Set during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, this didactic novel describes the coming-of-age experience of seventeen-year-old Colin. Fleeing the cruel father whom he blames for the death of his mother, he joins the monastery in Glastonbury, where he witnesses its closure.
Through his eyes, we are offered a balanced view of the situation. The Catholic Church hierarchy abuses its power by enforcing a harsh discipline upon those over whom it rules, and by persecuting those it deems heretics for reading the Bible in English, unmediated by its teachings, but many of its members are fair-minded and struggle to lead godly lives. The general populace is often brutal and greedy for monastic spoils, but some are kind and forgiving, thirsting for spiritual guidance from the Bible. The struggle between good and evil within individuals and society has also a supernatural dimension: Gwyn ap Nudd, the Horned King, is opposed to the Holy Grail, a simple wooden cup that helps Colin finally attain the salvation he so sorely craves.
Hardy explores the tensions of a troubled time, but struggles to integrate them into a coherent whole.