The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Lou Beach,1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris. Houghton, 1998. 212p
ISBN 0-395-86959-9  $15.00   Gr. 6-10

Tales of Arthur and Camelot have an appeal that crosses genders, genres, and age levels. Librarians are forever being approached by young readers who want stories of knights jousting, castles besieged, and enchantresses ensorcelling, and sometimes we are hard-pressed to come up with a title to suit the need. Available variations on the Arthurian theme include dense but wonderful Sutcliffian sagas, accessible but not always successful San Soucian picture books, and faithful retellings that require a d egree in medieval studies to follow. Who will help fill this literary need?

Enter our champion with plumes flying-Gerald Morris, author-knight, with the token of his ladylove, Humor, fastened firmly to his funnybone. Forget the ponderous pace of Paterson's Parzival and the stateliness of Pyle's Knights of the Rou nd Table-if your readers are looking for some notable swashing and buckling with a little chivalrous slapstick thrown in, this retelling of Arthurian legend is the book for you.

The focus here is on the adventures of King Arthur's nephew Gawain, or to be more precise, the adventures of Gawain and his inexperienced but pluckily game squire, Terence. Morris' Sir Gawain is the pre-Malory goodly knight, gentle and courteous, but with a limit to his patience; his squire is Terence (a nontraditional character created by the author) raised by a holy hermit and fey with faerie blood. Readers follow Gawain and Terence as they go questing, picking up Sir Tor and Sir Marhault along th e way. Encounters with knights without honor, damsels in (sometimes self-inflicted) distress, enchantresses, sorcerers, poisonous eels, and (happily) unrequited lovers are related in stylish prose that surprises with its unexpected humor. Readers get a taste of what's to come at the end of Chapter One, when Gawain defeats an obnoxious knight with the aid of an empty stewpot: "Sir Hautubris flashed his sword from his scabbard and chopped down mightily at Gawain's head. Gawain stepped quickly to one sid e, and the sword buried itself in the dirt next to him. Gawain rapped Sir Hautubris's helm with the stewpot. The visor flapped down, and a loud clang rang out."

Morris' setting is a terrain imbued with an ever-present sense of magic both wonderful and terrifying, a terrain that his characters inhabit with lively vigor. More than cardboard heroes, Morris' players in this Arthurian adventure have tremendous hea rt; they are not one-dimensional glory seekers but questioning as well as questing individuals with conflicts of both conscience and desire. The female characters (who, admittedly, play minor if catalytic roles in this particular version of the tale) are at least interesting, from Gawain's enchantress aunt Morgan le Fay and mother Morgause to the Three Questing Ladies (maiden, mother, and crone) who travel with and educate questing knights. True, Guinevere doesn't really shine in Morris' Camelot (he see ms to agree with Tennyson that she wasn't exactly an asset to the king), but Morris' handling of the story of Gawain and the Loathly Lady is very nicely turned indeed.

The dialogue sidesteps expected formality with colloquial humor that positively begs for reading aloud, as when Sir Tor, despite entreaties by a vengeful woman, exasperatedly refuses to kill a knight who has already yielded to him: "'Madam, I tell you , he's already yielded to me,' Tor said. 'What difference does that make?' the lady demanded. 'This is Sir Abelleus!' 'Well, good for him,' Tor said impatiently. . . . [Tor] looked at the kneeling Abelleus. 'Do you promise not to be so naughty anymore and to stop striking down good knights?' 'Oh, yes,' Abelleus said, nodding emphatically. . . . 'And do you apologize for killing this lady's brother?' 'Oh yes. Very sorry, madam.'"

Although this subtly irreverent take on Arthurian legend pokes deliberate fun at noble knights and fair ladies who take themselves entirely too seriously, Morris avoids the obvious Monty Pythonesque possibilities, balancing between noble sentiment and the cheap shot with witty grace. Terence and Gawain do finally settle down to the serious business of saving Arthur and Camelot from an evil sorceress and discovering the identity of Terence's father, but that's just the rousingly satisfying conclusion t o an Arthurian road trip that will have readers wondering why there aren't more books like this one and hoping that Morris will do it again. (Imprint information appears on p. 406.)

Janice M. Del Negro, Editor Big Picture Image
July's Bulletin cover illustration
by Lou Beach from
The Squire's Tale,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Co.



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