|Title: Legend of the King|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Sir Terence has come a long way since he first left his guardian twenty years ago and joined the insolent Gawain as his squire. Dark Forces are at work in England, and Terence and Gawain had set off once more in service of King Arthur, but this time the two friends are sent on separate missions. At last, a true Knight of the Round Table, Terence has no time to rest on his laurels, but must continue his work to protect King Arthur and the peace that the king and his knights have created for England. Unfortunately, the king's enemies are at work as well. Morgause and Mordred had spies even at Camelot itself, and together mother and son attempt to divide the Fellowship of the Round Table, bring Camelot to ruin, and place Mordred on the throne.
In this final installment of the Squire's Tales series, Terence and his fellow Knights of the Round Table must ready their swords, enchantments, and wit to come together in a last stand to save Camelot. The characters Gerald Morris has brought to life throughout his series--Terence and Gawain, Lynet and Gaheris, Luneta and Rhience, Dinadan and Palomides--each have an important role to play if they are to defeat their enemies. Only by maintaining their faith, selflessness, and honor, can Morgause and Mordred banish and defeat the dark magic from England forever.
Legend of the King was published the year after I graduated from college. I had been dreading it for a lot of reasons, since it had been established since the previous book’s release that this was the last of the Squire’s Tales and it was obvious a lot of beloved key characters would die. In the end of this series, it was also a sort of final good-bye to my teenagehood and an assertion that yes, indeed, I had entered the adult world for good. I had outgrown these books and was ready for what came next, just as the characters are all finally ready for what comes after their final adventure for Camelot. An ending and a beginning.
In this re-read I have been both eager to get this final book over with and fine with putting it off. Some of the delay between the reviews for this book and Squire’s Quest were the two sessions of Camp NaNoWriMo in which Story participated (that knocks out April and July for both reading and writing reviews) but neither one of us has been particularly inclined to prompt finishing the series. This re-read has stripped away a lot of the nostalgia I feel for this series and revealed significant flaws in books I once loved (though nothing can dampen my love for Savage Damsel) and I know there have been a lot of elements that Story has been deeply unhappy with that have made the series overall less enjoyable. But we agreed for the sake of other projects we must proceed with the final review.
Spoilers, etc… and warning for almost 4,000-word review.
As you know, this is the final Squire’s Tales book, and that means it retells the end of Camelot. Due to things he’s established earlier in the series (such as the long-ago ending of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair, which plays a significant part in how the Round Table was divided in legend) Morris has to play with events somewhat. He uses the memory of the affair, the resentment of younger knights who have been unable to gain glory for themselves because older knights like Gawain and Lancelot are so well-established, as well as the outside threat from the army Mordred has built up to break up the Round Table and eventually destroy Camelot and Arthur.
My favorite twist is how Morris uses Gaheris being the one in legend who kills Morgause.
In a departure from all previous books, Morris switches between different characters’ perspectives (Dinadan, Terence, Agrivaine, Lynet, Luneta, and Guinglain) to tell his story. He begins where Dinadan left Squire’s Quest, traveling to meet Palomides in the Middle East. After sorting out the mess left at the end of the debacle between Alis, Fenice, Cligés and the caliph (and being very disrespectful to Alis, claiming that he was insane and creepy to be obsessed with his fifteen-year-old bride instead of under the influence of a magical potion—where the heck is this hating on Alis coming from, Mr. Morris?) Dinadan and Palomides have a visit from a djinn, who warns them all is not well in England. The pair set off across Europe, hoping to get there in time to make a difference.
Meanwhile, Mordred’s army, which he picked up somewhere and has somehow been gaining massive numbers (wtf, how are there this many greedy minor lords and mercenaries to suddenly have twice as many trained fighters as Arthur’s regular army?), has been ravaging the English countryside claiming that Arthur ordered all the destruction. Thus within a few months pretty much all of England is transformed into a smoking husk of what it was during the majority of Arthur’s rule, populated by people living in abject poverty and terror of their ‘mad’ king. Gawain is sent home to Orkney due to word of part of Mordred’s army massing there, Terence is sent to spy on Mordred himself in the east. Terence gets captured and learns that Mordred has ambitions beyond his mother’s plans.
Gawain reaches Orkney to discover his home fief under siege by Mordred’s men with specific orders to kill Gaheris. Lynet and Gaheris through some careful deception manage to escape with their tenants and leave the army believing Gaheris was ‘killed’ in single combat with their ‘champion’ (Gawain in disguise). The three nobles then beat a hasty ride back to Camelot.
In Camelot, Morgause uses her spy Mador (taking Mordred’s traditional role here since in this version Mordred is already banished) to stir up Agrivaine and some other young knights to ‘contrive’ to catch Lancelot and Guinevere alone together as proof of their nonexistent continuing affair. Per the legend, Agrivaine and many other young knights are killed in the assault on Guinevere’s rooms and Lancelot flees. Arthur is forced to put Guinevere on trial. The trial looks as though it will be a mere formality and Guinevere will be acquitted when Lancelot, misinformed that the Queen is to be executed, breaks in to save her. Gareth is killed defending the gate, also per the legend. Arthur, letting grief and fury for once override his good sense and missing most of his council that would normally talk him out of it, marches on Lancelot’s home at Joyous Guard.
On their way south, Lynet, Gaheris and Gawain hear of the troubles at Camelot and deduce Morgause is behind the whole thing. Determined to end her threat once and for all, Lynet sells her soul to Hecate, the first evil Enchantress and the power behind Morgause, in exchange for knowledge of Morgause’s whereabouts and past. She determines Morgause is hiding at Lynet’s old home in Cornwall. The three travel there, prepared for a fight both physical and magical. Gawain fights Morgause’s pet dragon at the gates while Gaheris and Lynet confront Morgause and her lover Lamorak. Lynet determines that Morgause accidentally tied her life to Gaheris and due to that teeny tiny loophole Gaheris alone can kill his mother. Gaheris beheads Morgause and is killed by Lamorak, who is in turn killed by Gawain. Lynet, who as part of her own bargain with Hecate tied her life to her beloved husband’s, also dies as Gaheris’s life fades. Gawain returns to Arthur alone and in his empty grief volunteers to fight Lancelot in single combat. Neither man manages to kill the other over two days of spectacular swordsmanship but eventually peace is mediated. As penance for his affair Lancelot is ordered to travel England confessing his sins to every holy man he meets and then must leave England. Over the course of his travels he meets Guinglain and the pair travel together so Guinglain can escape the devastation of Mordred’s army. They pass the remains of Camelot, now destroyed by Mordred’s forces while Arthur and the knights are away. The noblewomen and commoners who were there were all slaughtered or taken prisoner. Lancelot leaves England as promised—to gather his own French army to help Arthur fight Mordred.
Luneta and Rhience are summoned to a gathering of all good magical entities in England. They are told that with the death of Morgause—which also spelled the final defeat of Hecate thanks to Lynet taking power from her and then using it solely for the sake of others—there is less need for the Seelie Court in the World of Men. Eventually it will become dangerous to those of magic to be in the mortal world so Ganscotter gives them a choice: stay, but much weakened, or return to the Other World permanently. Most choose to go but Luneta and Rhience decide to stay.
In the final battle between Mordred’s forces and Arthur’s at Barham Down (Camlann), most of what is left of Arthur’s inner circle is killed, including Terence, Gawain, Kai, Parsifal, Tor, and Ywain. Griflet is killed preventing Mador attacking Arthur’s forces from behind. Lancelot’s reinforcements from France defeat Mordred’s but are too late to save what was left of Arthur’s army. Arthur strikes down Mordred; Terence believes he saw Mordred mortally wound Arthur but isn’t sure in the moment of his own death. In a scene highly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s final Chronicles of Narnia book The Last Battle, those killed at Barham Down and the massacre at Camelot, as well as Nimue, Lorie and Ariel, meet those who had previously died in Arthur’s service, including Bedivere (aka Reepicheep, if you know The Last Battle), and they all troop down to the sea bearing Excalibur and Arthur’s sleeping body. Ganscotter meets them there with two boats. Arthur is put into one, accompanied by Morgan, until he wakes again when he is called. Everyone else gets into the other boat and sails for home and Avalon at last.
In mortal England, Dinadan and Palomides arrive to discover they missed the final battle by mere days. They meet up with Rhience, Luneta, Guinglain and a few other survivors. The little group agrees that they will work to keep hope alive in England for the rest of their lives and they will not let the legend of the great King Arthur die away.
There are so many character returns and cameos I will only discuss the major ones.
Arthur: We don’t see until this book how much Lance/Gwen affected him. He never really got over the hurt, but he never worked it out with them, either. He just let it fester rather than drag the whole thing up again. This is fairly typical of modern Arthur portrayals to one extent or another, though in this case he was trying to let bygones be bygones rather than burying his head in the sand. A problem I have with just about everyone in this book is the personality seems to be sucked out of them (Gaheris, Lynet, Dinadan, Rhience, and to some extent Gawain are the exceptions), leaving just shells going through the motions rather than the people we got to know in previous books. The only time we see personality from this Arthur is in his conversation with Guinevere. I don’t really understand how his not-death works; Terence thought he saw Arthur wounded by Mordred but then nobody can find his body. He turns up sleeping on a litter borne by most of the series’ ladies and we are assured by Ganscotter he’s not dead and will wake again in the future when he’s needed, with no explanation. Is it a spell? Is this a side bonus of using Excalibur? Was this always supposed to happen if Arthur fell in battle? A little more exposition or previous hints that this was possible would have been much appreciated.
Guinevere: She and Arthur finally have meaningful, healing discussions about the affair, but about fifteen years (or however long it’s been) too late. After her kidnap by Mordred when his forces destroy Camelot, we do not see her again. We learn her fate indirectly through Dinadan: as in legend, she has secretly taken refuge at a convent and plans to take vows as a nun.
Gawain: We don’t see much of his trademark wit in this book. He does take part in the traditional combat with Lancelot after the deaths of his brothers, two of which Lancelot was responsible for. After honorably giving up on a chance to kill Lancelot he seems to snap out of his fog of grief and becomes more like himself again, and in the end he and Lancelot forgive each other. He is killed at Barham Down in a last glorious charge and appears on the shore to send off Arthur and then sail for Avalon with his wife Lorie.
Lancelot: Another victim of this book’s lack of personality syndrome, he never exhibits the self-deprecating humor he showed in Dung Cart Knight. He just kills a lot of people, but seems to feel worse about his past affair with Guinevere than anything else. When he goes around confessing this is chief on his mind. Eventually he figures out he was sent to get reinforcements for Arthur as part of his penance, but bad weather delays his troops until only moments too late. He survives the battle, becomes the caretaker of his own future tomb (mentioned in Dung Cart Knight) and takes up the name Jean le Forestier again.
Gaheris & Lynet: This is one of the most meaningful, fitting ends for a set of characters I have probably ever read. I thought it was so perfect that instead of tying her life to something tangibly permanent, Lynet chose to tie her life to the man she loves, since, as she claims, love is the most permanent thing of all. The situation in which they die is almost identical to the night they first declared their love for each other: in the same castle, confronting their adversaries in the middle of the night. Gaheris fights in the exact same way and is wounded in the same place as he was before. Only the outcome is different since it ends in their deaths, but they are shown together again at the end, bound for Avalon with everyone else. If my favorite set of characters had to die, this is exactly how it had to happen. They are the ones who finally defeat the series antagonist, not Gawain or Terence. I haven’t quite let go of the idea of naming future children after one or both of them. I love these two characters as they are portrayed in this series that much.
Luneta & Rhience: Luneta is grief-stricken at the deaths of her parents but still decides not to go live in the Other World. They want to stay and protect what is left of Arthur’s England and the memory of it. In the end they adopt an orphan girl they find, name her Morganna, and raise her at Rhience’s home fief in Sussex. Luneta leaves a female steward in charge of Orkney. She is the last of any of Arthur’s direct family left in the World of Men, though she is only distantly related to him through her great-grandmother Ygraine.
Dinadan: While too late to help in the final battle (not that he was much of a fighter anyway), Dinadan takes on the role of a bard singing heroic tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Takes some of Bedivere’s traditional role since it is supposed to be Bedivere who survives to tell the tales of Arthur but Bedivere died in the last book.
Palomides: A wise and virtuous Moorish knight. After helping Dinadan prevent war between Constantinople and the Turkish Muslims, he and Dinadan disappear from the narrative until the very end when they arrive in England too late. They plan to travel Europe telling of Arthur and the Round Table.
Guinglain: Still kind of an enigma, he seems content to float around and let things happen to him and trusts that they’ll work out. He imparts some wisdom on Lancelot when the latter comes to confess and ends up traveling with him. He witnesses the aftermath of the battle and eventually returns to his hermitage.
Morgause: The breakdown of Camelot can pretty much be laid on her. It is revealed that while unknowingly pregnant with Gaheris, Morgause went to Hecate and asked for her life to be tied to the person reflected in a mirror. Thus she seemed immortal but later realized that Gaheris represented a loophole: since he was inside her at the time she was reflected in the mirror, her life was also tied to his and he could kill her if he chose. She didn’t dare kill him for fear she would also die, but it explains her special hatred of him growing up. With her death and Lynet’s selflessness, the door between the World of Men and Hecate’s black realm is closed forever.
Mordred: Morris does a weird thing in the middle of this book where he looks like he might actually, if not redeem Mordred, at least have him break free from Morgause and pursue his own life. Turns out she had him under a spell the whole time to keep him from questioning her. Does this deter him after her death from continuing exactly as she would have wanted? Nope. This is kind of a big deal for this character, but as he’s done with past mind-altering spells and potions Morris acts as if Mordred would have done the exact same thing if there had been no magic involved. I know things have to happen as they did in legend and Mordred and Arthur have to kill each other at Camlann, but I don’t understand why Morris chooses to throw this mind-control thing at us and then not do anything with it. I guess it’s to make Mordred a sympathetic victim instead of a pure villain but it doesn’t work very well.
Agrivaine: Of all the point of view characters, this is the only one Morris had not used in a previous book. Agrivaine is easily manipulated by Morgause and Mador into leading the attack on Lancelot in Guinevere’s rooms. Morris even manages to give him fairly believable motivations. He appears at the shore to escort Arthur’s body, though even he seems surprised at his presence there.
Morgan: Is first seen fetching all of England’s enchantresses so they can be informed of the consequences of Hecate’s defeat and make their choice. She then plays her traditional role of Arthur’s caretaker in deathless sleep until they are both summoned again.
Whatever happened to…? The fates of major characters not already mentioned.
Lyonesse: Is seduced away from Gareth by Mordred and then murdered.
Piers: Goes to the Other World with Ariel when all of the other good Faeries are offered the choice to stay or leave the World of Men. His parents are mentioned as already living in the Other World. He’s also described as huge and a head taller than just about everyone else. This amuses me because even though this is the stereotypical look for a fantasy-world blacksmith, I know a few people who are blacksmiths for a living and none of them are particularly tall or hugely muscled. They’re incredibly strong but they don’t look like Ahh-nold in his prime.
Sarah: Is seen bearing Arthur’s litter. Killed in the massacre at Camelot?
Connie, Parsifal’s wife: Is seen bearing Arthur’s litter. Killed in the massacre at Camelot?
Eileen: Is seen bearing Arthur’s litter. Killed in the massacre at Camelot?
Brangienne: Now the Mother Superior of her convent, the convent where Guinevere has taken her vows.
Bors & Lionel: Bors is killed in a skirmish with Mordred’s men before Barham Down. Lionel disappears after that. Both are seen at the shore with the other dead who are seeing Arthur’s boat off.
Charis: Of all past major characters she is the only one whose fate we never learn. She does not appear at the shore with the other women bearing Arthur’s litter. Presumably she continues to rule Logres in the World of Men.
Laudine: Goes to the Other World because she would have had to surrender her magical beauty if she stayed. Ywain chooses to stay without her and dies in the final battle, and is seen at the shore.
Comments on the series
Despite having outgrown this series—it is very YA and aimed more at late preteen/early high school age—I still enjoy a good chunk of it. Particularly the first three books, Dung Cart Knight and Lioness. I have some nostalgia for The Squire’s Tales as a formative part of my young adulthood and influencing how I thought about ‘big picture’ things like faith, the difference between truth and illusion, being yourself instead of what others expect, and keeping your word. However, this series of critical rereads has highlighted major issues I didn’t notice before. Inconsistencies and problematic aspects plague these books, enough that the whole series is tainted to an extent. The last three books in particular display an obvious lack of care, as if the author couldn’t wait to get them over with and the editor couldn’t be bothered to call him on it. This attitude is an upsetting one, borderline insulting, to longtime fans of the series.
On a more positive note, what I think stands out about this series is not only the moral underpinnings (sometimes confused, but usually workable) and the humor, but the introduction into YA literature of more obscure Arthurian characters. Everybody knows King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere, and Wizard Merlin. Most people have probably also heard of at least one or two supporting characters like Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, Mordred, Kay, Gawain, Gareth, Bedivere, Galahad, and Percival who occasionally appear in Arthurian books and media when creators are delving pretty deep into the Camelot canon, at least for mass consumption (ex. The Sword in the Stone, The Adventures of Merlin, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, etc…) Who outside established Arthurian fans have heard of Dinadan, Gaheris, Lynette the Savage Damsel, Yvain of the Lion, Laudine, and others Morris utilizes for feature characters? A lot of these great characters I met for the first time through The Squire’s Tales. In glossing over a lot of the Lancelot-centric tales, largely not using Merlin at all, and frequently having Arthur and Guinevere as mere backdrop characters (though in theory the series does revolve around Arthur, it is telling Morris does not begin with Arthur’s origin story, but rather Gawain’s), Morris introduces a wealth of other stories that teens might not have discovered otherwise. There’s more to Camelot than just Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Morris shows off how much Arthurian canon there is to be plumbed and just how wide a range these stories have. Some medieval aspects are severely dated and Morris tries a hand at updating them for modern teenagers with mixed success. He himself is a product of his own time and prejudices. This doesn’t mean I give him a pass when his books have problems, but that I read them with a grain of salt and acknowledge the problems when I come to them.
Overall I’m glad I reread the series and examined these books critically. They were an important part of my literary life. Such works always bear revisiting, even if they don’t hold up with the nostalgia goggles removed.