I have no idea what the summary on this book is blabbering about. That first sentence doesn't even make sense. It makes it sound like Gawain and Terence were already out adventuring when they met the Green Knight, but…well, never mind.
I would complain about just about every cover of the old editions of these books (these are the covers that I own) but I will refrain so I don’t repeat myself every time. I will say it only once: I find the weird cut-and-paste-heads-onto-bodies thing that the cover designers did for the first eight books disturbing. Terence looks like a dwarf on this cover, which he clearly is not. View the superior reprint version below (courtesy of goodreads):
The only old cover that I don’t mind is the one for Parsifal’s Page. It is bright and attractive, does not have someone’s head pasted onto someone else’s body, and is still a scene out of the book. There. I have complained once and will say no more about the old covers unless I really like something about one of the new covers and feel compelled to comment.
Back to the review.
This is the direct sequel to The Squire’s Tale, concerning the same two main characters: Sir Gawain and his squire Terence. In this book, Morris retells the epic medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, keeping surprisingly close to the original while still adding his own unique twist and humor. Not only is Gawain accompanied by his squire, they are also joined on this adventure by another invention of Morris’s, the spitfire Lady Eileen who eventually becomes Terence’s love interest. We also get a heavy dose of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, which thankfully Gawain and Terence are absent for most of.
Again, if Morris throws in any retellings of obscure tales from Malory (I think the battle with the Emperor of Rome at the beginning of this book is one, and the evil Marquis who murders knights on major holidays in creative ways may be another), I have read no other versions so I have nothing to compare them to.
This book is extremely quotable, as there are many funny or profound lines that best speak for themselves. I will try to refrain from quoting too much but there will be some points where it’s unavoidable in order to make a point. For instance, most of the book is best summed up in this way:
Eileen: “Which do you hate more: breaking your word or dying?”
Gawain: “I don’t know. I’ve never done either.”
A profound statement indeed. Also, “You can’t have too many Sir Wozzells.” But let’s jump back to the beginning.
Several years have gone by since the end of The Squire’s Tale. Terence is a seasoned squire, and Gawain is unquestionably the best of Arthur’s knights. All this gets shaken up with a challenge issued by the supposed Emperor of Rome for Arthur to pay him tribute. Arthur of course refuses, precipitating a short but vicious war where Camelot’s forces are allied with those of King Ban of Benoic. During this war we meet Ban’s son Lancelot, who is unquestionably the greatest fighter Arthur’s court has ever seen and the biggest dandy as well. At the victory party Lancelot meets and falls hard for Guinevere and vice versa. This is summed up best with a set of paraphrased quotes:
Ganscotter: “Arthur’s love for her exceeds reason…and it frightens her. Lancelot loves her according to the rules.”
Terence: “What rules?”
Ganscotter: “The rule that handsome men and beautiful women must always love each other. The rule that men show their love for women by defeating other men. The rule that love is won as one wins tournaments, by proving yourself the most beautiful. The rule that love for a famous person is nobler than love for a humble person.
Terence: “But those rules are rubbish.”
Ganscotter: “Yes….but it is not wrong for Arthur to love, even if he loves someone who is neither smart enough nor courageous enough to love him in kind.”
Again, some very profound and thoughtful words that try to make sense of the whole “Why would Guinevere choose Lancelot when she was already married to the greatest king the world has ever seen?” Lancelot’s motivations for the affair will be explored in later books in the series. The Gwen-Lance-Arthur thing continues for awhile, highlighting the difference between those who embrace the medieval idea of Courtly Love where one must be obsessed with the wife of another and those who advocate another medieval virtue of faithfulness to one’s King.
It is here that the Green Knight plot appears. As I mentioned earlier, it follows the original poem very closely. Once the deed is done and the bargain made, however, things at court get interesting. Everyone starts treating Gawain like he’s at his own funeral. Gawain, unsurprisingly, gets sick of this and decides to set off to seek the Green Chapel within a couple of months of the New Year’s Day challenge.
It’s here Morris decides to have some fun. He lifts almost word for word entire passages from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describing the symbolism of Gawain’s shield, which in this version is given to Gawain as a parting gift from Lancelot. Having read the original, this scene is even more hilarious to me because instead of describing the perfect Christian knight, as in the poem, it is used sarcastically. Gawain in this version is not religious at all but Lancelot has failed to realize this. The shield becomes an object of ridicule for both Gawain and Terence and eventually they contrive to get rid of it on their journey.
Gawain and Terence wander aimlessly for awhile. Gawain decides he’s going to teach Terence to be a knight, so his squire will have something to do after Gawain has been killed. Terence reluctantly goes along for Gawain’s sake. Terence learns swordfighting, but his jousting lessons are interrupted by a spontaneous practice bout with Arthur himself, who has snuck out of Camelot incognito. After this Terence refuses to joust again. Nor does he tell Gawain about his encounter with the king.
Terence and Gawain face a few smaller adventures, including helping a woodsman quell a ferocious rumor by starting one of their own (a lesson about gossip) and rescuing Gawain and Lady Eileen from her evil uncle (the Marquis who executes knights for fun). Eileen joins them on their quest, and all three of them end up in the Other World. They have several more adventures over the next few months, during which Terence and Eileen slowly go from bickering to falling in love, until it is time for Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. They find themselves at Sir Bercilak’s doorstep just days from New Year’s.
The poem picks up here again, with events seen from Terence’s perspective. The only major difference is that Morgan le Fay isn’t manipulating events from behind the scene; instead things are structured to break Gawain and then allow him to redeem himself. Gawain of course fails the test of the Green Girdle, and the three travelers are sent to the mystical island of Avalon, which in this universe is a sort of Other World beyond the Other World. In an interesting twist, Gawain basically has to fight an earlier version of himself: another hero who faced a similar test of honor in an Irish story older than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—and upon which The Green Knight poem may have been based. Gawain wins but spares his opponent’s life. He, Terence and Eileen are welcomed into Avalon by Terence’s faery father Ganscotter. Gawain is reunited with a sister of his who died as a child, and she explains that even if you are dead in another world you still can exist in Avalon so long as you have faery blood (major foreshadowing for Legend of the King). Gawain and Lorie are finally married, and Terence is knighted by Ganscotter and proclaimed the Duke of Avalon. And they all lived happily ever….wait. We’re not done?
Nope! Gawain, Terence and Eileen are sent back to the World of Men to live out the rest of their mortal lives, told they all have a great task to perform before they can come home again. They discover seven years have passed since they left, but the status quo has pretty much remained the same. Arthur is still a great king. Lancelot is still the Round Table’s most awesome knight. Lancelot and Guinevere are still together, though there are signs of strain in the relationship. Gawain’s friends and family are still around and delighted to find him alive. Gawain tells the story of his journey, and similarly to the end of The Squire’s Tale he tells it in a way that the court will appreciate rather than an exact account of events.
Arthur holds a tournament to celebrate Gawain’s return. Lancelot is about to be proclaimed the winner, but at the encouragement of a faery friend Terence disguises himself in a full suit of armor as “Sir Wozzell” and challenges him. “Sir Wozzell” was a name picked up on their travels, so only Gawain and Eileen realize Terence’s true identity. Terence manages to unhorse Lancelot using a trick Arthur taught him in their practice joust. He then proclaims that he has only been defeated by one knight in England, so the prize should go to that man—Arthur himself. Guinevere finally has the excuse she needs to go back to Arthur, and everything is as it should be in the World of Men.
At least until the next book. (This book directly sets up the next two, The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf and Parsifal’s Page.)
Gawain: Oh my gosh I love Gawain in this book. He has become wiser and more level-headed since his early days. The younger Gawain would have been much more sensitive about Lancelot coming in and stealing his thunder as “The Greatest Knight in England”. This more experienced Gawain, while annoyed, lets the whole thing roll off him and is more concerned about Arthur’s pain over Guinevere than his own loss of status. We also get to see Gawain brought low several times over the course of this book: hurt, exhausted, and humiliated but still able to fight on, as he is refined into one of the greatest champions in legend. And he maintains a great sense of humor about the whole thing. Watch how he handles Terence and Eileen after the two of them walk in after his first encounter with Lady Marion, Bercilak’s wife:
Gawain: “Why, Terence, I didn’t know you had a woman in your room, too.”
Terence: “At least mine is dressed.”
Gawain: “Tough luck.”
Priceless. Although, it should be noted that even here we get to see how Gawain has matured from the beginning of book one. That Gawain probably wouldn’t have hesitated to sleep with Lady Marion when she came calling in her nightdress. This Gawain, after falling in love with Lorie and also seeing Guinevere’s betrayal of Arthur, allows her one kiss each day and no more.
Arthur: We see a lot more of him in this book. His wry, understated sense of humor is fully on display, as is his humanity. Here we get to see him as a man as he grieves over Guinevere’s betrayal but stands back and lets her make her own choices. He grieves just as deeply over losing Gawain, and rejoices all the much more when Gawain returns alive. He also sneaks out under the guise of praying at a monastery in order the cathartically defeat knights while in disguise.
Guinevere: The quote above from Ganscotter about the rules of love pretty much sums her up. She feels affection for Arthur but finds what Lancelot offers much more attractive and a safer option. By the end we get to see her spine, though, as she finally, and firmly, rejects Lancelot in favor of Arthur.
Lancelot: So Gerald Morris takes the track of making Lancelot perfect at everything, but in his version of the story that’s not a good thing. Yes, he lives up to the hype but we the readers know Gawain is still superior because he’s had to work to develop his human side in addition to his great fighting skills. Lancelot in this book is just sort of this idiotic polished robot who goes around doing everything right and still not quite getting it. Like when he gives Gawain that shield, not only totally missing that Gawain is not religious but also that the painting of the Virgin Mary inside it is actually the Stripteaser Mary. Or if he does notice, he doesn’t let on.
Kai: Kai kind of stays in the background, though he sides with Gawain against Lancelot taking the court by storm.
Morgan: She appears twice at the beginning of the story and once at the end but doesn’t play much of a role. We get the most direct of several strong hints throughout the series that she is in love with Arthur herself but because they are brother and sister she can never act on her feelings.
King Ban of Benoic: A minor character early on. He is on a state visit to Arthur when the messengers from the fake Emperor of Rome come to make their demands. The pair quickly decide to band together to fight this common enemy, though it was clear they were on pretty good terms before the whole thing started.
Sir Bercilak/The Green Knight: At least in this version Sir Bercilak just pretends to be stupid, not abusive, as happens in Camelot’s Shadow. As in the poem, he is testing Gawain’s faithfulness to his promises, instead of just wanting to behead him in a game as Gawain believes.
Lady Marion (Lady Bertilak): She is part of Gawain’s test, and her role is exactly as described in the Green Knight poem, first trying to seduce Gawain and then testing whether he will give away a magic girdle that can save him from the Green Knight. Gawain describes her as witty and much brighter than Guinevere, and she appears to be friendly and courteous.
Parsifal (Pericval): Gawain and Terence meet him just after they cross into the Other World. He asks Gawain many questions about being a knight, and the pair of them wrestle. He is shown to already be a match for Gawain in hand-to-hand fighting. He states his intentions of one day becoming a knight himself.
Bedivere, Ywain, Tor, Marhault (Morholt), Gaheris, Agrivain, Tristram (Tristan), Iseult (Isolde), Mark, and Gawain’s love interest Lorie (Ragnell) are mentioned or make brief cameo appearances.
I dearly love this story as it tries to tackle complex issues like faithfulness, love, and honor in a way young adults (who are the primary audience) will understand. The characters have really come into their own. My only slight complaint is the story drags a little in the middle, but it is all such a fast read it’s almost unnoticeable.