Tag Archives: King Arthur

Gawain and the Green Knight – Mark Shannon and David Shannon

I’m familiar with David Shannon’s hilarious, evil “David” books. No David! is the first of those and they star a bad little boy whose exuberance keeps him in hot water and his mother on repeat admonishing “No!” It’s so easy to see how this kid goes off the rails every time he moves that it is perfectly safe to read and enjoy the books with a kid–David is such a mess that even children can laugh at the trouble he gets himself into. So, I was curious to read a different sort of Shannon book, a collaboration between David Shannon, artist, and his brother Mark, writer, on one of King Arthur’s tales. Gawain and the Green Knight is for a slightly older but still unsophisticated crowd. The story of Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table–and something of a kid brother–simplifies the rich world of Celtic myth and legend into a one-note quest that proves steadfastness and courage.

The illustrations are rich but rather dark. I liked the touch of ending a white text page with a small woven tapestry (painted) that depicts another visual element of the words on that page. Gawain is hesitant and tongue-tied until he impulsively takes the challenge of a mysterious Green Knight who appears in the midst of Arthur’s warriors. The knight is enormous and wagers that a man brave enough to strike him with an ax will not prevail. Being knights, only honor is at stake–the challenge is just yuletide sport. Being males, pointless violent stunts are irresistible, so the wager is on. Naturally, there is a catch. Gawain chops off the knight’s head and the knight picks it up and booms out the penalty. Gawain will have to travel to his Green Chapel and allow the knight his counter blow.

Complications, in the form of a fair lady who embroiders Gawain a protective sash and a magical couple and castle where Gawain spends the night before riding to the Green Chapel, allow Gawain to show his true mettle. It’s very high-minded with almost no blood and the good guys triumph in the end. Arthurian stories are marvelous and I would never hesitate to put one in front of a kid but I don’t know how much this one would captivate. I found it a little flat–possibly a chivalrous small boy would think it was exciting and cool.  Not a hapless mini-disaster-area like David Shannon’s anti-hero David, though. Put Gawain and the Green Knight in front of him and he’d probably spill purple grape juice all over it.

Gawain and Green Knight   Mark Shannon & David Shannon | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1994

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The Stolen Bride – Tony Hays

Tony Hays has pulled off a trick of alchemy with his Arthurian murder mystery, The Stolen Bride. It’s a very decent mystery–lots of clues, a few red herrings, plot convolutions, a fair amount at stake. Murder in Camelot–no fairytale here but the whole thing works. It’s set in the middle of power struggles in Arthur’s Wild West Britain in which lords and kings and leiges and usurpers and every manner of ambitious armed warrior is set on treachery. Into this rough and dirty world marches Malgwyn, Arthur’s one-armed counselor, an honest and perceptive soldier and advisor who is frequently at odds with his boss and wants nothing more than to be home with his daughter and very pregnant wife.

Home is a long way away when Malgwyn and his companions, riding to meet Arthur, stumble across the savage butchery of an entire village, women and children mercilessly slaughtered and the place in flames. One survivor, a young woman, could not place the invaders who spoke a strange language. Malgwyn takes her with them, vowing to avenge the massacre of her family and village. And, when he arrives at the castle of King Doged to help negotiate a truce among several warring tribes, Doged is murdered in his chambers, his young wife widowed and every power-hungry noble sets out with an army to try to seize the spoils.

The regicide is complicated and Arthur tasks Malgwyn with solving it. Doged’s widow is determined to hold onto his kingdom and she may be carrying the old king’s child.  Mordred, Malgwyn’s bitter enemy, is arrested for the crime but Malgwyn senses a larger and more ominous conspiracy and villains afoot. Vast mineral treasure is discovered on Doged’s land and control of the rich seaports and the mines is too tempting a prize for anything less than a score of deadly plots. Daron, the lone survivor of the massacre, is a tougher, more central player than she first seems. Malgwyn is playing a dangerous game and his own life could be forfeit.

Merlin and Igraine have major roles in the plot resolution. Arthur’s relentless work to hold his kingdom together and secure a just and lasting peace is threatened at every turn. Hays creates a real world with tremendous attention to details of arms, terrain, food, battle strategies, court protocols and ancient law. His characters are the best part–these are flawed, sweaty, smart, exhausted, furious, funny people. Betrayal is a byword. Trickery is commonplace, and some of it is wickedly clever. A few times the narrative felt a bit modern but the lapses weren’t so jarring that I lost the story or the sense of place. Even though the epilogue-like ending was just slightly cute, I’d have to say pretty good book overall. I’d read another one, although not right away. The events and the battles are bloody and desperate and, while I was satisfied at the main plot resolution, I wouldn’t want to live in that messy world. Occasional escape to it would be fine.

The Stolen Bride   Tony Hays | Forge  2012

The Book of Merlyn – T. H. White

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T. H. White’s classic The Once and Future King had a coda. He produced a final book in the history of Arthur that told of Merlyn’s last effort to teach his famous pupil on the eve of a critical battle. The Book of Merlyn wasn’t published until 1958, likely because it is a powerful anti-war screed and was offered to White’s publisher in 1941, in the midst of World War II. Once the manuscript was discovered in White’s papers, the story of Arthur and Merlyn’s last encounter, and the account of what happened to Lancelot and Guenever (sic) was amended to the rest of the legend.

Arthur is old and exhausted—his kingdom in worse tatters than his heart. His cursed fate produced Mordred, the son who wages battle against him for the throne. His best friend and his wife have betrayed him. His Round Table is smashed and his dream of a peaceful kingdom might as well have been the ravings of a lunatic. As he waits in his tent for morning and the battle that will bring certain death, he is ready for it. He welcomes death as an end to his grief and disappointment. Then Merlyn appears.

At first Arthur believes he is dreaming but Merlyn soon relieves him of that notion and spirits him away to the old wizard’s cave where he meets with the Animal Counsel. White envisioned this ending to his saga as a neat return to the way he began it—the Animal Counsel includes a badger, a goat, an eagle, an owl, a hedgehog, a snake and others Merlyn enlisted to help teach the boy Arthur. Now Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and a goose to illustrate just how misguided the descent into war is and how animal species have arranged themselves to avoid such madness.

White’s language, often from the mouths of Merlyn, a badger or a hedgehog, is alternately humorous and playful or serious and didactic. Arthur’s despair is transformed into something far more resigned and enlightened; he finds the strength and wisdom to shoulder the burdens of kingship. And Merlyn, who lives backwards in time and knows the future (that White lived in) as he moves inexorably into the past, predicts momentous consequences for Arthur’s choices and, for an instant, banishes the encroaching dark.

The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King     T.H. White | Shaftesbury Publishing Company  1977

Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper

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Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in Susan Cooper’s acclaimed fantasy series The Dark is Rising. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for some time. The books were highly recommended on a gifted homeschooler list I followed for years but somehow we never put our hands on one. I was poking around the library shelves looking for novels to read and thinking I ought to reserve Susan Cooper’s books when, suddenly, there it was—the first volume in the sequence and a nice new copy that seemed barely read but had never been there when I’d looked before. Hmmm.

The praise is earned. Over Sea, Under Stone is the richly detailed, tense, quite prosaic but utterly fantastic adventure of three siblings living in a strange old house on the coast of Cornwall for their summer vacation. Their slightly distracted parents are along and the whole family has been invited by a dear friend who is close enough to their mother to be considered ‘Uncle’ Merry. Merriman Lyon is an eccentric and distinguished antiquities professor with a habit of disappearing for months at a time and then popping up with some fabulous discovery that changes history or flabbergasts the director of a museum.

This time things are a bit different. Uncle Merry wanders in and out but he doesn’t take off. He is very much present and closely involved with the children. Good thing, as inexplicable events endanger Simon, Jane and Barney as soon as they uncover the secret entrance to a dusty attic that holds a mysterious parchment, scribbled in cipher, with a hand drawn map. It is and it isn’t a treasure map. If Uncle Merry knows more about it than he is telling, so do some threatening characters lurking about the edges of the family vacation. When their house is ransacked while the family sleeps, the children confide in Uncle Merry about their find and an epic struggle between good and evil begins.

Some things are obvious—Uncle Merry could be none other than, well, that’s easy to figure out. Clues on the treasure map are a bit tougher and good guys and bad guys turn out to be mostly bad guys. Cornwall is the territory of Arthurian legend and still adheres to its old patterns of fishing, folk festivals and superstitions. All of them are woven into the unexpected quest that absorbs the children and places their lives in danger. Over Sea, Under Stone would be fine for a younger child, although it does get scary in parts so suitability depends on the kid. It’s a satisfying read for an adult and will have you glued to the page to see how various perils are resolved. I’m sorry I waited so long to read it and I will reserve the rest of the series to catch up on the adventures of Merriman Lyon and his troika of bright and eager apprentices.

 Over Sea, Under Stone (Dark Is Rising Sequence (Simon Pulse))     Susan Cooper | Aladdin Paperbacks 1989