Book Review: The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris

May 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

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~

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Book Review: The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated, by Gerald Morris

April 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

At his christening, Balin is proclaimed as the victim of a heavy prophecy: he shall be known as the noblest knight in England! But- he’ll bring misfortune wherever he goes, bring down two kingdoms in a single day, strike the Dolorous Stroke, and in the end, destroy the knight he loves most in the world. His mother just hopes he’ll marry a nice northern girl. As he gets older and starts his adventures, he seems doomed to fulfill this prophecy, but is there a way to escape his fate?

I love Gerald Morris. I have been reading his books since I can’t even remember when. I checked them out almost every time I was at the library and read them again and again and again. They made the Arthurian tales come alive for me, and more than that, they made the idea of retellings stick in my head and lodge there in a very satisfactory way. I was incredibly saddened when the Squire’s Tale series started drawing to a close- sad, but also content, because everything was as it needed to be. So when I head rumor of a series of Arthurian retellings for a younger audience, I was intrigued.

And they’re just as wonderful.

Like the other installments (none of which have to be read in the order in which they’re written) this book is laugh out loud funny, with a keen sense of absurdity and a Shakespearean delight in highlighting the ridiculous. And the humor isn’t just for kids- adults can fully appreciate the sly, understated wit in the repartee, even as kids giggle over the accidental happenings. They’re easy stories but they’re not dumbed down, perfect for any child who’s ever loved knights and damsels-not-in-any-distress-thank-you-very-much.

The illustrations are perfectly pitched, a little cartoony but not distracting. They help to break up the page for newer or reluctant readers, but there aren’t so many that they overshadow the text and the story in any way. This is a perfect book to read aloud with kids. What’s more, they’ll learn scads of fun words without even realizing they’re improving their vocabulary.

There are fabulous lessons in each of the Knights’ Tales books, but they’re not presented as morals. There isn’t a big block of bold print somewhere near the end saying “HEY LOOK AT THIS THING I AM TEACHING YOU”. They’re presented with the same tongue-in-cheek widsom as all the other accolades and foibles the characters present. Everything Sir Balin does seems to fit perfectly within the bounds of the prophecy, so that even when he deliberately sets out to obfusticate it, he still seems to be fulfilling it. But as his mother, his brother, and the adventurous Lady Annalise remind him, prophecies are just words. Ultimately, his life and his choices are his own, to do with as he will. It’s foolish to let a few words by a raving old woman make you scared to live your life. But, as with any wisdom that’s granted rather than earned, it takes time for him to appreciate the truth of their sentiments.

These books are a fabulous addition to any home or classroom library, and for more advanced readers, be sure to check out The Squire’s Tale, the first book of his older readers series.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Sir Gawain the True, by Gerald Morris

March 29, 2011 at 9:28 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Okay, I’m going to admit to a little gushing here: I adore Gerald Morris. I have been reading his books for what seems like forever. I can’t even count how many times I checked them out from various libraries until I was finally able to buy my own set. The ten books of the Squire’s Tale series can be sorted as MG (Middle Grade) or YA (Young Adult) depending on what bookstore you’re in, but the newer Knights’ Tales series is solidly MG.

And wonderful.

Sir Gawain the True is the third of this new series and revisits one of the main characters from the other series. The classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is retold here with a charming lesson on manners and the importance of keeping promises- and making them carefully. King Arthur firmly believes in courtesy and gallantry, but his knights- including his nephew Gawain- are a little slow to take this to heart. When Gawain rescues a damsel but doesn’t bother to ask her name or accept her tokens of thanks, he finds someone more than willing to teach him that all-important lesson, and he may even find a very good friend along the way.

The tone of these books is amazing, light and fun with a dry wit and pointed commentary that will delight adult readers as well as children. I don’t know what this says about me, but I spent years convinced that Morris was British because of the breed of humor. There’s a lovely balance between the humor and the more serious moments, with a keen sense of the ridiculous in its many forms. Proof?- read the challenges at the castle. I nearly hurt myself laughing, but there really are people like that! Or, for a somewhat sharper observation, read between the parentheses on page 37 (review from an uncorrected advance through NetGalley- finished page numbers may not correspond).

There’s something about the idea of knights that’s a little irresistable. Maybe it’s the shiny metal suits, or the way they bash each other off high-speed horses with pointy sticks (anyone else have Wat from A Knight’s Tale stuck in their head now?), or the chivalry, or the damsels in distress. I played at knights all the time when I was little. Never the damsel in distress, though. I was the girl disguised as a boy to earn my knighthood and go off on grand quests. It’s not just a child’s fascination though. There’s a reason jousts are so well attended at Renaissance Festivals, and it’s not just because the knights are hot rock stars. We never really grow out of our fascination with knights.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or librarian, or just think knights are rock stars, this is a fantastic way to introduce young readers to the Arthurian legends. Aaron Renier’s illustrations are beautiful and fun, spaced well throughout the text, and the writing is fast-paced and light. Think The Princess Bride on a younger scale, with a narrator who admits to cutting out the boring parts. If they get hooked on this, then definitely introduce them to the Squire’s Tale series as they get a little older. If this is your first exposure, each of the Knights’ Tales books stand on their own, so you don’t have to read the others first, but you’ll definitely want to read them after.

Sir Gawain the True, the third book of the Knights’ Tales series by Gerald Morris, available on 18 April 2011. If you ever cheered for the knights racing down the lists, you want to read these books.

Until next time~

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