious, and occasionally the high-minded practicality of Moloquin put me rather too much in mind of Henry Fonda carving out his settlement on the Mohawk, but these are minor imperfections in a longish book that is seldom less than compelling. There are some dull moments and long-winded passages, but Moloquin turns out to be often wrong and downright devious, while the minor characters surrounding him, all with unfamiliar, fabricated names (a hazard for any novelist) are precisely drawn, various and as fully realized as those in any of Holland's more documented novels. I confess to having skipped the odd page, but only because when the culminating action became apparent I could hardly wait to satisfy my curiosity as to just how those immense slabs of rock were really put up so long ago by human muscle and ingenuity alone.
There was also the lesser question of how Moloquin, the elderly macho despot, would manage to overturn the matriarchal governance of his tribe, and naturally I hoped he would not succeed. However, for the sake of those as ignorant as I was when I opened this book, I will reveal no secrets. Disclosing the solution of the problems faced by the primitive builders of Stonehenge would be, after all, as unfair as giving away the identity of the murderer in a mystery. I will say, however that Holland has chosen to describe the most probable method of building, that not a Druid appears, nor a Flying Saucer, and that the author has sensibly eschewed the inane fantasies propounded by what is known as "alternative archeology."
For those unwilling to acknowledge that superior technology is not synonomous with heightened intelligence, this book will prove a surprise; to those who find some comfort in believing that their remote forebears were not all that much different from themselves, it will give reassurance. Perhaps this is not exactly how the sarsen and bluestone monoliths and trilithons came to be grouped in their flat depression near Salisbury, nor for the reasons Cecelia Holland suggests, but as we are never likely now to discover the truth of the matter, Pillar of the Sky hazards a guess that is informative, entertaining and uncommonly easy to read. I recommend it.