|Title: The Ballad of Sir Dinadan|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Sandpiper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Dinadan rode out the front gate of his father's home, promising himself that he would never again enter those walls.
Young Dinadan has no wish to do any of the knightly things expected of him. But he was born to be a knight, and knights, of course, have adventures. So after his father forces knighthood upon him, he wanders toward King Arthur's court in the company of a misguided young lad named Culloch. There Dinadan meets Sir Kai and Sir Bedivere, and the three find themselves accompanying Culloch on the worst sort of quest. Along the way, Dinadan learns that though minstrels sing of spectacular heroic deeds, honor is often found in simpler, quieter ways.
Okay, so regardless of what the blurb on the back of the book says, anyone who knows their Arthurian lore knows by the name of the main character that this is Gerald Morris' taken on the timeless love story of Tristan and Isolde (I don't even know what's going on with you, book blurb. You're missing half the plot!).
Warning for Spoilers
The Last Time I Read this Book
I enjoyed this book the last time I read it. There's a lot of good stuff going on here that make it a fun read. Dinadan, as always, is a wonderful character. He has a long history of being the straight man in a crowd of weirdos, so it's no surprise that Morris picked him as POV character in this book. There's no romance for Dinadan in this series, just the most wonderful friendship ever, which is a nice change of pace. There are some really wacky takes on the Culhwch and Olwen and Tristan and Isolde stories that I can't help but be fascinated with.
This time... the parts that are good shine brightly. And it's a solid tale without depressing mid-section that dragged down Parsifal's Page. But I often found myself wondering why on earth Morris decided to make some of the choices he did in this book. Choice which I feel tarnished an otherwise solid story. The good is really good and the bad makes me really uncomfortable. Thus I find myself somewhat conflicted.
Unlike the previous books, which have until now gone in chronological order, this book is a midquel. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when this book takes place. It's starts while Gawain is away in the otherworld, fighting the Green Knight and then ends sometime after he's returned (this story takes place over a period of years-- real years, not fairy years). Also, it's the first book where neither Gawain nor Terence appear. So it's really no stretch to say that this book is something completely different from what's come before it.
The two main tales in this story are the Culhwch and Olwen romance from the Mabinogion and the Tristan and Isolde romance. In the original Culhwch and Olwen romance, Culhwch is cursed so that he can only marry Olwen. Olwen's father, Ysbaddaden, won't concede to the wedding unless Culhwch completes a series of impossible tasks. In Morris's version, Culloch is a young man who wants to be a knight. While traveling with Bedivere (who has sworn to help Culloch become a knight) Kai, and Dinadan, Culloch hears about Isbaddadon's tasks for marrying off his daughter Olwen. Culloch is not that smitten with Olwen, nor she with him, but he enjoys 'Izzie's' feasts after he finishes every silly quest and is more that happy to continue. Bedivere, Kai and Dinadan eventually leave Culloch to this absurd challenge. But years later he his unhappily marrying Olwen.
The Tristram and Iseult story is much more straightforward. Basically these are two of the worst people imaginable. The story is less about their destructive affair than it is about Iseult's attempts to murder the one person who knows why she and Tristram are in love-- her former maid Lady Brangienne. This allows the focus of the story to remain firmly with Dinadan while at the same time exploring just how dangerous this sort of courtly love can be.
There's really not much to this plot. No enchantress to defeat, no life or death challenge to overcome, no castle to save or grail to find. It's a slower, meandering tale about a young man who is a jerk, and how he learns to be less of a jerk through being surrounded by a diverse cast of characters. That's literally it. That's not to say there isn't some adventure. Dinadan does save a lord from having his lands stolen almost immediately after setting out on his own. And near the end he helps a king reclaim his land from some usurping youngsters. But overall it's a softer tale. The moments that carry the most weight are not the big flashy battles between knights, but when Dinadan rescues a young woman and her children from her abusive husband or when he rides as hard as he can so he can warn Brangienne that Iseult knows where she's hiding. The ultimate conflict is not when Tristram and Iseult get themselves killed for their love, but when Dinadan stands up and finally tells Tristram that they're brothers after shying away from such an acknowledgement for most of the book. The plot may seem to meander from one hapless adventure to another with nothing stringing these events together, until you realize that Dinadan is stringing these events together. The importance is not with the deed itself, but what the deed says about Dinadan and how much he is growing. More so than any other book, this is his story. And the fact that it is so character focused and so different from the other books is part of the joy that comes along with reading it.
Throughout the previous four books, Morris has been wrestling with the theme of the reality of what happened vs. the story that is told. Oftentimes the reality is much more meaningful, but it doesn't fit into the box of the story people want to hear. To that end, Gawain often tweaks his tales so that they fits with what people what to hear even if it's not completely truthful and some of the meaning behind the reality is lost. The Ballad of Sir Dinadan is 242 pages (plus an author's note) exploring that theme to the bitter end. Dinadan is a minstrel at his heart-- he'd rather spin a good yarn than fight a battle. And big part of his journey is learning the power of stories. He learns he needs to be careful with what stories he tells about himself , lest he become far grander than he wants to be. He learn that he needs to be careful with how he tells stories about others-- not just because they may not appreciate it, but because you never know who is listening and those who know the truth may find the story to be painful to hear. He learns not to believe the tale and to always dig for the truth before trying his hand at creating the story. This book really looks at all aspects of that theme and plays them out in their various forms.
When you first meet Dinadan, you feel really sorry for him. He is the younger brother if Tristram, who already has the reputation of one of the greatest knights in the land. Like Gaheris in The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, Dinadan sucks at fighting. However, as his father can no longer stand the sight of him, Dinadan finds himself knighted by the drunkard who passes out soon after. Burning with embarrassment, Dinadan leaves home, vowing never to return. He promptly finds adventure. He meets a beautiful woman and her entourage. The woman claims that her lands have been stolen by a recreant knight. Smitten by her beauty, Dinada agrees to go slay the knight in single combat. On the way to the castle which the knight has stolen for his own, Dinadan meets a kindly old lord who is the real owner of the lands and learns that the beautiful woman he is so smitten with is actually the thief. Burning with anger, Dinadan rides back to her camp to confront her. He gets in a luck shot to kill her knight, and then the lady trips and falls on her own knife.
This is where you start to feel less sorry for Dinadan, as he is something of a sexist ass (a carryover from how his character was portrayed in the Savage Damsel and the Dwarf). Instead of thinking his treacherous lady was an individual person, he jumps to the hive vagina and assumes all women are wicked at heart. When he, Kai and Bedivere rescue Brangienne from Iseult's men, Dinadan cruelly torments her and makes up songs about how awful women are (as if the poor girl hadn't just gone through enough). But he reassess this really stupid position as he gets to know Brangienne, eventually rescuing a young woman and her children from her abusive husband. As the story continues on, you grow to like him again-- mostly for always playing the straight man, although he does have some moments that show the depths of his heart and his inherent goodness.
The story of Tristan and Isolde goes that while escorting Isolde to her wedding, Tristan and the future bride accidentally drank a love potion meant for Isolde and her husband, King Mark. I really wish that Morris had either cut this aspect of the legend or actually done something interesting with it. As it stands, Tristram and Iseult drank the potion and Brangienne saw (which is why Iseult wants to kill her). And... that's it. Tristram and Iseult are meant to be condemned for the destructiveness of their love when the existence of the love potion means they cannot help themselves. The skeeviness of the potion in the early stories are usually mitigated by it eventually wearing off and the two still being in love with each other, but that doesn't happen here. I suppose there's an argument to be made that Tristram and Iseult drank the love potion on purpose (it's possible to argue both ways, and since we never hear about this scene from Tristram or Iseult's perspective, it's impossible to know). So the book basically goes on and on and on about how we're to condemn this destructive love and I just can't because of the love potion. Since we never see either of these characters before they drink the potion, it's impossible to know how much the potion is affecting their actions. Brangienne talks about having a close relationship with Iseult before she took the potion, but then seemingly has no problem writing Iseult off as hardhearted and cruel when she tries to kill her. That Brangienne never considers the possibility that this is not Iseult anymore but the love potion makes me sad (Tristram goes mad when he is forced away from Iseult-- it's not a stretch that her cognitive ability has been affected as well). That there is no attempt to undo the affects of the potion to see who these two people truly are without it makes me sad. That the incredibly complicated consent issues surrounding the potion are never even addressed and that Tristram and Iseult are just written off as destructive and horrible instead of victims is really upsetting.
And, look, there is a way to tell this story to make this love destructive and to make these two characters horrible and I actually really like the idea of an Iseult who is cruel, cold and calculating instead of a kind and generous woman. I would love this story if it was not for the yucky consent issues surrounding the love potion. But I just can't get behind it completely as it stands right now. And it's just frustrating because it didn't even need the love potion-- it wouldn't have taken much to figure out another reason for why Iseult wanted Brangienne dead.
Also, this is a continuation of the critique I made in Savage Damsel and the Dwarf: there is a line between mocking characters for their silly actions and mocking characters for being mentally disabled. I thought Morris crossed that line with Gareth, and I think he crosses it here with Tristram too. Tristram has taken a vow of silence, but he still talks constantly (without seeming to notice) and is surprised when people respond to his speaking or know about his affair with Iseult when he had just blurted out ever sordid detail (and this is further compounded by not knowing how much of this is caused by the love potion). And it's disappointing because characters like Griflet and Lancelot prove that he doesn't need to resort to this sort of mockery
Brangienne was wonderful. She never hesitated to call out Dinadan on his shitty behavior. She's shrewd and knows what she needs to do in order to protect herself. It's so much fun to watch her and Dinadan go from two people who can barely stand each other to close confidant. It's even more wonderful when this relationship between them is reaffirmed as a close friendship and doesn't turn to romance. To see a man and woman in this sort of deep friendship without any romantic overtones is one of the most beautiful things ever and I love it.
Dinadan meets Culloch on his way to Arthur's court and while Culloch skirts close to the line of being mocked for his mental ability, I think in the end it's safe to say it's his actions that earn him the scorn of his comrades. He's never able to remember Dinadan's name, but Dinadan never seems to take issue or think less of Culloch for it. Instead, it's Culloch's willingness to get himself wrapped up in Isbaddadon's tasks when so many good people (Kai and Bedivere) believe he has it in him to make it as a knight at Arthur's table is where he earns the scorn of the others. At the end of the day, all Culloch wants is a good drink and a good meal to find happiness, and find it he does at Isbaddadon's castle. I'd find it difficult to begrudge him that it it weren't for...
Olwen. I hate what Morris did to Olwen here. Olwen is derided by Brangienne and Dinadan for being stupid and it definitely crosses that line because we never see Olwen do anything (Brangienne does talk about how difficult it is to be a maid to her, but that may just be Brangienne being fed up with the whole thing). She's mocked for having a hardy appetite like her father and Culloch. She's mocked for talking about Culloch as though he were her gallant lover, even though Brangienne points out that she really has no choice if she's going to save face. When Olwen finally loses it at her wedding when both her father and her husband turn up hungover, slaps them both and storms out, all anyone can thing of is mocking the two men. No one pauses to consider how Olwen, like Tristram and Iseult, might be a victim of something beyond he control. They just leave her to her fate.
Isbaddadon likes his food and drink as much as Culloch. He has a short temper and is fairly rude (he tried to kill someone at the dinner table). He either really doesn't want to marry off his daughter or enjoys tormenting knights as entertainment. He spends years sending Culloch on silly quest after silly quest before finally either giving in or running out of ideas.
Bedivere is awesome. He is the all around good guy of this book. He sees potential in Culloch and swears and oath to travel with Culloch until he either achieves knighthood or gives up seeking it. Bedivere goes into each and every quest hopeful that it will actually be something useful and always ends up devastated that it was just a silly errand. Finally he declares that if Culloch is going to continue to go out on Isbaddadon's quests, he has given up on knighthood and they part ways. Bedivere shows up again at the end of the book and drags Dinadan off to Culloch's wedding. Once again, he is hopeful that this is something worth doing. After the wedding, he apologizes profusely to Dinadan for being so wrong. My one complaint with Bedivere is that neither he (nor Kai) called out Dinadan's more sexist attitudes. I expected better of them, especially with Brangienne standing right there.
Kai is awesome! Kai loves his idealistic younger cousin against his better judgement and after Bedivere makes his oath to Culloch, Kai asks Arthur for leave of Camelot to keep his cousin form making another stupid oath. He gripes and grumbles his whole way through Culloch's tests, but mostly leaves it to Bedivere to do the thinking and explaining and the find because it's all Bedivere's fault.
In the original Culhwch and Olwen myth, Mabon, son of Modron, is an enchanter who was abducted as a child and who Culhwch needs to aid him in the tasks. Culhwch and Arthur's knights inquire with several animals as to the location of Mabon and eventually the salmon tells them (Heather Dale has a fantastic rendition of this part of the story). In The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, Modron is a merchant known for abusing his wives and children. Furious at how Modron treats his family, Dinadan plays a song and manages to call animals and fairies to him and a fox leads him to Mabon. Modron's first wife fled with the boy, but died in the forest. Her son was taken in by an elderly couple and lives a happy life. Dinadan goes back to Modron to rescue the man's current wife and children and takes them to live in the forest with the elderly couple and Mabon. I love this part of the book and the growth it shows in Dinadan's character and how Morris twisted the legend around (although I must call bullshit here because Modron was Mabon's mother in the original legend and reaffirming it so this character is known as the son of his father instead of his mother is super problematic).
After leaving Culloch to his own devices, Dinadan meets a new traveling companion in Palomides. The Moorish knight has come to Britain to learn the ways of knighthood after meeting some of Arthur's knights in Jerusalem. They promptly stumble upon Lamorak and Tristram fighting over whose lady is fairer and Palomides is horrified. He tries to convince Tristram to give up his love for Iseult and you can imagine how well that goes. Palomides is also baffled by the idea that the purpose of knighthood is to serve woman and Dinadan has to assure him that this is a silly notion held only by the French knights and that Arthur commands his knights to help all people. The two eventually make their way to Cornwall, after first having been stopped by Lamorak, who gives them a silver drinking horn to give to Iseult as a gift from his fairy lover (guess who this is). This sets off a well known story from early Tristan and Isolde romances where Morgan tries to send a chastity horn to Guinevere (if the drinker is unfaithful, the contents of the horn will spill all over them), but Lamorak steals it and sends it to Isolde instead in an attempt to disgrace Tristan (like here, the two had been fighting over whose love was more beautiful). Here the drink spills all over Iseult, throwing Mark into a fury. It's his intent to have every woman in his castle attempt to drink from the cup. Palomides takes the cup and states that he will only allow that if the men attempt to drink first. When everyone freezes, Palomides destroys the cup.
Palomides and Dinadan travel around Britain and eventually help a king retrieve his lands from some young usurpers. When that is finished, Palomides decides to return to his homeland as he has learned everything he wished to from Dinadan. I'm of two minds on this. First off, it proves Palomides to be the most sensible character we have met in this series so far as he is more than happy to take is leave of Britain instead of sticking around and trying to reform the more foolish and foopish knights. However, this is the most famous knight who is a POC and the first POC we have seen in Morris' books so far. And this well known, well respected and well regarded knight is worth... one half a book. It's disappointing to say the least that Palomides is so quickly shuffled off screen in such a way that the chances of him coming back are extremely unlikely.
Lamorak is a knight who often crosses paths with Tristram. As both believe they are in love with the most beautiful woman in the land, they of course find themselves in deadly combat. These fights are never decided as Lamorak's fairy lady often rushes into save him before he and Tristram can get too far along. While Lamorak's lady is never named... I'm putting my money on Morgause. Mostly because Morgause is traditionally the lover of Lamorak, so there's that. But someone is also about to make a reappearance in a big way, and it makes sense to remind the readers of her cruelty and wickedness before reintroducing her as a villain (you'll remember I wanted Morris to also do this in the last book).
Hermance/Hermind/Helius/Helake: While I am bummed that Palomides did not get his confrontation with the Questing Beast in this book, I am glad that Morris managed to sneak in this tale of the knight's glory. The story Morris tells is pretty close to how it appears in Malory and Prose Tristan. King Hermance (Armant) is killed by Helius and Helake (Helyus and Helake), two orphan boys he brought in and raised as his own. In the original, Armant was the ruler of an island, and his close friends bore his body to the mainland where they met Palomides. Here the young men throw Hermance's body in the river where his brother, Hermind (Marin), finds him and is later found by Palomides and Dinadan. The two agree to help Hermance overthrow the two men. Palomides slays one brother and Dinadan pushes the other out the window (and goes with him). Having won the day, they leave Hermind to his kingdom and part ways.
Arthur shows up at the beginning to knight Dinadan. He is quick to do so, having heard the tale of how Dinadan saved a lord from having his land stolen. After listening to Dinadan stammer about how the story doesn't match with reality, Arthur knows he's got a keeper. Gaheris pops up in the middle to make friends with Dinadan while Tristram and Lamorak are fighting and helps Dinadan out with one of Culloch's quests. We finally hear the whole story of what happened to poor Marhault and how Mark tricked Tristram into killing him after Marhault fairly won the fight. Thus we continue feeling really bad for the poor guy from book one. Mark is caught in the center of Iseult and Tristram's destructive love, but does nothing to make it better. He seems to feed into Iseult's need to control people. I really don't know what to make of him collapsing to the ground sobbing after Tristram and Iseult run away. He kills Tristram at the end of the book and Iseult falls out a window a second later.
I've been thinking about this long and hard and overall, despite all it's flaws and the problems I have with it, I like this book. It's an easier, more enjoyable read than Parsifal's Page and has better pacing, but it's not quite at the level of the first three Morris books. But it does some really cool stuff with the theme Morris has been playing with through all previous books and it's a nice breather before we dive into the second half of the series. Again, I wish I did half stars. But I don't and since I'm inclined to be generous with this book, 4 stars.
Next up: SARAH!!!!!!