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.
So a bit of background before my review begins. I was one of the ones who lobbied hard for Story to read this series back when we were in college and I am eager to join her on her read-through. I discovered these books at my local library back when I was fourteen. Only the first two books were published then, The Squire’s Tale and The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady. I was a casual YA fantasy reader, and Arthurian fantasy was as good as any other. It was also about this time that I discovered and read T.A. Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin series, Jane Yolen’s Sword of the Rightful King, and a few other Arthurian titles. I even gave The Once and Future King a try, and gave up in disgust after reading Book 1. If all Arthurian readers had back in the mid twentieth century were that and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, well…let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t alive then.
But I digress. Anyway, long story short I fell in love with this series. I eagerly waited for each new installment to be published all the way through high school, college, and beyond until the series wrapped up with Legend of the King in 2010. Gerald Morris has had a profound impact on my worldview in general. Along with J.K. Rowling, Tamora Pierce and Diane Duane, he was one of the most important authors to me during my formative high school years. He views life with such wisdom and humor. He made my journey through classic medieval works like The Canterbury Tales (from which the series takes its title) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight enjoyable, because I felt like I knew secrets about the characters my bored classmates could never guess at. Just so you’re aware, I might be a bit biased in my reviews of some of my favorite Squire’s Tales, as they rank among my all-time favorite books. I don’t like all of them, and I will try to be as honest as possible and not just view them through my nostalgic rose-colored glasses.
On to the review!
Wait, one last thing: I have always wondered what was up with this cover. Having read the book, the scenario on the cover never comes close to occurring so I’m not sure what the heck the publishers were thinking on this one. I guess they wanted to indicate this is a humorous tale full of misadventure and folly…who knows. The reprint cover that is currently available through Amazon is way better in every aspect.
Warning for Spoilers
Morris has made the choice of setting his tales when the legends were first recorded—the thirteenth century or so—not when the events supposedly took place immediately post-Rome. This is the world of the great medieval epics: Malory, de Troyes, Chaucer, and so on. Yes, we know quite a bit about what was actually going on in history during this time. King Richard the Lionheart was on the throne of England. The Crusades were in full force. France was the largest and most powerful country in the West. Christianity ruled Europe with an iron first. But all that is set aside in Morris’s universe. We are wholly immersed in an Arthurian version of this High Medieval world, and it feels a comfortable fit because, as I said, this is when the stories were recorded. Morris takes this opportunity to make his stories into commentary, in a subtle way, about the ballads themselves and how heroic tales are told to suit their audience. Thus, at the end of his adventures in this first book, Sir Gawain tells three different versions to three different sets of listeners: the unvarnished version, the clipped summary, and the full courtly epic tale that still manages to leave certain aspects out.
Into this world steps Terence, an original character introduced by Morris. In a later book’s commentary Morris will justify introducing original characters into these well-known legends because, hey, Malory did it with abandon whenever he needed to. Morris uses these new (or obscure in some cases) characters as our vehicles into the legends he is retelling. Terence is Gawain’s squire, though he meets Gawain before the latter even becomes a knight. As he is getting his introduction into the golden age of knights and chivalry, so are we, the readers. This is a coming-of-age story for Terence as much as it is Gawain as the two get a handle on their growing prowess and magical powers, as well as their relationships. An origin story for a pair of superheroes, if you will, although one of them plays the sidekick even as he learns that in many ways he is the equal of his “master”. The pair go on several sets of smaller adventures together in this book, either alone or accompanied by other characters, and each “adventure” based on a section of Malory. The final result is a very episodic story with two separate climaxes: Gawain’s final test to become the Maiden’s Knight, and Terence’s confrontation with Morgause that culminates in him learning the true identity of his parents. Both were built up piece by piece through the smaller adventures.
This was my first introduction to the idea that there were stories out there about people in Camelot other than Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and Morgan le Fay and a couple other random knights. Morris digs deep into Malory and comes up with some pretty obscure tales that I wasn’t even aware were part of the Arthurian mythos. Since I haven’t read any other retellings of these stories, I will not include these characters in the list below because I have nothing to compare them to.
We meet Terence as a young teenager who has grown up the orphan ward of a religious hermit. He is not unlike several other Arthurian heroes who are raised away from the rest of the world and are total innocents in the ways of knights and chivalry. He encounters Gawain, a young man already skilled at the knightly arts but who has not yet been officially knighted by his uncle King Arthur. Magic is simply a part of Terence’s life from the beginning: his foster-father sees time backwards, so he sees the future with perfect accuracy while remembering almost nothing about the past. Gawain has also grown up comfortable with magic, though he is wary of its uses, as his mother and aunt are both sorceresses of dubious character.
On their way to Camelot, Gawain and Terence meet Tor. Unlike Gawain, Tor is not from a noble family but still dreams of becoming a knight. The pair are introduced to Arthur, Sir Kai, and the rest of Arthur’s early court, including Sir Griflet, aka The Running Joke. Remember him; he pops up in just about every book in some way. Arthur knights Gawain, as Gawain has already performed a heroic deed, but refuses to knight Tor until the latter proves himself. It turns out there is a war starting, during which Tor has his chance. Gawain, Terence and Kai also have a major part in the victory.
Camelot enters a time of peace (and relative boredom for our main cast) until Arthur decides to marry. At the wedding feast, a giant white deer chased by an equally enormous white hound interrupt by running around the hall and wrecking stuff. The Loathly Lady also appears and demands that two knights be sent out on an adventure, one to chase the deer and the other to chase the hound. Tor and Gawain are chosen. Gawain and the Lady exchange witty banter before she disappears to parts unknown.
Here begins the series of adventures, mostly directly from Malory with Morris’s personal twist to make them relevant to the overall narrative. Eventually Tor is separated from Gawain and Terence and the two encounter knights and ladies of all kinds—good, bad, foolish, smart, and all points in between. Finally they are led by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, to the castle of Ganscotter the Enchanter in the Other World, the world of Faeries. They discover that the Loathly Lady is Ganscotter’s daughter Lorie. In the classic Loathly Lady style, she offers Gawain a choice between a beautiful appearance and an ugly appearance, although there was no riddle and there’s no caveat about night and day. Gawain gives her the choice and of course she picks being beautiful. Terence and Gawain are immediately sent back to the World of Men.
They return, disheartened, to Camelot to find Arthur slowly dying of some unknown force. Merlin has left with Nimue and no longer protects Arthur. Terence, who has been receiving hints all through their journey about a woman brewing trouble for Arthur, follows his instincts and leads himself and Gawain to where Morgause has been hiding. They do battle with her and win pretty easily—Terence doesn’t even have to talk much before he’s distracted her enough to disrupt the spell she’s casting on Arthur. Terence discovers his father is Ganscotter—he had earlier learned that his mother was mortal and died when he was a baby—and is offered the choice to return for good to the World of Faeries. He of course turns it down, setting the stage for more magical adventures.
Gawain: This is my favorite incarnation of Gawain, hands down. He (and Gaheris later) are incredibly witty and hilarious. I had forgotten, however, that this is him just starting out. While he’s already good at the fighting stuff, he still hasn’t figured out, um, everything else. This is his womanizing period, when he comes as close to Malory’s Gawain as Morris will ever write him. Terence doesn’t care a jot who his master sleeps with, but it’s pretty heavily implied that Gawain gets around quite a bit while they’re in Camelot after the war. Gawain is young, and has a pretty fierce temper. He does some stuff he seriously regrets when he loses it, some of it stuff he’ll go on regretting pretty much the rest of his life. However, unlike Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May Gwalchmai, he doesn’t let his regrets get him down for long. He doesn’t suffer fools well and is luckily a good enough fighter to give idiots a taste of defeat pretty quickly. He becomes the Maiden’s Knight by gaining the understanding that women are not all the same, and that they should be allowed to interpret themselves as they choose. He and Terence develop an extremely close relationship by the end of the book. There are a few random remarks made here and there that almost lead me to think that there might be whispered rumors at court that the pair of them are lovers. This might be me misinterpreting those remarks, however, as it’s never explored.
Lorie (Ragnell): The Loathly Lady plot is pretty downplayed in this book. It happens almost like an afterthought at the end. Lorie appears at the wedding banquet to issue her challenge, and it’s hard to tell whether she and Gawain are attracted to each other or are actually tossing insults. Classic romantic comedy move, I guess. But then they don’t meet up again until the very end. Lots of other people in this book are attracted to each other fairly quickly and the veracity and staying power of these sudden attractions is never explored. It’s just, they’re in love, and that’s that. The same thing happens with Gawain and Lorie at the end of this book. Lorie herself is more like a prize than an actual character. We get no background on why she’s ugly or why she needs Gawain’s love in order to appear beautiful. For all we know, she can transform back and forth at will and she was just using the ability to test Gawain. I love the Loathly Lady story, as you all probably know by now, and it is an odd choice of Morris’s to downplay it when it’s one of the two most famous stories with Gawain at its center.
Arthur: A background character but an awesome and wise king. He is gracious and diplomatic. He also possesses a very wry sense of humor, tempered by his determination not to give insult (as opposed to Gawain or Kai, who just snort and call someone an idiot to their face). Speaking of Kai…
Kai: Arthur’s foster-brother. He is also a lot of fun. He has even less patience for fools than Gawain. In his traditional role of the seneschal of Camelot, he is pretty much the organized one that makes sure everything gets done.
Morgan: Gawain’s aunt and basically an agent of chaos. She is not wholly bad—listening to her and Gawain good-naturedly insult one another about their age (they’re only a year apart) is a highlight of this book—but she is capable of cursing anyone at a moment’s notice. While a powerful enchantress, she is not associated with the Seelie or Unseelie Courts of the Faeries. In essentials, she follows her own rulebook and it’s best to just do what she says and get out of her way.
Nimue: The Lady of the Lake. She appears to help guide Terence and Gawain for a short time and is a servant of Lorie while obviously quite powerful in her own right. This is one of the best incarnations of Nimue, as she is kind but can bring even stubborn men like Gawain around to her way of thinking in a few words. She gives Gawain a magic sword similar to Arthur’s Excalibur towards the end of the book.
Morgause: Since it’s not Morgan, the job of being the Ultimate Evil has to fall to her. The entity in the background plotting against Arthur, Ganscotter explains that she is the current incarnation of the Enchantress and her goal is, of course, world domination (when isn’t it?). She is obviously much older than her sister Morgan as Gawain, Morgause’s eldest son, is only a year younger than Morgan. Where Arthur falls in this continuum I am not sure because Gawain is described as being only about twenty and I doubt Arthur is younger than Gawain. One thing Morris is really terrible at is keeping track of how old characters are in comparison to one another, complicated by the bizarre time vortexes that moving back and forth between the World of Men and the Other World create. It’s not so bad in this book—Gawain and Terence only lose about three months in their one night in Ganscotter’s castle, but it gets way worse as the series progresses.
Merlin: Pretty much a nonentity. One gets the sense Morris included him because it was expected in an Arthurian story and not because he particularly wanted to. He disappears with Nimue while Terence and Gawain are gone adventuring and does not appear again for the entirety of the series. We get about two hints as to his fate in nine more books. Talk about taking Merlin out of the equation. Just, there for a second, then, boom…gone for good.
Sir Griflet: He is the epitome of a foppish knight who only cares about fine clothes and the latest fashions and not about honor or chivalry or any of the other stuff knights are supposed to care about. I only bring him up because at least one character makes fun of him in just about every book in this series to the point where it’s basically a running gag. He is Morris’s shining example of what not to be like.
This book is an odd mixture of a launching pad for a series and a book that could have potentially stood by itself, as most first books do since no one knows if there will be enough interest for a sequel to be published. Gawain and Terence both sort of come into their own as they each discover something important about themselves. Morris seems to be taking his narrative structure from the medieval romances with random stuff just kind of popping out of nowhere as people travel along. Small plots come and go pretty quickly and the whole thing is fairly choppy. However, Morris’s trademark humor is displayed to good advantage throughout and the two main characters are definitely worth rooting for. This is the one that started it all and it was interesting to see again where some of the running themes in the series had their origin.