Raised in a forest by the hermit Trevisant, Terence has grown up outside of the concerns of men. But one day, a strange green face leads him through the trees to stumble on a young knight named Gawain, and nothing in Terence’s life will ever be the same. He joins Gawain on his journey to Camelot and King Arthur’s court, and beyond that on a great quest that leads through this world and the Other. On his adventures, Terence will learn a lot about courage, strength, beauty, and the best and worst that man has to offer.
I can’t even guess how many times I’ve read this book. I must have been ten or eleven the first time I checked it out from the library, and I’ve read it over and over and over, several times a year, because this is one of the books that changed me as both a reader and a writer. In fact, this book spawned my first fanfic.
Which, let’s face it, I am so SO glad I never put up online because it was awful.
But this is a book I talk about all the time, a book I really wish more people knew, and I realized I hadn’t ever actually talked about why.
As a kid, I grew up on stories of knights and damsels and quests, on the golden age of King Arthur, and all of that. I remember more than a few afternoon “quests” where I hunted down the evil Mordred to slay him before he could take down the great king. That being said, though, I didn’t actually know too many of the stories. I knew about Tristan and Isolde, about Lancelot and Guinevere, about Sir Kai and the Round Table. I’ll admit that my first knowledge of Sir Kai came from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.
And then this book.
Even the narration made it different than any other books I’d ever read. This is a story, told in the tradition of the bards and minstrels that weave so well through the setting, so it’s not afraid to play with the poetry of its descriptions. It doesn’t go overboard like most of the bards it gently pokes fun of. The thing that made me absolutely fall in love was the honesty of the emotions. It’s not like the characters don’t have filters, because they do- they know what is or is not appropriate to say in court, for example, and they know how to be polite (i.e. lie)- but they’re not afraid to be honest and cmofortable in their emotions. These are men and boys who cry when they feel sad.
It seems like a little thing, right? Males crying?
But keep in mind how old I was when I first read it. Ten was the age when boys and girls were really getting separated. Girls could fall on the playground and bawl their eyes out, but boys were supposed to get over it with nothing more than a sniffle. It was reinforced in classes, at the playground, at parties: girls were allowed to cry and boys weren’t. And I HATED that. Mainly because I hated crying and got irritated by adults telling me “It’s okay to cry” whenever I skinned my knee but my boy friends were told “you’re okay, you’re fine”.
And there was this book where these amazing things were happening, and people were getting injured or insulted, people were learning these incredibly painful things, they were getting their hearts stomped on- and these men were allowed to cry without there being anything shameful about it. I was hooked.
But it was so much more than that.
Their adventures were amazing, ranging from the Huge- fighting a war for the sovereignty of all England- to the Small- helping two people in love find happiness. But every step along the way gave something to learn. It’s not a moralistic story, but at the same time it’s full of valuable life lessons that made me look at things in a new way.
And the characters!
Terence is sweet and innocent, loyal, open to learning new things, and rendered entirely wide-eyed by this wide world from which he’s always been sheltered. He starts out a very young fourteen, but though only a few months pass, his experiences make him mature in thoroughly expected and lovely ways. Gawain starts out as a teacher but along the course of their journey becomes a friend, even a brother. He’s sometimes grouchy and overbearing, but he’s young, and he learns even more than he teaches. He learns that being a knight is much more than a title and a shiny suit of armor, and that chivalry isn’t just a word. The friendship that forms between the two is wonderful and inspiring. Arthur is the king you’d give anything to follow, wise and compassionate, a true leader of men who’s able to put the well-being of his people before his own personal happiness. There’s Tor, hungry to improve himself, and Plogrun, the grouchy, overbearing, opininiated squire he obtains. There’s characters you love to love, others you love to hate, and some you kind of can’t help but cheer for, even when you’d really rather not.
The setting is comfortable and casual. We’re in the early middle ages, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t strain or force the point. The historical details are effortlessly dropped in- clothing and food and weapons and armor, even bigger picture world events (in a general sort of way)- but they’re never done in such a way as to sidetrack us from the story.
And the story continues. One of the things I love about the series that follows is that it doesn’t always directly follow Terence and Gawain. We’re introduced to a wonderful, wide cast of characters that weave in and out of the story, that we revisit at times, like a reunion with old friends. I was heartbroken when this series ended, but also so gloriously happy because it was brilliantly done. I reread these books every year, usually more than once.
This is an amazing story to read on your own, with family, with a classroom, a gorgeous balance of humor, sorrow, adventure, triumph, setbacks, and just plain fun.
The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, one of my favorite books of all time.
Until next time~