of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Steeped in tradition yet exhilaratingly original, Gerald Morris's fantasy series based on Arthurian lore is a unique addition to a story cycle that has been rehashed for hundreds of years. So what makes this author stand out in a crowd that includes the time-honored T. H. White and Howard Pyle and the multitude of more recent novelists (see the March 2004 Bulletin Dozens)?
Morris elicits drama from unexpected sources. Whereas most other writers focus strictly on Camelot and Arthur, Morris retells stories of Ye Olde England that touch only tangentially on that illustrious king. By drawing on the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg, Sir Thomas Malory, and others, Morris brings to his readers' attention some lesser known tales of the Arthurian era: Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, the Knight of the Cart, a whole host of stories about Sir Gawain, and myriad anecdotes of derring-do.
Though his plots are the stuff of legend (inforrmative and entertaining author's notes help place his material in context), Morris expands them and retells them from the viewpoint of pragmatic, sympathetic, and very human teens and preteens. These original characters, all with their own problems and lessons to learn, provide youthful readers with a means of accessing the stories. Furthermore, Morris broadens his books' appeal by focusing on female as well as male protagonists, making them all equally believable and compelling, and sending them all off on epic and entertaining journeys. Though his books poke irreverent fun at courtly life and the more ridiculous aspects of knighthood, Morris rarely descends to lampooning his subjects; even the fatuous Sir Lancelot can be redeemed and transformed.
Paramount throughout is high adventure. The author excels at crafting books that seamlessly combine swashbuckling swordplay, noble quests, wry humor, romance, and a hint of pathos. In a typical title, the young hero or heroine joins a noble endeavor and, along with the legendary characters, finds new identity and understanding on the way. Subtle lessons in compassion, justice, courage, humility, human folly, and love infuse the texts with a deeper wisdom that often raises thoughtful issues ("'No one understands love,' Sir Gawain said. 'But understanding is much overvalued'"-- Parsifal's Page ).Fortunately, these philosophical nuances in no way interfere with the readers' enjoyment of seeing the knights (and ladies) bashing each other about. And underscoring the philosophy, humor, and adventure is Morris's abiding affection and respect for his material, feelings that will doubtless be shared by all lovers of chivalry.
The Squire's Tale. Holt, 1998. (BCCB 7/98)
The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady. Houghton, 1999. (BCCB 3/99)
The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf. Houghton, 2000. (BCCB 5/00)
Parsifal's Page. Houghton, 2001. (BCCB 4/01)
The Ballad of Sir Dinadan. Houghton, 2003. (BCCB 4/03)
The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung Cart Knight. Houghton, 2004 (BCCB 3/04)