Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights by James Knowles

Harumph. I didn't expect that. I've read so many books based on the Arthurian legend that I thought it would be a sword and sorcery fantasy plot with the character development of King Arthur. Scrap that thought. Character development takes a back seat to a series of chain-linked mini adventures connected to the knights of the Round Table fighting battles or single combats. King Arthur is hardly even in it. Or Merlin for that matter. The sword and the stone, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the Guinevere and Lancelot tragedy are just small pieces of one gigantic story on fighting. I was mixing my fantasy tropes with legends and the two operate differently. While this legend has magic, the focus is on being a chivalrous knight at all costs. In King Arthur's world, a knight is a disciplined soldier who follows certain military strategies and functions as part of a national army, or in this case, King Arthur's army. From what others say James Knowles retelling is close to Sir Thomas Malory's, Le Morte d'Arthur, except it sounds like Malory used even more battle descriptions. There are so many variations on the tale that I did not realize it is a legend that has influenced fantasy versus the other way around.

Historically, there is no denying the importance of this work in literature, but this retelling is not going to appeal to most modern readers. The antiquated language and battles or single combat scenes get monotonous after awhile. The knights prove their valor, courage, and chivalry over and over again. I found it engaging, funny, irritating, fascinating, and tedious. The women are one-dimensional nincompoops. I guarantee you will be offended. They get their heads chopped off either for love or because the rules of the game (whether evil or not) require it. This is one of the major characteristics that defines a chivalrous knight. The rules are more important than death even if they are evil.

In one adventure, a good knight, accompanied by a woman, comes to a castle where dwells an evil knight and a lady. The evil knight insists that the beauty of the two be compared and the uglier one have her head chopped off by the winner. The good knight vehemently disagrees with the terms of this because it is an evil custom. He is the good and chivalrous knight, while the other is dishonorable. The two women's looks are compared and the good knight chops off her head because she did not speak against the evil knight's rules. Another adventure involves a knight who accidentally chops off a woman's head that was trying to protect her knight who had cried for mercy after losing a combat. The knight was dishonorable because he lost his head and was unable to stop. Honorable knights don't kill defeated knights asking for mercy. The errant knight is repentant afterwards and carries the woman's head on a rope around his neck to tell King Arthur of his foul deed. The women of King Arthur's court judge his actions and sentence him to protect them whenever they call upon him. He is their knight forevermore. Ugh. Welcome to the bloody Middle Ages folks, when this tale that was first put to paper. Not that the feminine portrayals are surprising. Male heroes dominated the legend genre in literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

According to Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature, legends represent historical times and have an oral tradition. Legends were a way of people understanding the unexplained and history of their country. To understand the variations, readers need to understand the sociohistorical context of the times. I won't get into all of that, but it helps knowing it because King Arthur wants to take over lands from the Romans and Saxons. The superiority and snobbery shows how he represents the feudal lord, with the knights as his vassals. No one knows if King Arthur ever existed. He might represent a warrior that fought against the Saxons in 600 C.E. The King Arthur of this legend doesn't make an appearance on paper until ca. 1135 when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of England). According to this tale Arthur killed hundreds of Saxons, married Guinevere, and held court at Caerleon. His nephew, Mordred, rose up against him and although Arthur defeated him, he was mortally wounded and carried to the island of Avalon. Successive writings added Merlin and the magical sword, Excalibar. Sir Thomas Malory's retelling during the Middle Ages is reminiscent of some heroes found in the Knights-Templar and British history. His books were transformed into short narratives called chapbooks for children in the 1800s. Later James Knowles wrote this particular version for children.

Some knights carry white shields or mantles with red crosses, the same clothing of the Knights-Templar, a group of elite knights considered the best fighters during the Crusades. The Templars protected Christians on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from marauders.  The knights of the Round Table seem to be a bit like them having religious ascetic ideals mixed with a military role. The knights' actions are always measured against a code of honor. They are flawed and courageous to the point of stupidity. King Arthur is warned to wait for Lancelot and not fight Mordred in battle because he would die. Arthur tries to wait for Lancelot, but a series of events put him in battle against Mordred's army. Even when Arthur's knight tells him to not fight Mordred single-handedly, Arthur does because it is the noble thing to do. He foolishly insists on killing Mordred with his own hands and dies as a result. While these are flawed heroes that make mistakes over and over again, their courage is commendable.

This legend is one to be studied in a historical context. It is not your typical read and requires some research. It helped me better understand the legend and what other children's authors were doing in modern versions. I want to reread Gerald Morris' satirical Knights' Tales series again. They are hysterical and would be even funnier now that I've read this retelling. The first book is The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great. A new book that has more of the fantasy element of King Arthur is The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni. The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland has King Arthur as a young boy struggling to find his path during the Middle Ages. He is the second son of a landowner and cannot inherit the land. He decides to become a squire and then a knight so he can own his own manor at some point. Next I want to read Mark Twain's version and T.H. White's, Sword in the Stone.

5 Smileys

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