|Title: The Quest of the Fair Unknown|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Synopsis: (from the publisher) On her deathbed, Beaufils’s mother leaves him with a quest and a clue: find your father, a knight of King Arthur’s court. So Beaufils leaves the isolated forest of his youth and quickly discovers that he has much to learn about the world beyond his experience.
Beaufils’s search for his father is more difficult than he’d imagined—when a traveler asks him “What is your father’s name?” Beaufils replies “Father, I suppose.” He doesn’t have much to go on when he arrives at King Arthur’s court. There, at a meeting of the Round Table, Beaufils is not the only one surprised when a mysterious dish appears and a voice commands the court to seek this vessel: the Holy Grail. He doesn’t hesitate to join King Arthur’s knights on their quest. Beaufils quickly learns, though, how one quest can lead to another. After accompanying Galahad for a time, Beaufils parts ways with this holiest knight of all to help a new friend, Lady Ellyn, fulfill her own quest, whether she knows what it is or not.
Beaufils’s innocence never fails to make his companions grin, but his fresh outlook on the world’s peculiarities turns out to be more of a gift than a curse as they encounter unexpected friends and foes.
Oh, and what about Beaufils’s quest?
It's really disappointing, actually, because Morris has done so well up until this point. It's almost though he really didn't want to write this book and put as little effort into it as possible.
Warning for Spoilers
The Last Time I Read this Book
This book lost me on page four. Page four is where an old man declares our illustrious hero Beaufils to be seventeen years old. This cannot be the case within the context of the timeline and the canon characterization Morris diligently setup and maintained throughout the series. I can't go into all the reasons why it didn't work here as it's outside the purview of this blog and all the inconsistencies in the timeline alone made up a 2,000 word post. So I'll link to that as an addendum. As the book goes on, more and more comments and plot points make it clear that the timeline is well and truly broken and that it wasn't just a one off mistake. Personally I found the broken timeline so distracting (Samoaphoenix will attest to the fact that I went off on it immediately) that I was never really get into the story of this book.
I did a little better this round but...let's just say that the broken timeline isn't the only flaw within this book.
I will give Morris credit for doing something I've long wanted to see: he forged a relationship between the second generation characters of Camelot. Most writers will either ignore these characters entirely or isolate them. If they have friends, it's with the older generation and their peers are their enemies. Here, the quests of Beaufils (find his father/his purpose in life) and Galahad (find the Holy Grail) are tied together and the two spend a good deal of time traveling together. It's not perfect as I wouldn't exactly call the two of them friends. Still, it's nice to see two characters who never meet in modern texts interacting politely together instead of the author completely ignoring the fact that they would likely be peers and friends. That was nice to see.
Other than this minor twist, the stories are fairly straight forward and don't deviate much from their original texts. And where they do deviate, it's something of train wreck.
I'm trying to figure out the best way to start this section and the more I look at the legend for comparison/contrast, the less I understand Morris' choices. If you've read my commentary on the broken timeline linked above, you know that one of the considered and discarded theories for why the timeline is broken is that Beaufils was raised in the Otherworld where time is funky. This doesn't work become some commentary by the other characters make it clear that Beaufils was raised in the real world. Which is a bizarre choice because Guinglain's mother was a fairy! Like, what was it, Morris? Gawain's already married to a fairy so you didn't want a repeat of that (nice excuse in a book where you're taking your second run around the Grail Quest)? Come on, let's just admit that Gawain has a type and move on.
Morris' Fair Unknown begins with Beaufils burying his mother and deciding to set off to Camelot to find his father. In Renaut de Beaujeu's Le Bel Inconnu, Guinglain finds the dead body of a knight and decides he wants to be one. This one opening scene sets up some of the major pitfalls of this book. The first is the two source stories. Le Bel Inconnu is not that original of a story when compared to the texts Morris has already covered--Percival's Grail Quest and Gareth's time as a Fair Unknown being the most obvious. And Queste del Saint Graal is technically not about Galahad or the Holy Grail (more on that later). So in order to set these two stories in the Squire's Tales series, Morris had to do a lot of tweaking in order to make them original and substantive. This leads to the second problem, in tweaking Morris lost the heart of these stories. Morris has done a great job of tweaking the tale throughout the series to point out the absurdity in the original legend. He laughs with the stories as he keeps the overarching plots and themes in place. Here, it's almost as though he's laughing at the stories. Themes are discarded and the plots are lost as different characters step into roles that were not meant for them. The opening scene is a perfect example of this. In Morris' tale, Beaufils is an innocent young man who has just lost his mother and is off to find his father. In the original, Beaufils sees a dead knight and decides it's the life for him. I understand why Morris changed it--this is almost exactly the same setup as Percival's decision to become a knight. But in changing it, Morris makes Beaufils a hero when the original character is in a much better position to play a Lancelot from the second book, Gareth from the third, or Tristan from this fifth. Guinglain is not a good guy and in attempting to make him into one, Morris loses the poignant setup that made Squire, Knight, Lady and Savage Damsel so brilliant.
The first major plot point tied to Queste del Saint Graal is the trial of the Siege Perilous. I'll talk about that when I reach Galahad's character. The next story is where Morris comes closest to his usual flair for humor and deconstruction. In Queste del Saint Graal, Galahad arrives at court with neither a sword nor a shield because he knows god will provide. The sword he draws from a stone that proclaims it can only be used by the best knight in all the world. The shield is hidden away in an abbey with the same warning, except if anyone tries to take the shield, a knight dressed in white will knock him from his horse, steal the shield and return it to the abbey where it awaits Galahad (the last knight who tries to take it is actually told to return it to Galahad). In Morris' version, the whole thing is a con by robbers who will knock out the knight when he tries to take the shield and steal his money. Beaufils figures this out and takes care of the robbers, allowing Galahad to take the shield. It's probably one of the best moments in the book, and yet I still can't shake the feeling that Morris is laughing at the story here rather than with it.
As always in these stories, Gawain is the breath of fresh air that keeps the story afloat. He meets up with Beaufils, Galahad and Bishop Baldwin during their quest for the Holy Grail. They end up coming across the castle of the Carl of Carlisle. The Carl is a hairy giant and his castle is ill-kept (over run with animals, garbage littered everywhere, beds and tables covered in dust). The Carl is also a terrible host. Galahad and Baldwin find the place to be a cesspool of temptation and decide to leave, while Gawain (ever the oathkeeper), says that it would be rude to leave their host without taking leave and insists them must stay. The Carl comes upon them as they are trying to leave and says that Galahad must kill him in order to escape. Galahad decides it's another temptation and he and Baldwin take off before the Carl and do anything to him. The next morning, as Gawain and Beaufils are taking their leave, Gawain's unfailing politeness causes the Carl to have an epiphany and he begs Gawain to cut off his head. After some thought, Gawain agrees, and his blow breaks the spell in the Carl and returns his castle to its former glory. The Carl confesses that he was once as rude and oafish as he appeared and once upon a time insulted an old man who turned out to be an enchanter and cursed him (it was Ganscotter). The curse could only be broken if he humbled himself to the point of death, and Gawain's beheading did the trick. Like the shield story, it works well with what Morris does best. It differs from the original in only a few places. Different characters--Beaufils and Galahad join Gawain and Baldwin instead of Kay--and an added curse being the majors ones. In the original, the Carl made a vow in his youth to test his guests and while Baldwin and Kay fail, getting the crap beaten out of them after they insult the Carl, Gawain withstands the tests while never speaking a rude word to his host. Gawain's politeness breaks the Carl's vow and he joins the Round Table as one of Arthur's knights.
After these two relatively well done tales, Morris moves on to the Sacred Forest, where the trouble starts again. Here, Gawain, Beaufils and the Carl's daughter Ellyn travel through a forest where they come across narrow-minded hermit after narrow-minded hermit. It's only after they decide to leave the path that they come across a kindly hermit who aids them on their quest (telling Gawain that the grail is not for him while sending Beaufils and Ellyn on their way). In Queste del Saint Graal, this is a story about Lancelot. Lancelot travels from hermitage to hermitage learning things about himself (like the fact that Galahad is his son).
In his author's note, Morris says one of the problems with Queste del Saint Graal is that the author was trying to write an irreproachable hero who could achieve the spiritual quest for God. This, according to Morris, makes Galahad difficult to like. While I haven't actually read Queste del Saint Graal, I know enough about it (and my perusal of the text for this review only confirms this theory) to say that Galahad's likability doesn't suffer from him being the perfect hero, it suffers because he's not actually a character. He's an extension of Lancelot--he's Lancelot's way of attaining the Grail while still allowing Lancelot to have his affair with Guinevere. Lancelot is the second most important character in this story and he gives up the Grail Quest halfway through. Despite the fact that Percival and Bors are Galahad's traveling companions, Lancelot has almost double the amount of page time than they do. So to remove Lancelot from the forest of hermits removes the symbolism of the scene where Lancelot accepts that he can't achieve the Grail and passes the quest onto the better version of himself. Taking Lancelot out of the scene removes this character arc and replaces it with some rather straw-man commentary about dogmatic thinking. One that I personally could have done without since Morris covered it pretty thoroughly in the sixth book.
After parting ways with Gawain, Beaufils and Ellyn meet up with Bors and Lionel and I will discuss their adventures in their character section. From there, they travel to the Otherworld and meet up with Galahad again. They are promptly captured by knights who want Ellyn to give a blood sacrifice and heal their mistress. They promise it won't kill her, but Beaufils explores the castle and finds several women who participated in this blood sacrifice and now lie dead below the castle. Galahad insists Ellyn partake in this sacrifice, insisting that it is the purpose of a woman to give her life like this. Ellyn eventually decides not to, and the woman asking for the blood sacrifice dies. Like the hermit story, this grates against the original story. First of all, Galahad, Percival and Bors are all adamantly against Dindrane (Percival's sister) doing the blood sacrifice, whereas here Galahad wants Ellyn to do it. Second, this is almost a pre-Grail sacrifices that calls back to de Troyes' Grail Quest--the suffering of the ruler is tied to the suffering of the land and only great power can heal them. Morris condemns that sacrifice here, making the suffering maiden a wicked murder who brought her condition upon herself and the willing deaths to heal her meaningless. Galahad says to Ellyn that giving her life for another is the perfect symbol of womanhood and we are meant to view his opinion of suspect. But Dindrane's sacrifice was so much more than a one for one exchange. She restored a land, showed Galahad, Percival and Bors how to get to the Grail and foreshadowed their sacrifices. If, as Morris says, the point of this story is the spiritual quest for God, then Dindrane achieved this before any of her companions--she found the Grail first. To be clear, I'm not saying that I would prefer to see the blood sacrifice or that I think the story is empowering. I just don't like how Morris essentially condemned Dindrane's actions, making her out to be a fool compared to his heroine. There's more to this story than what he waters it down to. He's laughing at Dindrane and I don't take kindly to that.
Finally Beaufils, Ellyn, and Galahad arrive first at the climax of Le Bel Inconnu, then swing into the climax of Queste del Saint Graal, before returning to the climax of Le Bel Inconnu. I will get into those stories in the character section, but the book ends with Galahad living out the rest of eternity blissfully in the Grail Castle, Ellyn staying in the Otherworld with Lady Synadona in the closest thing Morris ever gets to an LGBT+ relationship, and Beaufils returning to the world of men, learning who his father is (it's Gawain) and deciding to become a hermit.
Here's the thing about Guinglain--he's actually a giant ass. Like, this is a dude whose first quest is to go rescue Queen Esmeree, who has been turned into a serpent, but he keeps getting side tracked. One of these side quest is rescuing and falling in love with the Maiden of the White Hands, fairy ruler of the Golden Isle. But he's got this quest, so instead of explaining himself, he sneaks out in the middle of the night without telling the Maiden where he's going. He rescues Esmeree and she wants to marry him, but he decides to go back to the Maiden of the White Hands. She's not happy with him, eventually forgives him, and then he sneaks out again to attend a tournament. So she bans him from her lands and Guinglain goes on to marry Esmereee (this is why I wasn't surprised that there wasn't a romance in this book--honestly, who would you pick?). He then sided with Mordred in revealing Lancelot and Guinevere's affair to the court.
Like...not a good guy. But instead we get this wide-eyed child who is the most naive character Morris has ever written, and after Parsifal that's saying something. As the only person he ever met was his mother, Beaufils doesn't understand anything about how the world works. His narration is little more than shock, awe and naivety. The size of the city astounds him. Every person he meets is pleasurable to look at and he reacts with confusion or mimicry when they're horrible. He enjoys things he should find disgusting such as moldy bread. It's just really hard to care about this character who I have no real way to relate to. I honestly think this book might have been better if Galahad had been the narrator. At least his struggles with his religion and living up to all he feels is expected of him is a realistic struggle--especially when compared to a person's very first introduction to human society.
One of the things I think writers struggle with when it comes to Galahad (but don't really seem to realize) is that he's not a character. He's an extension of Lancelot. And that struggle comes through loud and clear here. Galahad is actually a pretty enjoyable character before he meets Lancelot and has his paternity revealed. After that, he's constantly praying, confessing, and every person he meets exists to tempt him away from his path. It's almost as though, when Galahad sat in the Siege Perilous and drew his divine right sword from it's stone, all the worst aspects of Lancelot's character--the stuff he left behind when he found peace as a woodcutter-- imprinted onto Galahad. And poor Galahad is forced to spend the rest of the book running from it--to find a way to be his own character. In a way it's only fitting that Galahad ends the book at the Grail Castle and drinking from the cup--the cup that gives the gift of peace due to forgetting the world beyond the castle. In the end, Galahad casts Lancelot out of him, but in doing so he reveals that there was never anything there to start with.
Also, one of the weird aspects of Galahad's character in this is his fear of women. I'm not sure if it's in Queste del Saint Graal (I know Galahad spends a lot of the story with Dindrane, who he respects, so clearly it's not a fear of all women as it is here). I wish the source of the fear had been addressed somewhere in the book instead of the blanket statement that Galahad is just afraid of everything. Like with Tristan and Isolde in the fifth book and Laudine in the seventh book, I can't help but find a more sinister subtext (abuse from the nuns who raised him). Like Tristian, Isolde, and Laudine, it's played for laughs and that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
Bors and Lionel are two brothers Beaufils meets early on in the book after two bandits accost him on the road. They direct him to Camelot and teach him some things about the way the world works. As it usually goes, Bors is the much more serious of the two brothers (since he was one of the three Grail Knights and is usually pretty religious in the adaptations that include him) while Lionel is much more laid back. In Queste Del Saint Graal, Bors is the only one of the three knights who has lost his virginity, his tests are supposedly much more vigorous. Bros goes through three distinct trials--combat against Priadan the Black, choosing between rescuing his brother Lionel or rescuing a maiden, and choosing between sleeping with a maiden or allowing her to kill herself and her servants. Bor defeats Priadan but doesn't kill him, and rescues the maiden over his brother, and refuses the maiden and reveals her to be a fiend. The consequence of this is that Lionel is pretty pissed that Bors saved someone else over him and tries to kill Bors. Bors refuses to fight Lionel and it's only after Lionel has killed a priest and a knight who tried to come to Bors' aide that he finally calms down.
Morris cleverly ties all these tests into one silly story as he's ought to do. When Beaufils and Ellyn meet up with Bors while on the Grail Quest, his horse has been stolen by a group of bandits. While traveling, the three meet up with the beautiful Lady Orgille leading about her horse. Bors begs her to let him take the beast so he may bring the bandits who stole from him to justice. The lady puts up a big fuss, insisting that this is her most favorite horse in the whole world and that she would be heartbroken if anything happens to the beast. Bors promises to be careful, takes the horse, and promptly loses it to the bandits (I find this whole section particularly amusing because while searching for information on the Sacred Forest, I discovered that there's a tale where a character named Bors (may not be the same one) is a horse thief and steals from Arthur, Sagremor, Bedivere, Lucan, and Kay). Bors returns to the lady in defeat and she makes him swear an oath to return to her side whenever she calls for him. Bors, Beaufils and Ellyn set out again and find the bandits torturing Lionel. Bors is about to save his brother when Lady Orgille summons her back to his side. Bors is forced to abandon his brother who is instead rescued by Beaufils. They next find Bors battling Sir Erskine, who is the actual owner of the castle Lady Orgille resides in and she has stolen it from him. He's trying to get it back, but Orgille uses horse stealing bandits to entice knights to fight him on her behalf. Beaufils and Ellyn manage to talk Bors into giving up his vow and letting Erskine go free. They return to Lady Orgille's house to retrieve his horse, and then make their way to a hermitage so Bors can confess. This hermit hates his job and tries to trick Bors into being his slave in exchange for his forgiveness. Lionel joins them at this point and roughs up Bors before roughing up the hermit for trying to take advantage of his brother. The hermit quits in anger (Beaufils later takes over for him). Later that night, Lady Orgille shows up at the hermitage and tries to beg Bors for forgiveness. He tells her to get lost. And thus Bors' trials become much more entertaining and a lot less deadly.
Morris' original character Ellyn takes on a couple legendary characters in this book. The first is obviously the daughter of the Carl of Carlisle. In the legend the Carl offers his daughter's hand in marriage to Gawain after the knight helps him overcome is vow. That thankfully doesn't happen in this book and instead Ellyn simply asks for the chance to travel with Gawain and Beaufils. Her next role is that if Dindrane in the castle of the ill-maiden that I spoke about above. Finally she plays the role of Helie, lady-in-waiting to Queen Esmeree. In the original story, Helie journeys to King Arthur's court to request the aid of a knight to save her lady form an evil sorcerer. In a scene that plays similar to Lynette and Gareth, she's infuriated and leaves in a huff when The Fair Unknown is chosen as her knight. He follows her and eventually wins her over to his side. Here, obviously, Ellyn isn't working for Lady Synadona when she meets Beaufils. Instead, they come across Lady Synadona's castle while searching for the Grail. After they save Lady Synadona from her curse, Ellyn decides to stay behind as her lady in waiting with some language that strongly implies the two are now lovers. One one hand, it's nice to see Morris finally drifting away from heterosexual romances in his books. On the other hand, it's a bummer that the relationship is only implied and never confirmed.
Lady Synadona, formerly Esmeree the Blonde in the legends (oh my god, a Gerald Morris name change that gets weirder than the original). Like in the original story, Synadona has been turned into a dragon by a sorcerer. The sorcerer has the power to turn people's fear and hatred back on them, so of course he is defeated when he tries this on Beaufils, because he doesn't feel fear or hatred (I am rolling my eyes so hard right now). They then find Synadona who confesses that only a kiss from Arthur's greatest knight can change her back into a human. The others think it's Galahad, since he's the son of Lancelot. Unfortunately, Galahad freaks out and mortally wounds Synadona. Beaufils tries to bring him back, but Galahad makes it to the Grail Castle first and Beaufils returns empty handed. So he kisses Synadona and she changes back into a human. I suppose it's fortunate we're spared Beaufils waffling back and forth over whether or not he wants to marry her, because Synadona only has eyes for Ellyn.
Gawain, as always, is what makes this book. He meets up with Beaufils and Galahad early on in their quest for the grail and plays his role in the Carl of Carlisle story (which, honestly must have freaked him out more than he let on considering his history with beheading games). He then journeys with Beaufils and Ellyn through the Sacred Forest. At the end of the forest he's told the Grail isn't his quest and, despite his protestations, forced to part ways with Beaufils and Ellyn. He turns up again at the end of the book with Terence and figures out that he's Beaufils' father at the very end of the book.
Mordred has nine lines in the book and under normal circumstances this would only earn him a line along the lines of 'Mordred shows up in the beginning of the book and Beaufils determines he's the most evil evil that ever eviled after he speaks a handful of times'. However, I have problems with Mordred's presentation in this book, so I'm just going to link you to my second addendum. I'll just say that after Morris' innovative handling of several other characters throughout his books, it's super disappointing that he took the laziest route possible with Mordred.
Guinevere appears when Beaufils and Galahad arrive at Camelot and scolds Arthur for being a giant troll. Arthur is a giant troll, having a bit of fun at Beaufils' expense after the young man accidentally sits in his seat during dinner. He then oversees the Siege Perilous and second coming of the Grail Quest. Kay is there too and the two of them have a grand old time snarking at each other and everyone else at the table. Parsifal and Lancelot are at this meeting too--Parsifal to say that he's already found the Grail and doesn't need another go and Lancelot to confirm that Galahad is his son and then decline to go on the quest (really throwing the whole book out of order). Bishop Baldwin makes an appearance, really only to play his role in the Carl of Carlisle story. Lorie shows up at the end to help Beaufils get back to Ellyn after the knights in the Grail Castle dump him in the middle of no where. And, as a nice hat tip, Geoffrey of Monmouth shows up as Arthur's clerk.
How to rate this book. There are a lot of factors that go into rating a book. I have the general guidelines listed in the sidebar, but at the end of the day my rating comes down to gut instinct. Unfortunately, my gut instinct says that this book isn't very good. Except that doesn't seem fair. Objectively, ignoring my problems with the timeline and some of the adaptation choices, it's a well written book. And it's relatively enjoyable simply by nature of being an easy read. If I were to compare it to the Merlin Trilogy, I would rank it above Hollow Hills and Prince and the Pligrim which I gave 2 Stars. I would rank it above Crystal Cave which got 3 Stars. I might even rank it above The Last Enchantment which I gave 4 Stars.
However, if I were to compare this book to the rest of the series, which consistently gained four and five stars... it's deserving of 2 stars. Compared to the rest of the series, it's not well written. The broken timeline is a huge problem as are some of the bizarre choices Morris made with regards to the legend.
If this was a stand alone book, I'd probably give it a 4 Stars. But it's not. It's part of a incredibly well done series and it's a bad book when it's held up as a part of that. The Last Enchantment made some choices that not only elevated it above the Merlin Trilogy, but elevated the trilogy itself in some way. Fair Unknown makes choices that reflect badly on the whole of the Squire's Tales and it's hard not to look down on it for that.
I really want to give this book 2 stars. Compared to the rest of the books in the Squire's Tales, it deserves it. Compared to the rest of the books on the blog, it doesn't and that makes me feel as though I'm being unfair. In the interest of trying to be fair, I'm going to grudgingly give it 3 Stars. But know in my heart, it's never going to get more than 2.