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Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Song of the Sparrow
y Lisa Ann Sandell

Publishing Information: Scholastic Press: New York, 2007
ISBN: 9780439918480
: 416 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

In fifth-century Britain, nine years after the destruction of their home on the island of Shalott brings her to live with her father and brothers in the military encampments of Arthur's army, seventeen-year-old Elaine describes her changing perceptions of war and the people around her as she becomes increasingly involved in the bitter struggle against the invading Saxons.

Book Talk:
Feisty and independent, Elaine of Ascolat lives with her father and two brothers in the midst of a war camp. Since her mother was murdered when she was a child, Elaine has grown up in the camp, treating all the men there as her brothers, with her only female companion being the mysterious Morgan. Arthur, Elaine's friend, is named leader of the Britons in the battle against marauding foreigners. Longing for a closer bond with Lancelot, who has treated her with affection since she was a child, Elaine is horrified to see that he is hopelessly in love with Gwynivere, the woman chosen for Arthur to marry. When Arthur's army marches to fight the Saxons, Elaine and Gwynivere both follow the men in secret and are captured by the enemy. The cunning and courage of the two women helps turn the tide of the battle, and their shared adventure helps Elaine overcome her jealousy and find her own true destiny at last.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Arthur, King
Great Britain -- History -- Anglo Saxon period, 449-1066
Knights and knighthood
Novels in Verse

Awards & Reviews:
Young Readers' Choice Award Nominee (Pennsylvania), 2009

Booklist, September 15, 2007, p. 75
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
, April 1, 2007
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2007
Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2007, p. 54 (Starred Review)
School Library Journal
, August 1, 2007, p. 125
VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1, 2007

Discussion Questions and Ideas:


    1. How would Elaine's life have been different if her mother had lived? How much has her personality been shaped by living in the camp?
    2. Compare Tirry and Lavain. In what ways are they the same? In what ways are they different? Why do they interact with Elaine in different ways?
    3. Compare Lancelot and Tristan. Do they have qualities that are the same? In what ways are they different?
    4. Compare Elaine, Morgan, and Gwynivere. In what ways are they the same? What qualities are unique to each of them?
    5. How does Arthur assert his leadership of the camp? Why do some of the men refuse to follow him? What skills does he have that the others do not?
    6. Do you think that Lancelot would have returned Elaine's feelings if Gwynivere had not appeared? How does Lancelot feel about Elaine? What has he done to encourage her feelings?
    7. Why does Gwynivere treat Elaine so badly at first? Why does Gynivere follow Elaine when she leaves the camp? How do their feelings for each other change in their captivity?


  1. In what period in history does the story take place? Research information about the Arthurian legends and reach your own conclusion about when these events might have happened.
  2. Who are the enemies Arthur and his companions are fighting? Why is it so important that they defeat these enemies?
  3. What can you learn about the sites of Mount Badon and Caerleon-on-Usk. Can you visit these places today?


  1. War: Arthur tells Elaine, I do not understand it. This fighting and killing and urge to conquer . . . But I will fight and kill as I must, to protect our world . . . Discuss this dilemma. Why is it necessary for the armies to fight? Do they have any alternatives? Why does Arthur decide to initiate the battle at Mount Badon? Compare this situation to other periods in history where war seemed necessary. How did those times differ from Arthur's time?
  2. Love and Friendship: Tristan tells Elaine, Love is a tempestuous mistress, and none of us shall ever master her. Identify the characters that this might apply to in the story. He also tells her, love and friendship will resolve themselves. Who are the most loyal friends in the story? How does "love" differ from "friendship"? Make a list of the qualities of love that are temporary and the qualities that are more lasting. Why is it difficult for some characters to recognize "true" love?
  3. Loyalty: Why do some of the men remain loyal to Arthur and others leave? Why is loyalty so important? Why do Elaine and Gwynivere follow the army in secret - is it loyalty, jealousy, a desire for adventure, or a combination of reasons?
  4. Hope: What do the Britons hope for the most? What are they fighting for so fiercely? What does Elaine hope for personally? Does she get her greatest wish?
  5. Peace: What does it mean for the Britons to win the battle at Mount Badon? How will it change their situation? What does it mean for the lives of Arthur, Gwynivere, Elaine, Lancelot, Tristan?


  1. What is the importance of the rowan tree, the elm tree, and the birch trees to Elaine? How many ways can you identify that she is in tune with the natural world around her?
  2. What is the meaning of the Round Table? How does it contribute to Arthur's leadership? Why is the sword Excalibur important as a symbol to the followers of Arthur?
  3. When Elaine remembers her mother, she speaks of her weaving loom as if it had a life of its own?
  4. What do the loom, the tower room, and those memories represent for Elaine? Why is Elaine upset when she gets blood on Tirry's cloak while she is mending it? Is she right to be worried about this "omen"?
  5. What does Elaine mean by the "sparrow" in her stomach? What does the sparrow symbolize for her? How does the feeling of the sparrow change for her as her life changes? Why has the author chosen to call the story Song of the Sparrow?

Related Websites:
Author’s website:

The official web site of the town of Caerleon gives links to the historical legends of Arthur:

Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Tennyson:

National Endowment for the Humanities EDSITEment project on Arthurian legends brings together resources from great museums, universities, and cultural institutions:

The Lady of Shalott in art, and links to other Arthurian sites:

Avalon High by Meg Cabot, 2005
Black Horses for the King
by Anne McCaffrey, 1996
The Book of Mordred by Vivian Vande Velde, 2005
Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, 1994
The Dragon's Son
by Sarah L. Thomson, 2001
Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1993
The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp
by Richard Yancey, 2005
I am Mordred
by Nancy Springer, 1998
I am Morgan Le Fay by Nancy Springer, 2001
The Lady of Shalott
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1832
The Last Grail Keeper
by Pamela Smith Hill, 2001
The Mists of Avalon
by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 2000
The Once and Future King by T.H. White, 1938
Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper, 1965
The Revenge of the Shadow King
by Derek Benz , 2006
The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 2001
The Squire's Tale by Nancy Springer, 1998
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White, 1938
The Winter Prince, by Elizabeth Wein, 1993
The World of King Arthur and His Court: People, Places, Legend, and Lore by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 1999

Other Books by the Author:
The Weight of the Sky, 2006

About the Author:
Lisa Ann Sandell is the author of The Weight of the Sky, a novel in verse that was selected as one of the New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age and described by Kirkus as "lovely" and "poignant;" a story in 21 Proms, a young adultanthology, entitled "See Me;" and most recently, Song of the Sparrow, a novel in verse that retells the story of King Arthur and the Lady of Shalott.  She is also a children's book editor.

Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, and West Virginia, Lisa was very shy and found refuge in reading.  "I was forever buried in books; when we were little, my baby sister would beg me to play with her, to please put down my book and pay attention to her," says Lisa.  She also began to write her own stories.  "At first I wrote about a black-and-white cat named Alley Cat and his tough, junkyard friends, but as I got older, I realized I could use my writing to explore issues that really mattered to me."

Between her sophomore and junior years at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Lisa spent three months on a kibbutz in Israel.  "To me, the kibbutz felt like a beautiful sanctuary," says Lisa.  "I studied Hebrew and archaeology two days a week, and worked in various jobs around the kibbutz the rest of the days, with only Saturdays free.  I fell in love with it."  After returning to college that year, she started to write poems about Israel.  That poetry formed the basis for The Weight of the Sky.

In contributing to 21 Proms, Lisa says she had "tons of fun writing about the prom experience."  She particularly enjoyed writing about one so different from her own.  "I remembered all the turmoil and angst and obsession with gowns and shoes and dates I felt at prom-time, and decided to free myself and my protagonist, Kate, from it all. I loved writing about a girl who very blithely decides to rebel against her friends' and mother's expectations by not to going to her prom, and instead, pours her energy into being creative."

Song of the Sparrow grew out of Lisa's passion for Arthurian legend.  "I have devoured these stories my entire life - I even wrote my college thesis on Sir Lancelot," she states.  "It was thrilling to have the opportunity to add to this canon, but I also wanted to change something," she continues.  "Arthurian women were not always treated very kindly. At best, they were damsels in distress who needed a man to rescue them, and at worse, they were scheming, devious villains.  So, I strove to give these young women strong, evocative voices, and a more meaningful story by retelling the legend from their point of view. 

"I wanted to humanize all of the characters," Lisa adds.  "I tried to imagine how these mythical heroes might really have related to each other, and how they worked together to give us one of the most enduring and beloved tales of friendship and equality, freedom and hope."

Lisa Ann Sandell lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Liel Leibovitz, and their dog.

A Note from the Author, Lisa Sandell  
I cannot remember the first time I discovered the stories of King Arthur. I have been reading-and loving-them forever, it seems. The legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have always been among my favorites to hear, watch, and read. Yet, as I've read more and delved deeper into this incredibly rich and terribly vast canon, the more I have wanted to learn about the history-the true story, if you will-of this king named Arthur.

He is one of the most celebrated literary figures of all time; Arthur and his knights have inspired hundreds of poems, stories, books, plays, and movies-from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur to Monty Python's Spamalot-spanning centuries. As omnipresent and popular as the literature is, I was surprised to discover that there is no hard proof that Arthur actually existed.

Many archaeologists, historians, scholars, and fans have made it their life's work to try to uncover the mystery of Arthur. There are a multitude of theories, but no hard evidence has ever been brought to bear either way.

As I thought about how to approach writing Song of the Sparrow, I knew I wanted the setting and characters to feel authentic, and so I looked back at many texts for guidance....

If the man whom we know as Arthur did live, it was most likely close to the end of the fifth century or during the early sixth century, in what is referred to as the Dark Ages. Approximately three hundred years later, a Welsh monk and historian named Nennius, who, it is believed, had access to fifth-century texts that have since been lost, seems to have left the most promising clue. He writes about Arthur in his Historia Brittonum, or History of the Britons, casting him as a star military captain:

Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [dux bellorum].... The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.[1]

While this sounds like proof enough of Arthur's existence, certain glaring exclusions of his name from other earlier texts that date closer to what would have been Arthur's lifetime indicate that perhaps this wasn't the case after all.

A sixth-century British monk named Gildas, who also recorded the history of the Britons, failed to mention Arthur's name even once in his text, Concerning the Ruin of Britain. Nor did another historian and clergyman known as the Bede, who wrote a comprehensive work titled The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in A.D. 731.

It wasn't until the twelfth century, more than four hundred years after Nennius introduced Arthur, that the mythic king reappeared in the history books. This time, it was a bishop named Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote at length about Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey placed Arthur directly in the line of British kings. He was the first to do so, and it was Geoffrey's writings that spawned the Arthurian legends readers know now.

And so, despite differing accounts and much ambiguity, there are a few things we can say about Arthur with some certainty. The roots of his story lay in the Roman Empire, which was founded circa 31 B.C., and stretched from Rome all the way into northern Africa, parts of Asia, and most of Europe, lasting for nearly fifteen hundred years.

In A.D. 44, the Romans invaded Britain and ruled there relatively peacefully and prosperously for nearly four hundred years. But, in the early fifth century, the Roman Empire began to suffer from rebellions and fighting in its various territories, and Britain itself had also become subject to waves of invasions. The Roman legions that were posted on that remote isle were too few to fend off the growing numbers of invaders, and the soldiers began to rebel. Finally, in A.D. 410, the Roman soldiers and governing officials withdrew from Britain to aid in the fighting in other parts of the Empire, leaving the tiny island completely drained of its former glory and military strength.

The Britons who remained behind lived in small groups, or clans, led by local chieftains. Left to fend for themselves, they fought among themselves, as well as against their many enemies. The Britons faced the Picts, tribesmen from what is now eastern and northeastern Scotland, who were called such because of the Latin word picti, meaning "painted," as the Picts were said to have tattooed their bodies. Hadrian's Wall, which ran seventy-three miles across the width of Britain, was constructed by the Romans to keep the Picts out of Britain proper. Other enemies of the Britons at this time were the Scots, invaders who came from what is now known as Ireland-the name originates from the Roman name for the Irish, meaning "raider" or "bandit"-as well as the Saxons, who came from what is now Germany and parts of the Netherlands, who also posed constant threats to Britain at this time.

About forty years after the Roman withdrawal, around A.D. 450, a British chieftain called Vortigern invited a band of Saxon mercenaries into Britain, to aid him in fighting off the Picts. Rather than help defend the land, however, these mercenaries simply paved the way for fleets of Saxon soldiers to enter and devastate the British isle. Ambrosius Aurelius, a British military commander, whom Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth refer to as a "King of the Britons," avenged the destruction of Britain by assassinating Vortigern and taking over the leadership of the British forces around A.D. 490. But, the Saxons, Picts, and Scots continued to pummel the island, eventually murdering Aurelius, as well.

But this is where certainty leaves off, and it falls to the writers and movie directors and composers to imagine what might have been. There are elements that recur in Arthurian legends that are familiar to many readers-Camelot, the Merlin, Gwynivere, Lancelot, just for starters-and one might wonder, as I did, whether they truly existed. No one knows if Arthur's castle at Camelot or the famed Round Table ever really stood or where, but the archaeologists have all kinds of theories, stretching from Colchester to Cadbury, both towns in England. Whatever the case, though, Camelot and the Round Table have remained throughout the centuries as symbols of peace, justice, and equality.

Interestingly, the Merlin has his roots in ancient Welsh lore. A mysterious character called Myrddin, who prophesizes, can be found in many early texts, as well as ancient Welsh poetry, which was passed down orally. Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote of the Merlin extensively, as though he indeed were a historical figure. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest that he truly existed.

Nor do we know if Gwynivere lived. It is rumored that in 1191 a grave was found at the Cathedral of Glastonbury, which, according to legend, is in the same spot as the mythical Avalon would have been. The grave was said to contain the skeleton of a very tall man and a petite woman, covered by a cross of lead with an inscription that read "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon." However, the cross has been lost to time, as was the grave. But we can speculate: Was that Gwynivere buried with her husband?

Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that a knight of the Round Table named Lancelot actually existed, either. In fact, the story of Lancelot's illicit love for Queen Gwynivere has its roots in the earlier tale of doomed love, Tristan and Isolde. 

And finally, Elaine. She has been present in poems and stories for ages, in various incarnations and in slightly differing circumstances from text to text. In Le Morte D'Arthur, she is the daughter of an old knight who gives shelter to Lancelot. Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and begs him to love her back. But he cannot, and so she dies of a broken heart. In the nineteenth century, the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a long poem about her, titled, "The Lady of Shalott," in which she lives in a tower, under the narrow and lonely strictures of a mysterious curse. The lady cannot look out her window or leave her tower, and so she watches the goings-on outside indirectly through a mirror's reflection. One day, Lancelot passes by, and she glimpses him in the mirror. She falls in love with him immediately; then, unable to stop herself, turns to look at him directly through the window. Suddenly, the curse falls upon her, and the window and mirror shatter. The lady knows the end has come, and she runs outside, leaps into a boat, after painting her name on the bow, and dies, sailing downriver to Camelot.

Though Elaine of Ascolat, or the Lady of Shalott as she is more popularly known, is a pervasive figure in literature, there is nothing to suggest such a girl truly lived.

Yet, none of this actually matters. These stories, the myth of King Arthur and his companions, live on and persist throughout time because they deal with such incredibly important and universal, such fundamentally human themes as love, friendship, loyalty, justice, faith, peace, and hope. These stories resonate with the eternal chimes of truth, regardless of history or fact.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this canon, to write about my favorite characters, and only recently aware of the latest scholarship, I was excited to try to endow the legend with a historical edge. But, I also wanted to try to change something: As I read more and more stories about Arthur and his companions, and as I began studying Arthurian lore in college, I started to notice that the girls and women in these stories were not always treated very kindly. At best, it seemed to me, they were damsels in distress who needed a man to rescue them, and at worse, they were chaperones of doom and destruction. This did not seem fair to me.

And so, I aimed to humanize the characters, to really scrutinize them with a twenty-first-century magnifying glass and imagine how they might actually have related to one another. As I imagined Elaine, who truly has suffered at the hands of male writers, I wanted to give her strength and power and relevance. And indeed, it is without a sword that she manages to save her friends and loved ones. 

I have always loved the romance and chivalry that fill the Arthurian stories, but the ideals of freedom and equality and justice are truly what make this mythology so important-and continually resonant. The stories of Arthur and his knights have given centuries of readers hope-hope for peace-and I can only wish that readers of this book take away the same hope.
| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair