Posts Tagged Gerald Morris

another quest

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Gerald Morris has done a great job with the Parsifal story too.

Parsifal has been kept in ignorance of knights and all things chivalrous by his mother, for reasons of her own. When he sees a knight ride by though, he is seized by a desire to become one himself….

The story is told by Chretien de Troyes, though he stopped writing it before he got to the end. Wolfram von Eschenbach retold it, claiming to have got the story from one Kyot the Provençal, who himself got it from an arabic manuscript written by a muslim astronomer from Moorish Toledo.

I identify with Parsifal because he’s hopelessly ill-equipped for any quest, but has a sort of raw enthusiasm. Like ‘Lazy Jack’ he’s always following the last piece of advice he’s been given. At first he always asks questions, just as his mother told him to, then he is taught to not ask questions because it is not seemly in a knight, and then, when his moment comes at the famous grail castle, he doesn’t ask about the strange things he sees, the sick Fisher King, the bleeding lance, the Grail that magically produces food.

Later he finds out what a mistake he has made:

The king, the queen and the barons gave the most joyful welcome to Perceval the Welshman, and led him back to Carlion, returning there that day. They celebrated all night and the day that followed: until, on the third day, they saw a girl coming on a tawny mule, clutching a whip in her right hand. Her hair hung in two tresses, black and twisted: and if the words of my source are true, there was no creature so utterly ugly even in Hell. You have never seen iron as black as her neck and hands, but that was little compared to the rest of her ugliness: her eyes were just two holes, tiny as the eyes of a rat; her nose was like a cat’s or monkey’s, her lips like an ass’s or a cow’s; her teeth were so discoloured that they looked like egg-yolk; and she had a beard like a billy-goat. She had a hump in the middle of her chest and her back was like a crook … She greeted the king and his barons all together – except for Perceval.

Sitting upon the tawny mule she said: ‘Ah, Perceval! Fortune has hair in front but is bald behind. A curse on anyone who greets or wishes you well, for you didn’t take Fortune by the hand when you met her. You entered the house of the Fisher King and saw the lance that bleeds, but it was so much trouble for you to open your mouth and speak that you couldn’t ask why that drop of blood sprang from the tip of the white head; nor did you ask what worthy man was served by the Grail that you saw. How wretched is the man who sees the perfect opportunity and still waits for a better one! And you, you are the wretched one, who saw that it was the time and place to speak and yet stayed silent; you had ample opportunity! It was an evil hour when you held your tongue, for if you had asked, the rich king who is so distressed would now have been quite healed of his wound and would have held his land in peace …’

Perhaps the latest Parsifal type person is Po, the Kung Fu Panda – hopelessly ill-equipped, but somehow improbably making it through to herohood in the end. There must be scores of stories like this, Disney seems to like them, where Everyman manages to do the impossible. But my favourite is Parsifal and, I’m pleased to say, Sam loved it too.

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a quest

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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…

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