|Title: Squire's Quest|
Author: Gerald Morris
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Why is it, Terence wondered, that the things you know most surely are always the things you can't demonstrate to anyone else?
And why is it, after all these years, that Terence is still just a squire, offering advice on how best to scrub rust spots from armor? But Squire Terence has more to worry about that his place on the social scale. For all the peace and prosperity that have made England famous across Europe, Terence is uneasy. After nearly six months without contact with the World of the Faires--not even from his old friend the mischievous sprite Robin--Terence is sure something is rotten in King Arthur's court. And while the squire is always on the watch for the latest plot of the enchantress Morgause, he now also has suspicions about Mordred, King Arthur's misbegotten son, who has appeared at court. Is Mordred after Arthur's throne?
In this ninth rollicking adventure in the Squire's Tales series, Terence's efforts to defend the Fellowship of the Round Table lead him on his farthest, and most fantastic, journey yet--a quest that ultimately brings Terence rewards he never imagined or expected.
This is the first book in the series to be released with only the new, more serious, cover designs. In these final two books I feel this is appropriate as the mood shifts towards the twilight years of Camelot. There is still plenty of humor to be had but it is tempered with the revelation that this golden age must come to an end—likely sooner than anyone wants or expects.
The timeline is still completely messed up and none of the time periods the characters give in this story match up with anything logical, but at this point I’ve just decided to ignore it and stop trying to figure out how old everyone is. It will just give me a nosebleed. Sarah alone is anywhere from sixteen to twenty-six and it just gets worse from there.
We’re back to Terence as the point of view character after six books away. Morris uses him to retell not only Mordred’s attempt to undermine Camelot from within, but one of Chretien de Troyes’ lesser-known tales of Alexander, one of the Greek Byzantine Emperors, and Cligés. In this version, Alexander falls in love with a grown-up Sarah from The Princess, the Crone and the Dung-Cart Knight but is murdered before he can marry her. Cligés is his brother in Morris’s version, not his son. Interestingly, some scholars consider the story of Cligés to be a parody of the Tristan and Isolde romance, but Morris chooses to take it seriously and the adulterous love stories of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristram and Iseult are shining examples for Cligés and his love interest Fenice. The whole Courtly Love trend is still going strong in song and poetry despite the fact that Lance and Gwen have been separated for years and Tristram and Iseult are long dead in this universe. It’s sort of commentary on how not every import from Arthurian Britain has been a good thing for the rest of Europe.
Bear in mind that the major theme of the book is the difference between truth and lies, and being deceived by outward appearances.
Terence is anxious, as things seem to be settled in Arthur’s Britain but he’s had no contact with the Faerie world for months. Camelot is playing host to a succession of leaders from across Europe, as the fame of Arthur and his knights has spread far and wide. When one delegation from the Holy Roman Empire leaves (giving us our first brief glimpse of the foolish and overly-romantic Fenice) another party from the Byzantine Empire arrives. The Emperor, Alexander, takes one look at Sarah, who is there visiting, and falls madly in love. Egged on by his brother Cligés, he sets about courting her in the most outrageous way possible, as dictated by the ballads of courtly romance. Sarah is at first disgusted by these over-the-top displays and rebuffs him, but over time she begins to soften towards Alexander, who despite his outlandish notions about courtship proves himself at every turn to be a good, honest and noble man.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Mordred arrives at court and begins to ingratiate himself with everyone. Arthur realizes that he is Mordred’s father and secretly admits it to his most trusted inner circle, but Guinevere begs him not to reveal it publicly since they still haven’t recovered from the damage her affair with Lancelot did to all of their reputations. Arthur agrees, though he is uncomfortable with the deception. Mordred continues to make himself visibly useful and Arthur awards him more and more positions of trust, wanting to believe his long-lost son will make a good king after him. Terence deeply distrusts Mordred after hearing Guinglain speak of him in the previous book, and attaches himself to the young knight like a burr. All he can come up with, however, is speculation and possible coincidence. After consulting with his new friend Acoriondes, Emperor Alexander’s steward who is used to the Byzantine court’s intrigue, they conclude that Mordred is either exactly what he appears to be or the most devious plotter they've ever seen.
Sarah accepts Alexander’s proposal at last, but a message arrives (conveniently delivered by Mordred) saying Alexander’s uncle Alis has usurped the throne. Alexander rides home to Greece, accompanied by Terence, Gawain, Dinadan and Mordred, prepared to win back his empire by force. Through some skillful diplomatic maneuvering on the part of Terence, Acoriondes and Dinadan they find the whole thing was a series of misunderstandings orchestrated—they later learn—by Mordred for his own sick pleasure (mirroring Mordred’s betrayal of Arthur in legend where he sends false messages to Camelot telling them Arthur died in battle and tricking Camelot into attacking its own king). When everything looks like it’s going to be cleared up with no bloodshed, Mordred poisons Alexander in a fit of rage that his plans were thwarted. Teenage Cligés takes the throne with Alis as regent.
Gawain returns to England, Mordred strikes out on his own and Terence and Dinadan agree to stay in Greece for awhile as guests of Acoriondes. While there they witness the marriage of Alis to Fenice and the affair between Fenice and Cligés. The lovesick pair manage to thwart delicate diplomatic relations between three powerful rulers in pursuit of pretending they are Lancelot and Guinevere, and the cost of their make-believe is all-out war in southern Germany. They blithely return to Greece to continue their affair without realizing the damage they caused.
Terence, Acoriondes and Dinadan take a detour to Delphi where Dinadan and Terence are led into the Greek equivalent of the Other World to visit the Oracle. There Terence finally gets the answers he has been seeking about Mordred’s intentions. They return to Athens to discover Cligés and Fenice have faked their own deaths, and, à la Tristram and Iseult, have shut themselves up in a “love grotto” of their own. They are of course discovered and Alis is killed in the process. Fenice and Cligés are locked away in separate rooms for the rest of their lives and as further punishment each night are given a potion that will make them believe they are together again. Acoriondes is named regent until the child the wayward pair conceived during their brief tryst comes of age.
Terence returns to England to discover Arthur about to name Mordred his heir and reveal his paternity. Terence adds a revelation of his own: Mordred’s mother is none other than Morgause, and she conceived and raised Mordred to destroy Arthur’s kingdom. Mordred tries to stab Terence in the back but discovers Terence planned for that, wore chainmail under his clothes and deliberately offered himself as a target as public proof of Mordred’s inner nature. Morgause rescues Mordred and they ride off together to continue to create mischief. Members of the Faerie court appear and reveal that Morgause cast a spell to keep them out of the World of Men until Mordred’s parentage was revealed. Arthur makes Terence a Knight of the Round Table. Terence proposes to his beloved Eileen at last, Gawain make a snarky remark, and all things seem to end happily.
Mordred: Morris’s portrayal of Mordred has reinforced my opinion that Morris didn’t really want to write these last three books and therefore didn’t put as much effort into the new characters as he might have. He went to a lot of trouble throughout this series to redeem Gawain from his treatment at the hands of the French bards who downgraded Arthur’s best knight in the Celtic stories in favor of Lancelot, and then a lot of trouble to redeem Lancelot from listening to the bards too much. However, he takes Mordred, who in the original non-French stories was a close relative of Arthur’s (but not his son) at face value from Malory—as the incestuous son of Arthur and his evil half-sister who wants to destroy all his father built. Morris could have chosen to make Mordred more complicated but instead he’s a means to wrap up the series in a neat little bow in terms of Good versus Evil. In past books it usually isn’t that simple. Indeed, after reading the earlier books I predicted Mordred when he appeared would be Morgan’s son since it’s stated she’s in love with Arthur, and as Morgan’s son would have had much more conflicted motivations than as the blackhearted son of the series antagonist.
Mordred as he’s portrayed here is faithful to most other stories about him: he’s a gifted diplomat and people-pleaser. He always knows exactly what to say in any situation, and it’s this trait that makes Arthur believe he will be a good choice to continue working for peace in England. Terence discovers the one chink in Mordred’s calculating façade: he can be goaded into acting impulsively out of spite. And you won’t like him when he’s angry. His skin turns green and he transforms into a giant creature fueled by rage…wait. Wrong story. Never mind. (Though the image of Hulk!Mordred is hilarious, and now you know how much of a nerd I am.)
Dinadan: This is the most we’ve seen of him since he was a title character. He supplies most of the comic relief throughout this fairly heavy story. Ostensibly, he’s along for the ride because he’s done quite a bit of traveling around Europe (I guess in the years since Tristram and Iseult died) and speaks several different continental languages. I feel bad for him because he can’t get away from heroic retellings of Tristram and Iseult’s doomed affair, when he was there and knows the whole thing was really incredibly pathetic, petty and sad. In the end he stays behind in Greece to help negotiate peace between the Byzantines and the empire of the Islamic Turks as his old friend Palomides leads the Turkish army.
Fenice: It occurs to me Morris’s strong condemnation of the childish behavior of Cligés and Fenice where they’re only concerned that their love story mirror a romantic ballad may be some sort of oblique reaction to the Twilight phenomenon, which was at its height when this book was being written. Cligés and Fenice’s selfish love and other characters’ pithy comments about how damaging a story about selfish love can be when stupid people believe it sounds like many things I’ve heard people say about the Twilight quartet (I refuse to call it a saga). I’ve read the first book and it is indeed a story about two selfish young people drawn into a damaging, obsessive relationship that bills itself as a story about the truest of all True Love. And it has fooled a lot of people into believing that’s what true love is, and the way they want their relationships to be. I’ve also heard the argument that it’s just a story and as long as people know it’s fiction it can’t be damaging. I’m sure most people who read it know that sparkly vampires don’t exist (and the ones who don’t have bigger problems). The issue is the relationship dynamic portrayed, and how it’s marketed within the text as desirable. People have a harder time separating fact from fiction in that area. In this story, Cligés and Fenice have the same trouble with separating the real Lancelot/Guinevere and Tristram/Iseult relationships from the fictional ones the bards billed as a romantic ideal. I could be reading way too much into this. Morris has had other foolish couples who want to live in ballad-land in previous books and this could simply be one more set. But the remark about what happens when stupid people take to heart a stupid story struck me. In this case, a story isn't just a story and can in fact cause real-world harm. There isn't much to say about Fenice herself as a character as she is shallow and empty-headed long before she meets Cligés.
Cligés: Cligés seems to be dependable enough in the beginning of the story even if he is full of romantic notions about Courtly Love. He appears to want to be a good ruler after Alexander dies. Then he sees Fenice and goes off the deep end, becoming a different character entirely. Again, I wonder if this is commentary on Twilight and teenage characters that have some semblance of personality and ambitions until they meet their True Love and then can think of nothing but the object of their affections and become insufferable morons from then on out.
Alexander: I will admit he is kind of annoying at first but as Sarah discovers he does grow on you. Particularly when he shows his sense of humor. I really wish Sarah, instead of ignoring him at first, had said she wanted to spend time with him to get to know him better (i.e., date), and then she’d see about taking his proposal seriously. It would have saved everybody a lot of grief and headaches.
Alis: I feel awful for him since he’s just a pawn. He agrees to marry Fenice out of duty when he thinks Alexander and Cligés are dead and then discovers he can’t get out of it. Then Cligés and Fenice proceed to play him for a fool in pursuit of their little game of ‘pretend to be Lancelot and Guinevere because it’s the most romantic thing ever’ by giving him a potion that makes him think Fenice is his dead wife. It’s really kind of sickening what they do to this guy and the cruel lengths that they go. In the end I think they do actually drive him mad when all he was guilty of was trying to do the right thing for the empire.
Guinglain: Appears briefly twice, content in his role as a holy man. Terence consults him on what to do about Mordred since Guinglain’s sole purpose seems to be to serve as some sort of spiritual radar.
Arthur: Here we see Arthur’s willingness to trust as a weakness rather than a strength, as he so desperately wants to believe in Mordred he is willing to give him positions of trust without him really proving himself. I do still like his sense of humor. Arthur quote of the book (in response to Terence’s willingness to kill himself at Arthur’s command): “If I ever command you to throw yourself from this tower, have me locked up, won’t you?”
Gawain: Doesn’t appear much except to occasionally make a smart remark and offer advice. He travels with Terence to Greece but does not participate in Terence’s adventures there and returns fairly quickly to England.
Kai: One of the few who outright distrusts Mordred, and says so. Most people assume this is just Kai being Kai except those like Terence and Gawain who already had reason to suspect Mordred. Kai’s job by this point has morphed into more of an event planner, making sure all the guests to Camelot are fed and housed comfortably, organizing banquets and tournaments. He grumbles about all of this and as a man of action is not always happy with diplomacy but understands the need for it.
The Oracle: The fascinating part of this non-Arthurian character is he/she is nonbinary, both male and female simultaneously and also neither. Other characters use the male and female pronouns interchangeably when discussing him/her, sometimes in the same sentence. She/he seems to be a combination of the Sybil (female seer associated with Delphi) and Tiresius, the blind (male) seer from Greek myth.
Guinevere, Lancelot, Griflet, Palomides, Morgause, Morgan, Ywain, Tor, and Agrivain are mentioned or make cameo appearances. Tristram and Iseult are mentioned frequently even though they are both dead. Bedivere is murdered by Mordred, the first of Arthur’s trusted inner circle (though least used in this series since he only appears as a character of any note in Ballad of Sir Dinadan) to die in the fight against Morgause’s plots. I was disappointed not to see Kai or Dinadan’s reactions to his death since they were closest to him.
Despite its darker tone I like this book much better than Fair Unknown. Probably just from having Terence back as the point of view character. It doesn't seem as confused as Fair Unknown and has one major overarching theme to tie it all together. It’s not a favorite book but the new setting and characters are interesting and memorable.