We got the bare bones – Arthur, the Round Table, the sword Excalibur, Avalon, Camelot, Guinevere – from a cheap book called “Children’s Treasury”: King Arthur and His Knights Illustrated by Harry Threaker (the author’s name was not on the book). Sam luckily wasn’t bothered by the sentimental style:
“Never was there so handsome and so special a young mornarch! Not only did all the knights and ladies of his court think the world of him, but the fairies of the forests and lakes loved him, too. Had he not been given into the special care of Merlin, that master of magic, who knew a hundred times more secrets than the fairies knew themselves?”
And then we struck gold. I ordered a book called Sir Gawain, His Squire and his Lady (actually number 2 in a series called Squire’s Tales) by Gerald Morris. It’s an excellent children’s retelling, recasting from the squire’s point of view, of Gawain and the Green Knight, with of course much taken out, but also a lot added in. It’s meant for older children than Sam (just coming up to 8 in two days’ time), but with a few words changed or explained, and a bit of patience with the romance (in the modern sense of the word) we have found the Grail!
Naturally there are things that didn’t suit my taste – for instance Guinevere’s total weakness for Lancelot – but there’s none of the fayness or mawkishness of the “Children’s Treasury” one. The characters are unsentimental. And at the same time while there are a lot of liberties taken with the old stories there is also a respect for their weight and meaning. It comes through in the “Author’s Note”:
When I was in college during medieval times, about 1982; Dr Laura Crouch required my English literature class to read a poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was the most wonderful story I had ever encountered. I loved its brave and courteous hero, and was fascinated by the otherworldly scene at the Green Chapel. I loved the poem so much that I wrote a long and very complicated research paper on it, and like many of those who write about literature, I managed to footnote away all the poem’s charm and to make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seem as dull and pretentious as I was.
Well, I did no irreparable damage. My paper is long forgotten, but the poem is still around. All the same, some of the things I learned while researching that paper are still interesting to me and may be to others. So, at the risk of being boring twice on the same subject (an unforgivable sin), here is some background to the original work on which this book is based.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by an anonymous poet in the fourteenth century, at about the same time that the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales. The Gawain poet, however, wrote in a completely different dialect of English than Chaucer…”
We’ve been reading bits on our myriad journeyings, moving belongings to our new house, going off on holiday in the north. We’ve ended up working our way through the series. The first book is about Gawain too – or perhaps about his squire, Terrence. This one has elements of the “Loathely Lady” tale in it too.
And, again, sometimes I have to leave off at a really exciting bit, and Sam has to pick the book up himself…