|Title: The Quest of the Fair Unknown|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Synopsis: (from the publisher) On her deathbed, Beaufils’s mother leaves him with a quest and a clue: find your father, a knight of King Arthur’s court. So Beaufils leaves the isolated forest of his youth and quickly discovers that he has much to learn about the world beyond his experience.
Beaufils’s search for his father is more difficult than he’d imagined—when a traveler asks him “What is your father’s name?” Beaufils replies “Father, I suppose.” He doesn’t have much to go on when he arrives at King Arthur’s court. There, at a meeting of the Round Table, Beaufils is not the only one surprised when a mysterious dish appears and a voice commands the court to seek this vessel: the Holy Grail. He doesn’t hesitate to join King Arthur’s knights on their quest. Beaufils quickly learns, though, how one quest can lead to another. After accompanying Galahad for a time, Beaufils parts ways with this holiest knight of all to help a new friend, Lady Ellyn, fulfill her own quest, whether she knows what it is or not.
Beaufils’s innocence never fails to make his companions grin, but his fresh outlook on the world’s peculiarities turns out to be more of a gift than a curse as they encounter unexpected friends and foes.
Oh, and what about Beaufils’s quest?
This was my first disappointment in the Squire’s Tales series since Ballad of Sir Dinadan. I just…I don’t like this story. It has a few likeable elements and a healthy dash of Morris’s trademark wit that always makes me laugh out loud, but at the same time, it’s a weird story. It doesn’t really match up with any of Morris’s others, and to boot it throws the timeline of the series into total disarray. Even on a second go-round years later, Story and I can’t get all the elements to match up in a way that make any sense no matter how much we discuss it. And I’m still not all that fond of it even on a second try with fresh eyes.
This is a mashup of Galahad’s Grail Quest from the Queste del Saint Graal and the Fair Unknown story of Lybeau Desconus, along with a bit or two from Malory (according to Morris himself in his Author’s Note). The hero is Beaufils, a young man who innocently starts out on a quest to find his father and as usual for a Morris hero, finds and loses much more. Galahad is the secondary protagonist, though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to label him a hero.
Beaufils begins his story much like Terence and Parsifal began theirs in earlier books, growing up with no knowledge of the world outside their perfect forests and then being thrust unceremoniously into real life. I almost heard Navi from The Legend of Zelda yelling “Hey! Listen!” every so often. Indeed, one could find themselves a little tired of this trope in Morris’s books of following around the Perfect Fool, someone incredibly innocent who learns the ways of the world on his adventure. Actually, 3/4ths of this story feels like a rehash of Parsifal’s Page, with the slightly-different protagonists bumping into a slightly-different set of magical adventures.
Beaufils on his way to court encounters Galahad and Mordred. The juxtaposition between this pair is very interesting. I’ll let Story talk more about Mordred’s characterization because I know she has lots to say on this subject. I’ll probably have some comments in the next book when Mordred is a feature character. What’s of note to me here is that this is the only time the super-holy, stick-so-far-up-his-ass-it’s-coming-out-of-the-top-of-his-head Galahad comes off as a human being, when he stands in contrast with Mordred’s willingness to attack Beaufils from behind without provocation. Beaufils even in his innocence immediately recognizes Mordred as someone full of darkness and hatred. ::sigh:: Play the Empire Strikes Back March. Or maybe the Jaws theme. Either way, you get the idea. Thanks, John Williams, for providing us with some really great ‘aah! bad guy!’ music.
Anyway, Mordred rides off somewhere, perhaps to return to his mommy, and Galahad and Beaufils head off to Camelot to find their fathers. Galahad discovers his father is Lancelot, conceived at some point when his mother Elaine had been enchanted to look like Guinevere. Then the Holy Grail appears and many of the knights, including Galahad, set off to seek it. I doubt Morris intended to make a Monty Python reference at this point, but I couldn’t help hearing Graham Chapman as Arthur going “Good idea O Lord!” when the booming voice announces the quest. Arthur in fact doesn’t think it’s a good idea since half his knights are leaving on this quest and Morris was probably deliberately trying to do something different, but I heard the voice in my head all the same. I think that speaks more to the pervasiveness of Monty Python’s version of this story than anything else.
Beaufils travels with Galahad, who is eagerly confessing his nonexistent sins every chance he gets, and eventually they run into Gawain (Terence is off asking his father Ganscotter about Morgause’s latest plot). Next comes my favorite part in the book, the Carl of Carlisle’s castle, because this feels like something straight out of a fairy tale to me. The group begs shelter at the castle, which is full of filth. The Carl is a huge, slovenly man, but his wife and daughter are beautiful and clean and utterly normal. This immediately puts everyone on their guard. Galahad freaks out and thinks the daughter is tempting him by virtue of being female and conventionally attractive, which we’ll sadly learn is a pattern with him. Gawain and Beaufils think there’s something strange going on but are willing to let it play out and see where it goes. The Carl asks to have his head cut off. Galahad runs away for fear of endangering his immortal soul, again establishing a pattern with him. Gawain, hesitantly, does as requested. The Carl and the castle are restored to normal, and the Carl explains that for his lack of hospitality to a beggar he was cursed until he humbled himself to the point of death. His daughter Ellyn, who has become friends with Beaufils, joins them on their quest.
Most of the rest of the book also feels like a fairy tale, but a not-very-focused one where you feel like there’s a lesson to be learned but you don’t quite get it at the end. Beaufils and Ellyn have several more adventures with and without Galahad and Gawain. Eventually they come to a castle where its mistress has been transformed into a dragon and can only be restored if she receives a kiss from the son of Arthur’s greatest knight. Of course we, the readers, can see where this is going because even if we weren’t familiar with the legend it’s obvious who Beaufils’s father is. Everyone assumes Galahad is the answer, but predictably Galahad believes he’s being tempted, freaks out, attacks the dragon and runs away. Ellyn stays to tend the dying dragon while Beaufils chases Galahad.
The pair end up in the Grail Castle (not the one from Parsifal’s Page; here, asking questions is exactly the wrong thing to do) where they are invited to drink from the Grail, forget the outside world, and be at peace. This is perfect for Galahad, but Beaufils still has cares in the outside world he’d rather not forget about. He is ejected unceremoniously from the Grail Castle but is rescued first by Gawain’s faerie wife Lorie and then by Terence and Gawain himself. The trio goes back to the dragon’s castle, Beaufils kisses her and of course it works even though none of them has any idea why except Terence (who obviously has a good guess as to Beaufils’ identity). Ellyn decides to stay with the restored dragon lady and the other three questors head back to Camelot.
On the way, Ganscotter turns up and tells Beaufils his true name: Guinglain. The group comes across a hermitage and through a case of mistaken identity Guinglain decides to stay and become a holy man (one of the themes of this book is the various degrees of holiness in people). He casually reveals his name to Gawain, who is startled because he’d always intended to name his son that. They realize the truth, and then Gawain and Terence ride back to Camelot to warn Arthur about the coming threat from Mordred.
Beaufils/Guinglain: What sets Guinglain apart from Parsifal is that while Guinglain sees plenty of the nastiness and evil of the world, he is not broken by it. By the time the Grail Castle appears, Guinglain is well aware of the consequences of the choice he makes there, but makes that choice anyway. At that point, like his father, he still has more to do before he can rest. Guinglain doesn’t remain ignorant and naïve as the story progresses, but he finds his own way to enter the adult world without having to embrace the dark side of human nature in himself. So in that way he still remains innocent and childlike, with the grown-up awareness that the darkness is there and must be fought. I actually found him kind of bland and not a very interesting character.
Galahad: Hard to like, but Morris has tried to give him sympathetic qualities. I almost wish we’d spent more time with him, as annoying as he can be, to get more insights on why he is the way he is. He was raised by women, so why is he terrified of them and has nightmares about women chasing him? Was he abused by his mother and the other nuns at the convent and that’s why he shows symptoms of PTSD? What set him on this path where he is so deathly afraid of spiritual corruption that it’s a neurosis? He obviously does want to do what’s right, so why when others are in danger or asking for his help is his first instinct to assume he’s being tempted? Guinglain only is able to speculate based on what he sees of Galahad’s actions and while he doesn’t condemn him because he sees Galahad is trying his best to be a good person, he often does think that there must be something wrong with Galahad’s view of the world to only see the potential corruption in everything. It’s nice that Galahad finds peace in forgetting the world, but one wonders what happened prior to this book to traumatize him so badly.
Ellyn: The Carl’s daughter who joins Beaufils. The quest becomes her quest for awhile, to find out where she belongs. She hates that men treat her either like an ornament or a siren because she’s pretty, and likes Beaufils because he treats her as he treats everyone else. When I first read this book I thought she and Beaufils were going to become a couple, but on this second read I don’t see it at all. Indeed, I think without being 100% explicit Morris has had Ellyn fall in love with Synadona, the dragon lady. When she stays behind at the castle as ‘chief confidante’ to the restored Synadona, I suspect (and it’s heavily implied) it is also as lover. Guinglain reads to me now as asexual; he knows the hows and whys of sex but seems not to feel attraction himself.
Gawain: Gawain appears multiple times over the course of the book and is the same old wonderful levelheaded Gawain. He takes the possibility that he might have a son in stride from the very beginning but also doesn’t seem too interested in becoming any kind of father figure. He never tries to instruct Guinglain the way he once did with Terence, even though Guinglain shows he’s inherited the instinct and reflexes to become a proficient fighter. At the end of the book when the truth is uncovered he doesn’t express any kind of obligation or apology for not being there while Guinglain was growing up. I actually feel kind of bad for Lancelot because Gawain at least gets to know his long-lost son over the course of questing. Galahad is at court for about thirty seconds and is now permanently at the Grail Castle, so Lancelot really gets the short end of the stick if he wanted any interaction with his son who just kind of “poofed” out of nowhere and is gone again for good.
Bors: We meet brothers Bors and Lionel and proceed to have a very convoluted lesson in the nature of honor and priorities which seems to contradict the lesson Gawain learned in Squire, Knight & Lady about keeping your word. Bors is tricked into making a foolish promise to a beautiful lady (we’ve seen this setup before too in previous books) and ends up making a series of mistakes that lead to lots of guilt but eventually he gets over it.
Lionel: I will admit watching him kick the crap out of Bors was kind of fun, because at that point Bors had been an idiot and deserved it. It was odd and rushed how quickly Lionel forgave Bors after that, though.
Mordred, Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Kai, and Lorie (Ragnell) all make cameo appearances. This is the first time we’ve seen Lorie and Ganscotter since Squire, Knight & Lady.
This book is the beginning of the end, and one I get the sense Morris really didn’t want to write but felt obligated to because in writing this series he had to retell one of the most famous Arthurian stories: Galahad’s Grail Quest. Thus, though he dutifully tells Galahad’s story, the focus isn’t on Galahad and indeed Galahad, supposedly the best of all knights, becomes sort of an anti-hero, a protagonist but not really someone you particularly like or root for. I’m not really sure this story was necessary since other than briefly introducing Mordred as a future threat it doesn’t advance the main narrative and in fact confuses the timeline quite a bit, even more than it was already confused by all the trips to the Other World. We also already had a Grail Quest, and the explanation for the two different grails I found weak at best. So overall I’m not sure why this book exists. A lot of it is been-there-done-that and the new characters are not particularly memorable or (in Galahad, Bors and Lionel’s cases) all that likeable. It’s not a ‘bad’ book, per se, it just leaves me with a sense of “what the heck did I just read?” at the end.
2.5 stars rounded up to 3.