Monday, September 22, 2008

A Few Book Reviews

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

Book 2 in "The Squire's Tales" continues the adventures of Sir Gawain, knight of King Arthur's Round Table, and his faithful, half-faery squire Terence. Mainly based on the medieval legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which in turn was based on even more ancient legends from pre-Christian Ireland and far-off Persia, this book pretty faithfully retells one of the most moving quest stories in world literature. Meanwhile, it lines the aisles and packs the scenery with clever embellishments, old conventions turned upside-down, newly-invented characters, old ones with reconsidered motives, and fresh detail.

The tale takes place at a time of transition. Gawain's fame as the world's greatest knight has begun to be eclipsed by the rising star of Lancelot. But the coming of Lancelot has brought pain to King Arthur as well: the pain of disillusionment with his and Guinevere's fairy-tale love affair. But all this only lends an undertone of melancholy to the main adventure, in which Gawain spends most of a year seeking his own death - death in fulfillment of a vow; death for love of his king.

This is the story of the giant green knight who appears at Camelot and offers to let anyone cut his head off who will, in exactly one year, let him behead them back. Gawain comes forward and does the grisly deed; then the green knight picks up his head and walks away, warning the hero to remember his vow. But a year of searching for the green knight and his green chapel only leads Gawain and his faithful squire to one strange adventure after another; adventures in which they are joined by the spirited Lady Eileen, who proves to be the love of Terence's life.

Their journey takes them deep into the Other World, the world of faery, where people and things are not what they seem. As they go alone, Gawain and his friends experience terror, love, despair, and shame. They display cleverness, courage, goodness, and honor. They perform feats that become the stuff of legend - and, at times, show us what earthy and even embarrassing reality might lie at the bottom of many long-revered legends. And when they return, they even manage to straighten out the problem of Lancelot.

Morris's continued retelling of the deeds of Gawain adds a whole new dimension of fantasy surrounding Terence and other denizens of the Seelie Court. It shades in larger-than-life figures of revered legend in down-to-earth colors you can enjoy. And in its clear, direct, single-serving proportions it can prepare you to read, with greater enjoyment, still more detailed and mature retellings of the Arthurian legends, of which there seems to be no end. If you like tales of knights and chivalry, here is a side of them worth visiting.

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

In Book 3 of "The Squire's Tales," a strong-willed girl makes her way to Camelot to demand a champion from King Arthur's Round Table. She needs a strong knight to deliver her beautiful sister from a recreant knight who refuses to leave their castle in peace until Lady Lyonesse marries him. So Lady Lynet flees in search of help. What she finds is not what she expected.

First, she finds a faery sprite named Robin Goodfellow. Then she becomes the traveling companion of a sardonic dwarf named Roger. Then, after encounters with the "uncanny" squire Terence and his Lady Eileen, and a disastrous debut at King Arthur's court, Lynet finds a rather unsatisfactory champion on her hands: a kitchen boy named Beaumains, belligerent, proud, and altogether ridiculous. Nevertheless, as Beaumains proves to have the good looks and battle prowess of a true hero, Lynet starts to have feelings for him.

All three of our heroes are put to the test in this story. Beaumains faces a whole succession of recreant knights - or rather, picks fights with them. Lynet discovers things about herself, talents that only the tutelage of the sorceress Morgan le Fay can bring out. The secret of Roger's identity and background continue to tease and tickle. Surprises of love and jealousy, pride and humility, goodness and evil, honor and unworthiness abound. And finally, this tale reveals the fate of more than one brother of Sir Gawain in ways that may surprise fans of Arthur's Round Table.

Gerald Morris's love of these tales is as evident as the zest of his creative freedom. If you love both original fantasy and timeless stories faithfully retold, you have that in common with this author, whose tight and informative "Author's Notes" are always worth reading.

The Tale of Troy
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Age: 11+

The obvious sequel to The Tales of the Greek Heroes is this book about the twilight of the heroic age, which climaxed and ended in the Trojan War. Like that other book by Lancelyn Green, this one sets in order the bits and scraps, rags and tags that one finds all out of order in the epics of Homer, the dramas of Euripedes, and other Greek poets. It smooths out the contradictions, connects all the causes and effects, and shows the links between numerous people and events as clearly as can be; and it does nearly all of this on the firm authority of ancient Greek authors.

That is a tremendous feat of scholarship. But what's even greater is the simplicity, strength, and immediate appeal of Lancelyn Green's writing. You hardly feel you are studying the fruit of a lifetime of research. You hardly seem to have to work at all, as a great story teller brings a world of great stories vividly to life. The remote dawn of human history seems to hover within reach, earthy and human, yet aglow with otherworldly beauty, aflame with a savagery we wish, in vain, we could regard as alien to our world.

Here is the straight dope on Paris - not the city, but the Trojan youth whose choice between three rival goddesses set a colossal, world-changing tragedy in train; he doesn't seem quite as nice at the end as at first. Here is the skinny on Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships and ignited a war that lasted over a decade and led to the destruction of Troy. Here are the admirable, doomed Hector; the bitter, volatile Achilles; the oily Agamemnon; the whiny Menelaus; the wily Odysseus; the self-destroying Ajax.

Here are Cassandra, doomed to prophesy in vain; vengeful Clytemnestra, whose gave her husband a welcome-home shirt with a surprise sewn into it; dutiful Orestes, who risked an unimaginable fate to restore his father's honor; faithful Penelope, who put up with more than your average war widow; and a teenage psychopath named Neoptolemus, who makes you wonder what the ancient world would have been like on Ritalin.

Can all of that fit into one book, and still be fun to read? If you doubt it, you need only pick up this light volume by a master of way-more-than-twice-told tales.

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