The King’s Damosel
Quest for Camelot
Warner Bros. Studios, 1998
So this review is going to be slightly different in format, because in addition to comparing Vera Chapman’s novel The King’s Damosel to the original legend, I will also be discussing how it differs from the animated movie Quest for Camelot, which credits this book as its source material.
Warning for Spoilers and Trigger Warning for Discussions of Rape
However, I screwed up my courage and decided this was the year I would actually read The King’s Damosel. Thus, here is my review, laced with comparisons to what the movie version eventually became.
I very quickly determined that the movie is extremely loosely based on the book. Character names and roles were dramatically changed. While Chapman’s version puts a feminine twist on “Sir Beaumains” and The Grail Quest by focusing on Lynett, the stories are still very recognizable from the originals. Quest for Camelot…well, not much really stayed over. Lynett randomly became Kayley, though she retains her Chapman-given tomboyishness and that she was raised as a boy by her sonless father, Sir Lionel. Lynett’s loves Gareth and Lucius were combined into Kayley’s love interest Garrett (a modern movie removing a potential love triangle? Thank goodness for small favors!). Lynette’s sister Leonie was cut entirely. Juliana was promoted from governess to Kayley’s mother. Ruber, the Red Knight, had his goal shifted from marrying Leonie and taking over her lands to killing Arthur and conquering all of England. He also became the main antagonist when he’s in the book for about 30 seconds. The Quest for the Holy Grail becomes a quest for a stolen Excalibur. Lynett’s hawk Jeanne became Garrett’s falcon Ayden/Silverwings (whoever made this decision knows nothing about hawks; the females are the ones people catch for use because they’re bigger and stronger). The two-headed dragon Cornwall & Devon is unique to the movie.
The book begins, interestingly, with the double wedding of Leonie and Gareth and Lynett and Gaheris, with Lynett absolutely dreading it because she’s in love with Gareth. We then flash back to Lynett’s rape as a child (more on that later), and then to Ruber’s invasion a few years later. Very little time is spent on the Beaumains plot, though a fun twist is that it’s tomboyish Lynett who is mistaken for a kitchen boy and given the name Pretty Hands. We never see why she’s in love with Gareth, we’re just told that she is. This book also does an injustice to Gaheris, I think. We’re told he’s crude and brutish, but we never see it. He wants to be married to Lynett as much as she wants to be married to him, so on the wedding night he refuses to consummate the marriage then leaves and we never see him again. I wish we’d gotten some proof Gaheris deserves the bad rap he’s given in the marketing on the cover and inside the front of the book, which seems to paint Gaheris as Lynett’s rapist. In fact, it’s Bagdemagus and the rape happened years earlier. Gaheris, I think, is actually being pretty honest in refusing to have sex with someone he’s not interested in and knows is not interested in him even though they are married. A lot of men back then would have either done what they saw as their duty or secured their hold over “their” property by raping an unwilling wife on their wedding night, because even today in most places marriage isn’t legal until it’s consummated. Gaheris’s refusal to do so I think actually speaks fairly well for him. He certainly doesn’t hurt Lynett any more than she’s already been hurt.
Lynett in despair goes to King Arthur and begs for a job so she won’t have to face life with an absent husband who doesn’t want her. He makes her The King’s Damosel, an official messenger. She spends the next several years riding around accompanied by Lancelot, Perceval, Gwalchmei (not Gawain), and Bors as her backup when she delivers messages from Arthur. Eventually she meets up again with Bagdemagus. He captures her, but her knights break her out and Lancelot kills Bagdemagus. They are all captured by Morgan le Fay who hands Lynett over to Bagdemagus’ men. Lynett escapes and winds up lost in some caves where she meets Lucius, a blind young man who is mostly the basis for Garrett. He was blinded not in an accident but from spending several years a prisoner in the caves. He was found and raised by a seer, the Sybil, who admits to Lynett that Lucius is dying. Lynett has fallen in love with Lucius and decides to set out to seek the Holy Grail. Lucius asks since she is seeking a cure to save his life if she could also ask for his sight.
Obviously none of this happens in Quest for Camelot, which is filled with dragons, ogres, half-men half-metal creatures, magic plants and other imaginary beings, dreams of knighthood and random happenings. Really the movie has almost no connection with the Arthur legend other than the side characters of Arthur and Merlin and the constant chatter about Camelot and Excalibur (which btw does not appear in the book). Excalibur stands in for the Grail as a magical cure-all at the end. However, here the movie and the book differ in a striking way.
In the movie, when Excalibur gets put back in the Stone, it magically cures everything within Camelot of all ills, if only for a few seconds—except Garrett’s sight. I’m still not completely sure why the filmmakers chose to do this, especially in light of what happens in the book at this point. In the book, Lynett finds the Grail by (of course) asking a question in the traditional hall with the Fisher King—the test that Percival fails in legend. She heals the Fisher King and carries the Grail back to Lucius with the injunction that he can choose to be healed of his illness or have his sight restored, not both. He chooses sight because he so desperately wants to see his love. He dies of his illness after a month of bliss. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this choice, probably because it’s not the choice I’d make. I’d personally rather live a lifetime blind than have a month of sight, particularly if I could spend that lifetime with the love of my life and my death would mean leaving my beloved partner alone. However, it poses an interesting question about the nature of happiness: choosing a short time of absolute bliss or a lifetime of ups and downs. I know which I’d pick, but not everyone is the same and in that way it is thought-provoking. In the face of this, the movie having Garrett’s blindness be the one thing Excalibur doesn’t cure feels like even more of a cop-out than it already did from just watching the movie alone. I think I know why the movie creative team did what they did: they wanted to avoid backlash about curing a disabled main character by magic, but this flies in the face of the source material, which had the character make a definite choice that not all readers might agree with and stick to the consequences of that choice. Or we could have seen that there was at least one other thing Excalibur couldn’t cure to soften the blow.
On the Rape (trigger warning and swears for salkjsdfsntsFAIL):
This book is not a kids’ book, what with extramarital sex, talking severed heads and so on involved in the plotline. This makes it a somewhat surprising choice for an attempted Disney-ripoff adaptation in the 90s given the sheer number of much more kid-friendly Arthurian works to pick from. Sure, this was the era when Disney tried an animated kid-ifyed version of Hunchback of Notre Dame, but at least that movie paid some tonal homage to its dark source material. Quest for Camelot is so utterly sweet and cute and so full of whimsical fantasy except for a few bizarre turns here and there I pity any kid who actually got his or her hands on King’s Damosel while still a child. Less than twenty-five pages in, Lynett is raped by her father’s friend Bagdemagus at thirteen. Yeah. Not something you want kids stumbling on, particularly girls looking for strong female heroes to idolize. Bagdemagus believes her dressing and acting as a boy and trying to learn how to be his page is actually all a giant ploy begging for sex. Because women who appear to like doing “man-only” things are really just pretending interest so they can be that much more attractive (insert Fake Geek Girl™ tangent here). Anyway, he blathers the usual pre-rape excuses about how she’s been “asking for it” when she tells him no, proceeds to rape her, again spouts the cliché line about how the hype didn’t live up to the product, and rides away, leaving her alone in the woods. Merlin shows up randomly at this point and tells her to pick herself up and get over it. Which apparently she does, though she harbors some resentment that she takes out on Bagdemagus later to her own detriment.
There are a lot of things that bother me about this scenario. First, the rape-as-origin-story for a lead female character is really problematic. In this day and age it’s really overdone, though it might not have been when this book was published in 1976. It takes away agency she might have had by making her the victim of something that was done to her that she then has to go off and avenge. This is particularly annoying with Lynett, who has a perfectly good reason later to go off adventuring: she has to save her lands from being taken over by Ruber, and she was already a tomboy who wanted to be a knight to begin with so she really didn’t need a revenge incentive. She also doesn’t particularly want to be married to Gaheris even without the problem of her not being a virgin bride.
Second, telling a rape victim “oh well, it’s not like your virginity was that important to you anyway, no big loss right?” is heavily insulting even outside a culture where female premarital virginity is important. Dude, it’s her virginity, not yours. It should have been her choice when or when not to give it up even if she didn’t value it in the marriage market. I get that you (the author, through Merlin) are trying to say female virginity is overvalued in society and is often mixed up with purity, but you don’t say that to a thirteen-year-old virgin who was literally just raped in front of you. You also don’t say to your raped character “You have to forgive him” and then tell us throughout the book her lack of forgiveness is her greatest failing. Choosing to forgive such a wrong is important in order to not let it ruin your life with bitterness, but it’s a process. Forcing it on the character as a necessity in order to escape peril later in the way that the book does I find extremely uncomfortable.
Third, and most important, Lynett fails to ask Merlin the obvious question: where the fuck were you when he was raping me? Merlin seems to know all about it, which means he either knew beforehand (being Merlin) or he was watching. Which just makes it worse. If Lynett isn’t going to say it, I will: What the HELL, douchebag. This is the problem I had with Merlin in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about him and it turns up here again. Just going along with what you’ve foreseen as Destiny means you come off as an enormous asshole because you sit back and watch when stuff like this happens instead of trying to prevent it. This is possibly one of the most annoyingly mysterious and unhelpful versions of Merlin I’ve read to-date. I wanted to throttle him every time he showed up after that.
I liked the book more than I was expecting to given what I knew about it going in. I did find myself rooting for Lynett over the course of this short novel. It does have the sense of epic wonder and tragedy that makes Arthurian legends work so well. But I can’t get behind how the rape was done and there were some key characterizations missing (like Gaheris and Gareth) that would have made the story much more nuanced.
Despite its problems and gaping plotholes (and one enormously annoying song I can’t stand) I still like the movie. It’s a cute diversion and occasionally has some good concepts. There are just plenty of things I wish they’d done differently, particularly now that I’ve read the source material. They’d have had a stronger movie if they had.
3 Stars on The King’s Damosel
3 Stars on Quest for Camelot