|Title: The Ballad of Sir Dinadan|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Young Dinadan has no wish to joust or quest or save damsels in distress or do any of the knightly things expected of him. He’d rather be a minstrel, playing his rebec and writing ballads. But he was born to be a knight, and knights, of course, have adventures.
So after his father forces his knighthood upon him, he wanders towards King Arthur’s court, in the company of a misguided Welsh lad named Culloch. There Dinadan meets Sir Kai and Bedivere, and the three find themselves accompanying Culloch on the worst sort of quest.
Along the way, Dinadan writes his own ballads, singing of honor, bravery, loyalty, and courtly love—and becomes a player in the pathetic love story of Tristam and Iseult. He meets the Moorish knight Palomides, the clever but often exasperating Lady Brangienne, and an elven musician named Sylvanus, along with the usual collection of recreant knights and dimwitted defenders of chivalry. He learns that while minstrels sing of spectacular, heroic deeds, honor is often found in simpler, quieter ways.
It should be said that when I was initially reading through this series, this was my least favorite by far. But I was determined to do this reread with an open mind. I enjoyed it far more this time around, until I got to the end and remembered why my overall impression was one of dislike.
I actually don’t mind the old cover on this one, and the new cover is surprisingly similar.
This book interweaves the telling of two Arthurian tales: Tristan and Isolde, and Culloch and Olwen. Tristan and Isolde (here Tristram and Iseult, two of various ways to spell the doomed lovers’ names), of course, is the more widely known, possibly because of its parallels to the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. We see it all through the eyes of Sir Dinadan, a minor knight known in legend for being musical and occasionally accompanying Tristan. Dinadan here is Tristram’s younger brother, and is one of the knights who accompany Culloch on his quest to win Olwen (which starts out in this book because Culloch wants to become a Knight of the Round Table rather than the result of a curse). Olwen’s father is an ordinary man, not an ogre.
This story is a midquel of sorts, the only one in the series not to advance the main narrative temporally. It begins during the years Gawain and Terence are in the Other World in The Squire, His Knight and His Lady and ends sometime before Parsifal’s Page. From previous books, we've already gotten some hints about the plot. A recap:
· Tristram killed Marhault
· Tristram and Iseult are irrevocably in love (lust) due to a love potion meant for Iseult and Mark
· Palomides is one of the best swordsman in England along with Gawain, Lancelot and Gareth
· Dinadan is not good at the knightly arts and has a bit of a strong prejudice against the fairer sex. He thinks all women are liars and treacherous backstabbers
There are two major themes at work in this book. The first is one Morris has touched on before: the difference between the legends/ballads of great deeds and what actually happened, whether things were more unbelievable or more mundane than the legend. The second is the awful things that happen in the name of love but are really petty, selfish and cruel. Like Parsifal’s Page, this book is also divided roughly into two parts. We open with Dinadan, the younger son of a nobleman who wants to be a minstrel. But that is not a life for the sons of nobles (Gillian Bradshaw’s Gwalchmai faces a similar problem). When his father knights him in a drunken fit of trying to make his “namby-pamby” son a “man”, Dinadan takes this as an excuse to leave. He falls afoul of a plot by a lady and a knight to steal another man’s lands. Finding the truth to be far from what the lady had made him believe, he goes back to confront the pair. In the ensuing scuffle he accidentally kills the knight and the lady accidentally kills herself. Dinadan writes a heroic song about the mishap, turning it into a fine and tragic tale. He falls in with a would-be knight named Culloch, and when the pair reach Camelot they discover the tale of Dinadan’s “heroism” has preceded them. Dinadan becomes a Knight of the Round Table, while Culloch is sent to do a great deed and earn knighthood. Sirs Kai and Bedivere accompany them.
Culloch soon hears of a king who has announced a series of tasks. The man who completes them will win the king’s daughter Olwen as his bride. Culloch declares he will take on the tasks over the objections of his fellow travelers. The tasks turn out to be stupid, and Culloch cheats at all of them. Dinadan uses the time questing to learn more about what his brother Tristram has been up to: namely, being the biggest idiot the world has ever known. Dinadan also meets several times with the fugitive Lady Brangienne, Iseult’s former best friend who was involved in the whole love potion thing. Now Tristram and Iseult want her dead so no one else can know about the potion. For awhile she hides out as a lady-in-waiting to Olwen. Kai, Bedivere and Dinadan give up on Culloch and go back to Camelot.
Several years pass, marking the beginning of Part Two. Dinadan is out questing when he runs into Palomides, a Moorish knight visiting from Jerusalem to learn the ways of English knights. They set off together to meet the famous knights Palomides has heard so much about. Unluckily for them, the knights they run into are morons like Tristram and Culloch. The pair have several adventures together while they search for good knights for Palomides to meet. Eventually, Palomides returns to Jerusalem. Dinadan runs into Tristram again. This is about where the book goes downhill for me, so disgusted am I by the awfulness of what follows. Dinadan determines to take Tristram back to their home, but Tristram steals a lyre given to Dinadan as a present and goes racing back to Cornwall in disguise as the minstrel “Tramtris”. (Great name, isn't it? Really shows what Tristram can do when he gets inspired) Dinadan gets his lyre back, but “Tramtris” and Iseult escape together and spend a blissful, if short, amount of time cavorting about a cave they've shipped a whole bunch of furniture to with some sort of vague plan to spend the rest of their lives playing house there. Since they’re about five minutes from Tintagel it doesn't take long for Mark to find them. Mark imprisons Iseult in a tower in Tintagel. Tristram, like a gnat drawn to a fluorescent light, sneaks back in yet again. Dinadan arrives in time to helplessly watch as Mark kills Tristram. Iseult in her shock accidentally falls out the tower window and dies. This whole plot is so sickening with how absolutely pitiful and pointless the situation is that even though it makes sense character-wise it’s hard to read. Dinadan goes to tell Brangienne, who has moved to hiding in a convent and is very content there. He asks if she’d like to marry him, and she turns him down, to both of their relief even though they agree they can’t imagine marrying anyone else. The book ends with Dinadan singing a song about the unending love of friendship.
Dinadan: I admit I find Dinadan’s attitude about women puzzling at the very least. I mean, he is deceived by one woman due to his ability to think with only one head at a time and concludes from this experience all women are treacherous shrews. How the heck is he generalizing like this from one experience? If he’d met more women who were mean to him, like Gaheris in Savage Damsel, I’d sort of understand where he’s coming from. I’d even get it if he thought all beautiful women were out for something since the woman used her beauty as a weapon. But the first woman he sees while out adventuring deceives him and from then on all women are clearly evil? Wow, that’s shallow. Which I don’t buy, because the rest of the time Dinadan’s pretty perceptive. He seems to have softened by the end of Part One, since he helps a woman and her children get away from an abusive husband. In Part Two he’s occupied with avoiding Tristram and helping Palomides, so nasty opinions about women go to the wayside. I felt bad for him, stuck with an uncaring father and Tristram as a brother. Tristram never recognizes him or even remembers his name. In the end Dinadan has seen so much of the bad side of love and lust that he’s relieved when his soulmate turns down his marriage proposal.
Brangienne (Bragwaine): Iseult’s sharp-tongued former chief lady who eventually becomes a nun content with her life in a secluded convent. I didn't consider this in the first go-round with this book, but upon a second read I suspect she might have been in love with Marhault. Which may account for her and Dinadan not getting together at the end of the book as I originally expected. Morris pulls this last minute “let’s just be friends” stunt again later in the series, but I was more prepared for it the second time and it bothered me less. In this read-through, it also didn't bother me once I latched on to the theory that Brangienne still mourns Marhault. Or she may be asexual and content with a platonic relationship with Dinadan, an explanation I can also accept. Last time I read this book I had no idea what asexuality was. But either way I feel much better about the conclusion to Dinadan and Brangienne’s relationship this time around even though it still feels a little abrupt.
Tristram (Tristan): Tristram and Iseult are my least favorite characters in all of the Morrisverse. Morris has made these two characters disgustingly pathetic to a level I don’t think he ever sinks to again. It’s obvious he doesn't like them and finds their vaunted “romance” an utter sham. With his Guinevere and Lancelot, they each finally sort out their priorities. Even moronic Gareth has some redeeming qualities: he’s loyal to a vow he took, and his devotion to Lancelot’s memory speaks to some shade of moral character even if it is misguided. Tristram can’t even do that, and his loyalty to Iseult was created falsely by drinking a love potion. Even before he took the potion, he killed Marhault from behind when Marhault had already spared his life. This is the kind of despicable human being we’re dealing with. Tristram is also so mind-shatteringly dumb that little moments like this one are par for the course:
(Scene: Tintagel dining hall. Dinadan and Palomides have asked to speak to Iseult privately, pgs 170-171)
Mark: No one speaks to my wife without my permission!
Tristram: (completely serious): Here’s a solution that will make everyone happy. Why don’t these knights give their message to me, and then I’ll tell Iseult later, when we’re alone.
Yeah. Cue reader facepalm or headdesk. I really, really dislike this guy. It’s hard even to feel sorry for him in his few lucid moments where he’s reflecting on where his life went wrong.
Culloch: A foolish would-be knight who thinks doing stupid tasks to win a bride will make him a worthy knight. His legend is similar to a Greek myth or a fairy tale where a hero or heroine has to perform impossible tasks in order to win their true love. Morris takes this and shows how pointless just doing random tasks that have nothing to do with your eventual goal in order to prove your worth really is.
Olwen: Culloch’s eventual wife. She doesn't play much of a role other than punching Culloch and storming out when he falls asleep at their wedding. Isbaddadon says her vows for her, somewhat appropriate since he and Culloch are better matched. Brangienne claims she’s not very pleasant, but we never see it so it’s difficult not to simply pity her for being stuck with Culloch and Isbaddadon. I’d be bad-tempered too if I were trapped with these two men in my life.
Isbaddadon: Olwen’s father, whose name, I believe, is pronounced Isbathadon (a double d in Welsh is a –th sound), he and Culloch seem two of a kind. Both are not too bright and enjoy eating more than anything else.
Iseult (Isolde): We don’t meet Iseult in person until Part Two, but we hear a lot about her before then from Tristram and others. She is obviously smarter than Tristram, and extremely manipulative and conniving. It’s probably down to her that Mark doesn't figure out what she has going on with Tristram when the entire rest of the country knows. Dinadan finds her so pathetic that he doesn't even use all the terrible stuff she does as more proof that women are evil. Her death scene, where she ends up lying broken like a matchstick next to the impaled Tristan, is one of the hardest things I've ever read and is the main reason I didn't read this book again. And I probably won’t for a long, long time, much as I enjoyed the rest of it.
Palomides: A Moorish knight from Palestine. Yes, that means he’s black. No, Morris did not make him up. And to those who say “there were no black knights in Arthurian England!” I say: go do some research. Who do you think the crusaders like Richard the Lionheart were fighting? Who ruled the Iberian peninsula during this time period and gave us all those beautiful mosaic palaces? North African Muslims, folks. They were the equals in combat with all the fancy knights in shiny armor tramping through Europe to “reclaim” the Holy Land. And remember, Morris’s universe is set in the thirteenth century when Arthurian legends were recorded. He is perfectly correct in putting African knights into this context. Morris also goes out of his way to point out that Palomides is a better knight both in skill and honor than most of the knights Dinadan meets. He holds up particularly well when compared with pathetic Tristram.
Kai: This is the most we've seen of him in a book thus far. He goes along on Culloch’s quest to keep an eye on Bedivere and is extremely irritated at all the foolish things Culloch does. He does come to respect Dinadan even though Dinadan’s not much of a fighter.
Bedivere: This is our first look at Bedivere in Morris’s books, though he was mentioned at least once before. He is extremely humble, soft-spoken, and optimistic. He is Kai’s foil, and the pair are close friends. Luckily for him, in this version he’s not missing a hand.
Mark: Yet another crazy old Mark portrayal, a man already cruel and kind of nuts but driven even more insane by Iseult constantly and obviously betraying him with Tristram. He reminds me of the duke from Moulin Rouge in the part where he screams “It’s not that I’m a jealous man…I just don’t like other people touching my things!!!” In all the versions of Mark I've read, there has been only one remotely positive portrayal, and he never actually appeared because he’d been dead for a thousand years (Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone). Arthurian authors just don’t like Mark for some reason, even if they don’t like Tristan and Isolde, either.
Lamorak: He makes a few appearances, randomly fighting Tristram over whose lady is more beautiful (said ladies are never present for comparison). The only reason I didn't put him as a cameo is the role he plays in reintroducing Morgause. I missed this entirely the first time I read it back in high school, but having now read The Wicked Day I know that Lamorak is Morgause’s lover. Lamorak in this version constantly makes references to his love, a faery women who is never named. The woman herself appears in Tintagel after using a magical drinking horn to publicly reveal Iseult’s infidelity. This is the first proof positive that Morgause is still alive after her defeat at Terence’s hands in Squire’s Tale, but if you weren't familiar with the original stories it might have gone over your head as it did mine. No reference is made as to why Morgause might want to cause chaos at Tintagel. I guess just because she likes doing that kind of stuff, even though Tristram was doing very well exposing the affair on his own.
Arthur, Gaheris, Lynet, Gawain, Lancelot and Morgause are mentioned or make cameo appearances. Marhault is mentioned a lot but he’s already dead by the time the book begins. Poor Marhault. I liked him in Squire’s Tale. Speaking of The Squire, this is the first of the Tales with no Terence or Gawain. This probably contributed to my initial dislike of it.
I like the first three quarters of this book more than I did on the initial read-through. Dinadan is much more likable and relatable than Piers, and it was nice to see more of Kai and meet the awesomeness that is Bedivere and Palomides. But I just can’t stand Tristram and Iseult. They’re not even tragic, they’re so pathetic. But I do have to give props to Morris for purposely making me feel this level of disgust about literary characters.