Wednesday, March 23, 2011

YA BOOK REVIEW: The Legend of the King by Gerald Morris

The only bad thing about the story of Camelot is that I know how it’s going to end.

   King Arthur has played a large role in my long love affair with the middle ages. Once upon a time, the Arthurian ideal of chivalry embodied for me all the romantic and glorious images the word "medieval" conjured up: gallant knights, noble ladies, castles, questing, the protection of the downtrodden etc. Of course I learned that the real middle ages were nothing like Camelot. But I was thrilled to learn how the Arthurian romances were born in the middle ages. These extraordinary tales have survived through the centuries. They have been told and retold. New generations of story tellers have built upon them, turned them on their heads, told them from the point of view of major and minor characters– the adventure and romance live on.
But there is no escaping the fact that Camelot ends tragically. Good and evil clash. Evil doesn’t exactly triumph but it is a pyrrhic victory for good. No matter how you slice and dice the tale, it will break your heart.

   Which brings me to one of my favorite series of books and my review for today. If you like adventure tales that will captivate you, make you laugh out loud, characters that will win your heart, and writing that will make you stand in awe of the cleverness of the author, try reading The Squire’s Tale(s) by Gerald Morris. This ten book collection is written for older middle grade kids (I swear they are equally entertaining for boys and girls) and for teens. But if you are a grown-up who likes Arthuriana and you have no convenient young person around, go ahead and read the books just for yourself. The obvious jokes will entertain kids while the more subtle humor will have parents chuckling as they read between the lines.

   Morris retells several classic Arthurian tales, remaining surprisingly faithful to original storylines, but inserting enough extra context to help modern-day readers make sense of medieval material. Most, but not all, of the books make use of the boy named Terence from book number one (The Squire’s Tale) who ends up being squire to Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. Terence has other talents that I will leave you to discover. I read the book with my son, who was about 8 or 9 at the time. He was hooked. We’ve reread it more than once over the years.

   Still, it isn’t my favorite book in the series. My favorites are The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf (Book III) and The Ballad of Sir Dinadan (Book V). I think Dinadan ranks up there with my favorite fictional characters of all time.

   So, after nine marvelous books, Gerald Morris brings his series to a close with The Legend of the King, which tells the story of the final confrontation between Arthur and Mordred, using for excuse the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. We’ve seen hints of the end. Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, (his only son and thus his heir), has been lurking for the past couple of books. Sensitive characters (like Terence) have felt something amiss. Therefore, anyone who knows the story of Camelot will pick up this last book with a bittersweet reluctance. Gerald Morris will tell the story and tell it well. But even he can’t change the course of well-known fictional history. Can he?

   Knowing it would break my heart, I had to read it anyway. I had to see the way this version brought Arthur’s legend to a close.

   These books don’t have to be read in order because each one is a pretty well self-contained tale. However, I do recommend that you read them sequentially since I think ALL series should be read that way. And I think this one also has a more pleasing chronology if read from one to ten. Save The Legend of the King for last, but by all means, read it. The legend of Arthur is not complete without its finale.

   Have I gushed enough?

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