|Title: The Squire's Tale|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Dell Laurel-Leaf (Random House)
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Life for the young orphan Terence is peaceful, spent with the old hermit Trevisant in a quiet wood. That is, until the day a strange green sprite leads Terence to Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, who is on his way to Camelot in the hope of being knighted. Trevisant can see the future and knows that Terence must leave to serve as Gawain's squire. From that moment on, Terence's days are filled with heartstopping adventure as he helps save damsels in distress, battle devious men, and protect Arthur from his many enemies. Along the way, Terence is amazed at his skills and newfound magical abilities. Were these a gift from his unknown parents?
As Gawain continues his quest for knighthood, Terence knows he won't rest until he solves the riddle of his own past.
It's the Squire's Tales! Here we are at the beginning of a ten book series by Gerald Morris that chronicles King Arthur's reign through the adventures of his knights. These are some of my absolute favorite Arthurian retellings, but they're also fast reads. So reviews should be coming pretty fast for a while is all I'm saying.
Warning for Spoilers
The Last Time I Read this Book...
So, for the longest time I had a ton of people telling me that I needed to read the Squire's Tales (including but not limited Samoaphoenix who hounded me pretty hard on this one). I dragged my feet, because, as good friends will tell you, the surest way to ensure that I don't do something is to tell me that I need to do it (I'm super contrary like that). But, finally, one day while perusing the library, I broke down and checked out the first book. I inhaled it. And then I went down the line pretty much loving every book more than the last.
This series has influenced, more than anything else, what I believe the Arthurian mythos needs to be. It is, at its heart, a fun story. It's about knights in fancy clothing going on quests that borderline on the ridiculous. It's about friends and family and the importance of understanding the nature of people and their place in the greater world around you. It's not a story about two morons who fell in love when they really shouldn't have and the angst that follows. That's part of it, because love, loss and angst are a part of human nature. But that's not all it is. And the dark moments of the story don't mean very much without the joy being the meaningful part. Morris captures all of this beautifully in a fun filled romp through the legends with characters you can't help but love.
That being said, The Squire's Tale (book one) is by far the weakest book in the series. In hind sight, I've always seen The Squire's Tale as my least favorite of the books and upon rereading it, my assessment hasn't changed. It comes off like Morris had this great idea for a series of Arthurian books but before he could do any of that, he needed to set the stage for this world. That's what this story feels like, stage setting.
The story begins with Terence, Morris' original introduction to the legend. While writers have been introducing their own knights into the legend for as long as it has been in existence, I think it's become more and more frowned upon as the legend has moved into the modern age. But if there ever was a character who could make the jump outside his writer's books and move forward with the rest of the knights into the future of the legend... well, I would put my money on Terence.
Terence is introduced as an orphan who has been living with a hermit and within the first page of the book he meets Gawain and soon after becomes his Squire. I think Terence is a brilliant narrative frame for the series. He's an outside, like the reader. He's not as familiar with the Morris' world as the other characters, allowing for the other characters to explain that world both to him and the reader. At the same time, Terence is completely immersed in this world in a way the other characters aren't. He's both a vehicle for the characters to learn the basics for the world while also being able to take them deeper into the secret nooks and crannies that the other characters just aren't able to do. This adds a realm of magic and mystery to this modern Arthurian story that a lot of authors have recently shied away from in an attempt for a more realistic world.
The other big twist is Morris' decision to change up the setting. In their attempt for realism, many modern authors have also dug into the medieval setting in an attempt to make their story as historically accurate as possible. Morris instead goes for the Renaissance setting of Le Morte D'Arthur and the romances. I personally find this to be a really refreshing choice as that grim!dark medieval can become tiring after a time. This adds a bit of fancy to the story and allows Morris more room to have fun with the magic elements because his Camelot and Britain are already so far outside what the reader might expect.
A turn from most Arthurian stories where the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle takes up a majority of the story. Lancelot isn't even in this book (so there) and Arthur and Guinevere are only minor characters. The real hero of this book is Gawain. The Squire's Tale tells one of Gawain's most well known legends, the story of the Loathly Lady, along with some of his much lesser known legends such as his involvement in the Pelleas/Ettard affair. The book chronicles Gawain's journey to become a knight, his first battle in Arthur's army, his first quest and his eventual acceptance of his role as defender of woman-- the Maiden's Knight.
Gawain: This is, hands down, my absolute favorite portrayal of Gawain in a book ever. Morris takes Gawain back to his early roots. Gawain is, at his heart, a good person. He may have a temper and he may be quick to anger, but that is almost always in the defense of others. One of his early titles is the Maiden's Knight and Morris brings these aspects of Gawain's character to the forefront. But he also doesn't shy away from Gawain's temper-- the character is young and learning. He can be rude to others as he is to Lorie (Ragnell) early in the book. He also is prone to overreacting. He kills a knight for crippling a horse in a pointless joust and is prepared to kill another knight for slaughtering his hounds and instead kills the other man's wife (bringing us to the oh-so-charming story where Gawain forces the other man to Camelot with his wife's head tied around his neck). But he also learns from all these experiences and by the end of the book he is wiser and more level-headed. He may still be quick to anger, but he is also quick to apologize and make amends for his mistakes.
Morris also includes Gawain's power of growing more powerful as the sunrises, which is an added bonus as far as I'm concerned.
Tor: It's Sir Tor! I love Sir Tor and I am sad that he is often ignored. In the legends Sir Tor is the bastard son of King Pellinore and a farmer's wife and he is most well known for his quest to find a white hound that was either stolen during or interrupted Arthur and Guinevere's wedding feast. In the book, Gawain and Terence meet Tor on their way to Camelot. He is the son of a cow herder and his wife and, being completely useless in farm labor, decided to journey to Camelot in hopes that he would fair better. Arthur has a rule where, in order to be knighted, a man must first do a great deed worthy of knighthood and Tor gets his chance in Arthur's final battle against rebellious kings. He gets to go on his quest for the white hound (accompanied by Gawain who is going after a white deer). He succeeds in his quest, gains his own squire and then goes off on his own adventure (most of it being training from the eldest of the Three Questing Ladies). He returns to Camelot at the end of the book with Gawain and Terrance.
Lorie (Ragnell): If I have one complaint about Gerald Morris' books, it's his decision to, um, pretty up the names of the female leads. I personally like the name Ragnell, just as like the names of several other female leads who have their names changed throughout the course of the series. I don't get it and I don't like it. Aside from the name change, Lorie is a pretty indistinct character. She arrives at the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere in her hag form after the white deer and the white hound charge through, pretty much trashing it. She challenges two of Arthur's knights to go after the animals and then she and Gawain get into a verbal sparring match. She pretty much gets Arthur to agree to force Gawain on the quest for the deer while Tor volunteers for the quest for the hound. We don't see her again till the end of the book when Gawain and Terence cross over into the fairy otherworld and stay at the castle of her father, the enchanter Ganscotter (later revealed to be Terence's father). Gawain apologizes for being so rude to Lorie earlier in the book and the two have a day long, apparently enjoyable discussion that we never get to hear any of. That night, Lorie comes to Gawain in her pretty form and tells him she can either be a hag or a love young woman and it's his choice. Per the legend, Gawain returns the choice back to her. Lorie exclaims that she knew he was the one and they embrace. Ganscotter then dubs Gawain the Maiden's Knight and Gawain and Terence get booted back to the mortal realm while Lorie stays behind in the fairy realm.
So, I both enjoy this version of the story and really dislike it. I kinda like that Morris took out the riddle (what above all else to all women want?). If you know the story, then you can see Gawain learning to the answer to the riddle without having every considered the question. Which is kinda cool. It's nice to see Gawain learning to challenging the patriarchal myth of all woman being the same on his own without the riddle to guide him (it's his quest to learn this but everyone who knows that refuses to tell him until the end). But, at the same time, it's really disappointing to see Ragnell/Lorie removed from that story and replaced by Terence. There are some awesome female characters in this book, but none of them really influence the plot the way the men do. And then, in one of the most infuriating lines in the entire book, after Gawain tells Lorie that he could never choose his form for her and tells her to make her own choice, Terence asked Gawain why he did that. Was it because he trusted Lorie, Terence wants to know. Gawain said that was a part of it, but then he never says the other part. The part that is the point of the whole story, which was that it was never his fucking choice to begin with. It's really infuriating to see this feminist text essentially boiled down to 'yes, I gave her the choice back, but I knew she would make the choice most pleasing to me'. That is not what that story is about at all and I hate how it turned out in this book.
Pelleas/Ettard: Okay, so this is where Morris puts one of the most interesting and innovative spins on a rather ridiculous story. In the legend, Pelleas loves Ettard but she's uninterested because of his lowly birth. So daily Pelleas goes to her castle only to be set upon by her knights. He defeats every one, but then allows himself to be captured so he can be taken to see Ettard. Eventually, Gawain happens upon Pelleas and offers to help. But when he goes to meet Ettard, Gawain falls in love with her. The two have sex, Pelleas finds them and mopes off sadly. Nimue marries Pelleas and casts a spell on love spell on Ettard so she forever pines for Pelleas.
Morris follows this until Gawain and Terence arrive at Ettard's castle. There, Gawain realizes that Ettard want a man who dominates her. Believing that Pelleas will do this in a jealous fit, he sends Terence to get the knight while involving himself in some foreplay with Ettard. Pelleas sees them and rages against Ettard, which causes her to fall in love with him. But Pelleas will have nothing to do with her and leaves. Cursing their stupidity, Gawain leaves as well until Nimue forces him to go back and help. They bring Ettard and Pelleas back together, him fuming and her all mopey and sad. Then Nimue yells at Pelleas much like Ettard used to and he immediately falls in love with her. This sets Ettard off on him and Pelleas falls back at her feet as she throws rocks at him. Gawain, Nimue and Terence beat a hasty retreat. Here Gawain learns a valuable lesson about the wants of others-- just because they seem silly and bizarre doesn't mean they should be looked down upon or necessarily interfered with. Gawain may have thought that Pellease and Ettard's original situation was bad for them, but they were both happy in spite of it and his interference led to great sadness on behalf of both.
Kai is awesome. I love Morris' Sir Kai. He's the gruff seneschal of legends, but only because he has no patients for fools and there are a lot of fools in Arthur's court. With those he respects, Kai is much more willing to open up (but he still has a very dry humor which I adore). In a change, Kai was the best knight in Arthur's court before Gawain's arrival. This allows Kai to feel secure in his position in Arthur's court. He knows he's one of the best and he knows that he's in the inner circle. There's not bitterness here. Just a really smart man surrounded by idiots.
Marhault (Morholt): Another knight who rarely ever gets a chance to shine who is featured prominently in this book. He comes across Gawain and Tor while they are on their quest and challenges them to a joust. He unhorses Tor but then is unhorsed by Gawain (who is also unhorsed). Marhault then reveals that he was cursed by an enchantress to be mute until he came across a knight who bested him. He joins Gawain and Tor until they come across the Three Questing Ladies. As the group split up, he journey's with the middle-aged of the questing ladies. He has many grand adventures we don't hear about and then returns to Camelot (and then his home in Cornwall) with Gawain and Terence.
Morgan! It's super cool aunt Morgan Le Fay. She's pretty much presented as a wild card in Arthur's court-- as likely to curse a knight as she is to offer him assistance. She first appears to Gawain and crew as a dragon, taunting them. She is then revealed to be the enchantress who cursed Marhault. She and Gawain had the best banter where he makes of how old he is and she makes fun of how young he is. Then she gives them directions to the Three Questing Ladies and it's the last we see of her.
Nimue: On, man do I love Nimue in this. She only has two brief appearances, one to force Gawain to go back to help Pelleas and Ettard and then later to give Gawain his magic sword (and a brief mention of spiriting Merlin back to the fairy realm). But she's pretty amazing. When Gawain is dead set against going to help Pelleas and Ettard, a few quick words set him straight. And she quickly catches on to the need to make Pelleas a whimpering sap again to get him back together with Ettard. All in all it is a fantastic portrayal of Nimue.
Morgause- Gawain's mother and probably a reincarnation of The Enchantress, and entity which desires to rule the world. I don't really like how Ganscotter, positioned as a force of good in the world is known as The Enchanter while Morgause, positioned as a force of evil in the world is The Enchantress. On a basic level it can be read as men good, woman evil and it's uncomfortable. Otherwise, Morgause's plot in this book is highly unsatisfying. Throughout the book, Terence receives visions of her plotting to kill Arthur. In the last fifteen pages, he goes to confront her with Gawain and it's a pretty quick battle ending with Morgause's death. It just plays into the whole feeling that Morris was more interested in writing the next book of the series but realized he had to write this one first to set the stage.
The Three Questing Ladies (Three Ladies of the Fountain)- These three are from one of Morholt's legends where, when traveling with Gawain and Yvain, they come across these ladies who offer to teach them strange adventures. In this book, like in the legend, each knight must choose one maiden to go questing with. Tor (instead of Yvain) chooses the oldest because he believes that, as the youngest knight, she will offer him the most assistance. Marhault chooses the middle aged lady and Gawain is left with the youngest. What I thought was interest (and I don't know if this was in the legend or not) was how the oldest lady was shown as giving life (she teaches Tor how to be a better fighter) while the youngest one brings death (every knight she has ever traveled with has died some sort of horrible death and she loves it).
Arthur is the best King Arthur you could ever hope for. Good, fair, trusting of his knights and pretty unflappable. He also is very intuitive but is kinda enough to not push the issue when he knows people he trusts are hiding something from him. Guinevere marries Arthur and doesn't have a line of dialogue in the book. She's described as being frightened of Arthur and not the kind of companion he'll need going forward in his kingship. Blech. Merlin is there to give cryptic advice and to suggest that Arthur send knights on Lorie's quest. Then he leaves and Morgause tried to kill Arthur, proving his uselessness. Ector makes a brief appearance, serving as Arthur's regent and protector of Camelot when he goes to battle the five rebellions kings.
So, I have some obvious problems with how female characters and Ragnell's story are handled in this book. I also really have trouble with the pacing. Arthur's battle with the five rebellious kings is done in an instant. Gawain and Terence's climatic battle against Morgause just isn't that climatic. Gawain and Lorie's romance is pretty much whittled down to love at first sight (interesting because there's evidence that he was completely smitten with her since they met even though she was in her ugly form and there's a lot to suggest she's never far from his thoughts-- but they still only spend a day together before they declare their undying love). Where Morris settles back and enjoys himself such as the Pelleas/Ettard fiasco and the crossing into the fairy realm, it is some truly brilliant story telling. But in far too many places it's feels rushed or thrown in there because he felt this needed to happen to get to the next book, not because he wanted to tell that story. 4 Stars.
Next up, The Squire, His Knight and His Lady. One of my favorite books in the series. I can't wait to see how it holds up.