|Title: Squire's Quest|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Why is it, Terence wondered, that the things you know most surely are always the things you can't demonstrate to anyone else?
And why is it, after all these years, that Terence is still just a squire, offering advice on how best to scrub rust spots from armor? But Squire Terence has more to worry about that his place on the social scale. For all the peace and prosperity that have made England famous across Europe, Terence is uneasy. After nearly six months without contact with the World of the Faires--not even from his old friend the mischievous sprite Robin--Terence is sure something is rotten in King Arthur's court. And while the squire is always on the watch for the latest plot of the enchantress Morgause, he now also has suspicions about Mordred, King Arthur's misbegotten son, who has appeared at court. Is Mordred after Arthur's throne?
In this ninth rollicking adventure in the Squire's Tales series, Terence's efforts to defend the Fellowship of the Round Table lead him on his farthest, and most fantastic, journey yet--a quest that ultimately brings Terence rewards he never imagined or expected.
So, a couple years ago, when Samoaphoenix gave me this book for Christmas, I did start reading it. And it was awesome because ~*Sarah!*~. But then Sarah's part of the book became really uncomfortable and Mordred showed up and his part was like nails on a chalkboard. I got about a quarter of the way through and stopped. That means technically I'm done with the rereads and this is my first impression of the book instead of second+.
Warning for Spoilers
Gerald Morris says in his notes that the romance Cligés by Chretien de Troyes makes up the backbone of Squire's Quest. I'm going to go through the basic outline Cligés here because I'm not actually convinced Morris read it. In the quick skimming I've done to prepare to the review, it's become obvious that Morris fantastically missed the point.
Here's what Morris has to say about Cligés and Chrietien's other romances in his author's note:
But what a love Chretien's "courtly love" was! In his tales, knights swore eternal faithfulness to their mistresses--rather than to, for instance, their wives--and their mistresses ruled these lovesick knights with an iron hand. Also, nearly all Arthurian love stories end tragically. For some reason, it was considered romantic to die for love. Not half-witted: romantic. (pg. 274)For those following along at home, you'll remember that Morris made a similar claim in The Lioness and her Knight and I called him on his misrepresentation of Chretien's Romances:
Morris says that the Tale of Yvain is a rare story for Chretien de Troyes because it involves two people whose love leads to a marriage instead of an extramarital affair. This seems strange to me because Erec and Enide's romance leads to a marriage-- one that eventually becomes unhappy, but still. A marriage is a marriage. Cligés has a romance that begins with an extramarital affair, but ends with a marriage. Perceval too has a romance that ends in a marriage.
In fact, the only story of de Troyes' that ends in an extramarital affair and not a marriage is the Dung Cart Knight. That is the odd one out. This one is par for the course.In fact, my Everyman edition of Chretien's romances, translated and annotated by D.D.R. Owen says that for Chretien love is only ideal when it ends in a marriage! (pg 510).
So, Cligés. The story of Cligés begins with Emperor Alexander of Greece and Constantinople. Upon reaching adulthood, Alexander decides to leave his home in Constantinople and travel to Britain to meet with the great King Arthur. While there, Alexander falls in love with Arthur's niece Soredamor. The two get married and have a son, Cligés. After a few years of happiness in Britain, Alexander's father dies and the messenger who was supposed to bring him this message lies and claims that Alexander died on his way to Britain. Alexander's brother Alis claims the throne, but eventually Alexander gets word of this and marches on Athens. Alexander and Alis come to a peace treaty where Alis will continue to rule the empire as regent, but will take no wife or have no children so that Cligés can eventually inherit the Empire.
Alexander then dies and untimely death and, at the insistence of his advisers, Alis reneges on his deal with Alexander and selects a wife--Princess Fenice, eldest daughter of the Emperor of Germany. Unfortunately for Alis, Fenice and Cligés take one look at each other fall madly in love. Leading up to the wedding night, Fenice begs the aid of her nurse Thessala to keep her from having to consummate her marriage with Alis because she does not want to conceive a child with him and thus deny Cligés his inheritance. The nurse concocts a potion that will cause Alis to believe he is consummating his marriage with Fenice, but it's only in his dreams while in real life she remains untouched.
Then there's a war with the Duke of Saxony where Cligés is awesome. Then Cligés goes to Britain and participates in a tournament where he is awesome (beats Lancelot and fights Gawain to a draw). Then Cligés returns home where he finally confesses his love to Fenice. The two concoct a plan to fake Fenice's death so she and Cligés can live out their romance in secret. All goes well until a hawking knight finds them and the two are forced to flee to Britain. Cligés enlists the help of his Great-Uncle Arthur to reclaim his birthright, but then news comes that Alis has died. Cligés and Fenice return to Greece as the new Emperor and Empress and live happily ever after (not a tragic death in sight).
Squire's Quest, on the other hand, follows Terence as he worries about the lack of contact from the Fairy Otherworld. Alexander lavishes Sarah with romantic notions while she freaks out, but eventually she gives in after seeing how brave he is. Then Alexander is poisoned by Mordred and his Uncle Alis takes the throne in the stead of his brother Cligés. Alis marries Fenice, but she loves Cligés and the whole story is played out much like Tristram and Iseult from The Ballad of Sir Dinadan.
We begin in Camelot, where Arthur is hosting delegates from the Holy Roman Empire and Terence is fretting over his lack of contact from the Otherworld. To make matters worse, Sarah arrives with a message from Morgan le Fay: Morgause is back and plotting again to kill Arthur.
Unfortunately, all of Terence's worries are put on the back burner as the delegates from the Holy Roman Empire leave and Emperor Alexander of Rome (from it's seat in Constantinople) arrives. Arthur has Kai put together feasts and tournaments to honor his guests, but things are thrown somewhat of kilter when Alexander sees Sarah at dinner and falls madly in love with her. A whole chapter alone is devoted to his romantic overtures along with other acts scattered throughout the first half of the book. And this is one of the first instances in the book where I start to see red, because Sarah freaks out. Ignoring that in Cligés Alexander and Soredamor were too embarrassed to talk to each other and basically needed Guinevere to lock them in a room together, I really hate how the rape culture staple of 'if she says no, she really means yes' is presented here without any commentary calling it out as problematic. I will talk about this in more detail in the character section.
Near the end of the tournament, Mordred finally arrives after taking his sweet time getting from Galahad and Guinglain in the woods to Camelot (the book states that it's been six months since Fair Unknown--for more 'oh god, the timeline!, please see this post). He has his presentation at the Round Table and tells the story of his conception. Now it's Arthur's turn to have a 'surprise, it's your kid!' moment the way Lancelot and Gawain did in the last book. Arthur decides to test Mordred to see if he's qualified for kingship, leaving him as regent with Bedivere while taking the rest of the court to Brittany. While they're away, Count Anders (who Mordred had 'placated' in his first test of kingship) tries to usurp Arthur and takes Bedivere hostage. Arthur races back and, with the help of Alexander and Terence, manages to defeat Anders and take back his kingdom. This part of the story mirrors pretty closely the Count Angres portion of the Cligés story. In Chretien, Arthur actually leaves Angres in control of the kingdom while he summers in Brittany and Angres turns on him. In Squire's Quest, like with Cligés, Arthur only wins back his throne through the help of Alexander, who changes his insignia to match that of Count Anders and infiltrates his castle.
Sarah is so taken with Alexander's showing of bravery that she finally agrees to marry him. Just as they are preparing for the wedding, Alexander receives news from Mordred (who has very likely killed the real messenger) that his Uncle (as opposed to Brother) has usurped his throne. With Gawain at his side, Alexander rides to Athens to take back his crown. But his counselor Acoriondes thinks something is amiss and, along with Terence, sneaks into Athens to find out why Alis would betray Alexander (in Cligés, Alexander figures out that something is wrong and sends Acorionde to speak with Alis). Acoriondes discovers that an English messenger (possibly Mordred, possibly someone working for him) arrived some months ago claiming that Alexander had died in a forest fire (mirroring the messenger sent from Alis to Alexander who didn't deliver his message from Alis and instead claimed that Alexander had died so Alis could assume the throne). But it's okay because it was all one big misunderstanding! Alexander breaks out some wine to celebrate, and promptly falls dead of poison
Cligés is declared Alexander's successor, but as he is too young to assume the throne, Alis is named regent. Gawain returns to England with most of the knights Arthur sent to aid Alexander, but Terence and Dinadan decide to stay behind (so does Mordred, although he parts ways with Terence and Dinadan immediately). Dinadan is all excited because they'll get to see a wedding after all. Alis, believing he was now Emperor of Rome (via Constantinople), inquired to the Holy Roman Empire for a bride so he could conceived a son and heir, and they responded enthusiastically. Despite the whole thing being a misunderstanding, Alis is now stuck with the marriage--he tries to pass it off to Cligés, who stupidly passes it up (you'll note that this doesn't mirror what happens in Cligés, where Alis is pushed into marriage by his advisers in direct opposition to the treaty he made with Alexander before the other died).
So the wedding between Alis and Fenice occurs, and it is hands down the most amusing part in the entire book. Morris has great fun with the bureaucratic headache caused by a catholic marrying a Greek Orthodox. The pinnacle is the actual ceremony, where the two priests race to see who can finish the ceremony first while Dinadan runs color commentary (bless you Dinadan for making this book bearable). Of course, because this is a romance, Cligés and Fenice take one look at each other during the ceremony and fall madly in love.
Next is the Duke of Saxony part of the story. Unlike in Cligés where the Duke is actually attacking and actually trying to win Fenice back (she was supposed to marry him, see, before Alis' offer arrived), in Squire's Quest the whole thing is a fake battle so both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Saxony can save face--the Emperor can marry Fenice to whoever he likes and the Duke gets some more land. It's an interesting concept, and Dinadan breaking down sobbing after a German soldier they made friends with his needlessly killed by Cligés (bless you Dinadan for making this book bearable) is the most heartbreaking part of the entire book. But in the end, this section really only serves to make Cligés look as horrid and unhinged as Tristram in The Ballad of Sir Dinadan. In Chretien's book, instead of fake kidnapping Fenice to trade for land, the Duke of Saxony has actually kidnapped Fenice and attacked the German/Greek camp. It doesn't read as Morris' regular play on events. He actually flips the sequence of events (In Squire's Quest, is a fake battle, then a fake tournament, in Cligés it's a tournament, then a real battle). And the whole thing is just weird. It's weird that Morris went so far out of his way to change it. It's weird that he goes so far out of his way to make Cligés and Fenice look bad when, out of all king/queen/knight love triangles in the Arthurian mythos, these two are the most sympathetically portrayed and actually have a pretty heavy grievance against Alis unlike Guinevere and Lancelot or Tristan and Isolde.
From here, Squire's Quest diverges completely from Cligés as Terence, Dinadan and Acoriondes take a trip to Delphi. Acoriondes wants to show them more of Greece, but Terence is much more interested in the rumors that Delphi serves as a gateway to other worlds. His hope to make contact with greater powers comes to pass as Dinadan's fairy friend Sylvanus (actually Dionysus) joins them. He takes Dinadan and Terence to
Tieresias is actually a character from Greek Mythology. He was the Oracle of Thebes who was cursed to spend seven years as a woman after offending Hera and then either made that mistake again and was blinded by her or offended Athena who blinded him. Here Tieresias is a blind seer and intersex/nonbinary (I can't tell if the presented dual sexuality is by birth, curse, or choice) and is referred to by male and female pronouns by him/herself and the other characters. The conversation between Terence, Tieresias, and a nearby Sisyphus who is busy pushing his rock up a hill ended up really bothering me and I wrote another addendum about what the subtext of this scene says about the Squire's Tales series and the legend as a whole. Eventually, Tieresias tells Terence that Mordred is the son of Arthur and Morgause and is most definitely part of her plot to destroy Arthur. Dinadan and Terence return to the mortal world to find that several weeks have passed. Acoriondes, who slept through the whole thing, is suddenly worried about what may have occurred in Athens while he was away and insists they return to the city.
They arrive back in Athens to the news that Fenice and Cligés are dead. Fenice died first of an unknown aliment and was buried in a tomb that used to be the summer home of a wealthy merchant. After she was in the tomb and it was walled off, it was discovered that Cligés had sealed himself within her coffin the night before. Terence and Dinadan are immediately suspicious and go to check out the tomb. Turns out it's a love grotto, much like Tristram and Iseult put together in The Ballad of Sir Dinadan. Terence and Dinadan take Acoriondes there to reveal the lovers, but Acoriondes' squire has arrived first and discovered the pair. Cligés cuts off his leg just as Terence, Dinadan and Acoriondes arrive. The three prepare to face off against Cligés, with Fenice shrieking in the corner. Then Alis arrives. Realizing he's been dumped, Alis flies into a rage and tries to strangle Fenice. Cligés kills him and Terence and Acoriondes incapacitate Fenice and Cligés (This is in direct opposition to Cligés where Cligés and Fenice manage to flee before Alis can discover them, he dies while they're away, and they return to rule the empire). The two are sentenced to a lifetime imprisoned (as Fenice is pregnant), apart, with Thessala's potion to haunt their dreams.
Terence returns to Britain (Dinadan goes off on more adventures, intending to meet up with Palomides) right as Arthur is about to publicly acknowledge Mordred as his son and heir. After Arthur's confession to his people, Terence reveals himself and tells Arthur that Mordred is also the son of Morgause. Mordred flies into a rage and tries to kill Terence, but Terence was prepared and now Mordred has to square off against Arthur and Gawain as well. Morgause, also hiding in the crowd, puts everyone to sleep except Terence. Just as they're about to face off, the Seelie court arrives to aid Terence, Morgause's spell having been broken. With no other option, Morgause takes Mordred and flees. Terence publicly confesses his love for Eileen, asking her to marry him properly, and Arthur finally knights him (much to poor Gawain's dismay).
Cligés and Fenice are done a huge disservice in this book. Actually, having skimmed Cligés, I don't really understand Morris' choices here. He's obviously had a longstanding beef with the idea of courtly love and he's been mocking the whole idea since the first book of the series. As early as The Princess, The Crone, and the Dung Cart Knight he's been taking some pretty low shots at Chretien de Troyes for apparently espousing this idea in all of his romances. And, yes, Chretien deserves some of the blame for introducing the idea of courtly love through Le Chevalier de la Charrette, he doesn't deserve as much blame as Morris has been heaping on him because he hated the idea of courtly love. Le Chevalier de la Charrette was written for his patron at her request and most scholars think he left it to a clerk to finish because he so despised the adulterous premise of the story. Cligés as a story is decidedly anti-adultery. Specifically, it's anti-Tristan and Isolde. Chretien constantly condemns both the story and the characters through his story and characters. So I don't understand why Morris chose to have Cligés and Fenice completely enamored with Tristram and Iseult to the point where we basically get a poorly made copy of their story (much like Galahad's Grail Quest was a poorly made copy of Parsifal's) when Morris could have actually done something really interesting with the characters while keeping an anti-Tristram and Iseult message (Fenice loves Cligés and wants to help him protect his birthright from Alis, but also not want to go down as an adulterous like Iseult--just like Fenice in the original).
Beyond this, I don't have anything to say about these two as characters because they aren't characters. They want so badly to be Tristram and Iseult and live out their tragic love that there is nothing else to these characters. They are flat, poorly made cardboard copies of Tristram and Iseult. There is nothing interesting or innovative about them and they are more horrifying than Tristram and Iseult because they don't have the love potion to fall back on as an excuse.
Dinadan is amazing and the best part of the book. His presence, especially in the later half of the book with Terence in Greece/Germany, is probably to help the reader recall the Tristram/Iseult debacle as we descend into take two (and the characters, as it's pretty easy for him to predict what Cligés and Fenice are going to do based on his familiarity with courtly love stories). As much as it probably sucks to be him, living through that nonsense again, bless him for his role. His humor and grief are so real and so human that they truly breath some much needed life into this drudgery. And, despite Dinadan being a part of both stories, his involvement is the only part that doesn't feel stale.
Mordred is the same boring, evil character he was in the last book. I said all I wanted to about the handling of this character in my review of Quest for the Fair Unknown (well, in my addendum to the review), so I won't get into that again. I will say that I got super irritated with Terence's constant 'he's evil!' internal narration. I would have loved to enjoy Mordred as he was presented in the text--thoughtful, diplomatic, and inspiring--and then been 'surprised' when he turned out to be the worse. Instead I had to deal with Terence mentally shouting 'EVIL' every time Mordred did anything and that was super tiring.
Sarah was amazing and Alexander was okay--better when he was away from her. Alexander takes one look at Sarah and falls madly in love with her. Following the advice of Cligés, Alexander attempts to woo Sarah via courtly love where no matter how hard Sarah protests and tells Alexander to get away from her, it actually means that she's madly in love with him. While Morris does call this out as problematic within the context of courtly love being silly and stupid, he doesn't call it out in the context of the real world where where this is an actual fucking thing girls and women have to deal with. He doesn't call it out as problematic in the context of a world where we're still trying to teach boys that no means no. So, as much as I like Alexander outside of his wooing of Sarah and as much potential I think the two of them could have had as a couple if Morris had chosen to actually develop them outside of this nonsense, I can't support this relationship. Yes, Sarah agrees to marry Alexander because she sees that he's brave during the fight against Count Anders. But actually we're not in Sarah's head so we don't actually know what she's thinking. Maybe she just gave up because it's a good match and everyone is telling her she should take it.
Also, I get it, Morris. You hate courtly love. But I don't see why the Alexander and Soredamor romance, which was largely about two people afraid to admit their feelings for each other, deserved to get caught in the crossfire.
Alis is just a sad character. It's hard to say that this is different from his portrayal in Cligés where he is also a rather sad character. Here Alis is just trying to do right when he thinks his nephew is dead/when his nephew actually dies instead of just letting conniving advisers lead him around when he thinks his brother is dead/when is brother is actually dead. I will say he is portrayed much more sympathetically here than in Cligés, especially after he takes Thessala's potion and becomes completely hapless.
Kai is awesome, as always. He and Terence are the only two suspicious of Mordred and rails against Arthur's decision to give the boy more power. He also grumbles a lot about hosting all these delegates from other countries. I would have liked to have seen more of Kai. I would also have liked to hear more about the wife and son we've apparently forgotten all about.
Arthur...it's the same Arthur. Good king. Great sense of humor. Loyal to a fault. And with a big heaping of Arthur guilt over his betrayal of Guinevere with a woman he met in the woods while she was having her affair with Lancelot. This Arthur guilt leads to his decision to start training Mordred as his heir despite just meeting the boy and not knowing anything about him. Then Arthur says one of the most infuriating lines in the whole book, suggesting that no one in the younger generation is fit to rule after him. I talk about this a bit in the Sisyphys addendum and then some more in this third addendum because seriously? We're really going to forget about all the awesome youngsters who have appeared throughout the series (are we really going to forget about Sarah????). Okay then.
Bedivere has no lines in this book. He stays behind in Camelot with Mordred when Arthur takes the court to Brittany. He's then 'captured' by Count Anders and then murdered by Mordred and what the fuck? You can't kill Bedivere? He's supposed to be the last one standing!
Acoriondes has an expanded role in the book from his part in Cligés where he just took Alexander's message to Alis. Here he strikes up a friendship with Terence and Dinadan and is their cultural translator as they travel through Greece and Germany. Gawain appears briefly to hang out with Terence and lead the army against Alis. Guinevere and Lancelot are here and Arthur finally sort of talks with them about their affair when he confesses that he's Mordred's father. Morgause shows up at the end to challenge Terence but ends up having to flee. Guinglain makes an appearance as someone Terence goes to for advice when it comes to dealing with Mordred (because you would so know from the nine lines he spoke in your presence). Anders and Thessala play the same roles here as they did in Cligés.
When I finished this book I thought it was okay. A smidgen better than The Quest for the Fair Unknown, but not nearly as good as the rest of the books in the series. As I wrote this review and read through the original Cligés for comparison, I came to think this book was really poorly done and actually probably worse than The Quest for the Fair Unknown. And then I reached the scene that broke me. In Cligés, a group of doctors have come to Athens right as Fenice 'dies'. They immediately suspect that she's faking to get away from her husband. They plead with Alis to let them reveal Fenice's trickery and he agrees. They then proceed to beat Fenice to near death. They whip her. They melt lead on her body (specifically through her hands which--along with who rescues her calls for some pretty explicit Christ imagery). They are about to put her on a fire and burn her alive when thousands of ladies see what they're doing, break down the door, and throw the doctors out the window and into the courtyard, killing them. '[N]o ladies ever did a better job!' Chretien writes (ln. 6050).
In Squire's Quest, a doctor comes to examine Fenice after she has taken 'ill' and miraculously 'cures' her. Fenice claims that he hurt her and in a fit of rage Cligés throws a doctor off a cliff. The scene is meant to reflect poorly on Fenice and Cligés, who are willing to murder to protect their adultery.
I say fuck that. I cannot accept this reinterpretation of this scene. I don't know how you read that scene and think 'you know who is the real victim here? Those poor doctors.' I felt sick reading it and even sicker when I realized that Morris' sympathy had gone to these monsters over Fenice. This is worse than when he mocked Dindrane's sacrifice in The Quest for the Fair Unknown. This re-imaging of this scene is abhorrent and unacceptable. And I hate this book because of it.
Last time I tried to be fair. I'm going to be fair this time too and not give this book a 1 because at least it's well written and Dinadan. But between this, the obtuse handling of Cligés and Fenice, the rage inducing handling of Sarah's romance, Mordred, and all the stuff I talked about in the addenda...I can't. I can't give this book a 3.