This was another book I picked up on the recommendation of The Ben (my fiance, cheap for those not caught up). Gerald Morris is a born-Californian who now lives in Wisconsin, which may explain some of the appeal to Ben. He has written a series of perhaps a dozen books for middle-grade readers about Sir Gawain, mostly through the eyes of Sir Gawain’s squire, Terence. He’s just recently started a second series for even younger readers (according to Wikipedia).
Terence is living with a hermit with memories of the future when a young man of great knightly skill stops by. After a very bizarre fight involving a frying pan, the young man — Gawain of Orkney, shortly to become Sir Gawain of the Round Table — agrees to take Terence on as his squire. They travel to Camelot and, after Gawain is knighted, receive a quest from King Arthur. They leave, and go around the countryside having adventures that range from the truly dangerous to the truly bizarre to the truly fantastic.
There is an afterword in the book that explains Mr. Morris’s motivation behind writing this book. Apparently in earlier Arthurian legends, Sir Gawain is the Real Hero of Arthur’s time. He always saves the damsel in distress; he is the epitome of the code of chivalry. Sometime in the middle (I think he blamed it on Malory), though, Lancelot became the hero, and Gawain became an oaf — too big, not refined enough. While reading these stories, Mr. Morris was bothered, and wanted to write at least a children’s story to ‘correct’ history. Fortunately, he seems to have his tongue in his cheek when he was writing the afterword at least; obviously one book isn’t going to rewrite history, but he seems to have had a lot of fun doing it.
The book reads, to me, more like a somewhat connected series of short stories than anything else. It’s very episodic, at least until the last third of the book or so. It would probably be fantastic for younger readers, or for reading out loud; there are so many natural breaks and not many cliffhanger chapter endings. I’ve been informed that future volumes are more novel-like, which may or may not be a good thing. I’ll have to read them and find out.
I think the strongest aspect of this book is actually the humor. There is one ‘story’ where Gawain and Terence are trying to ‘rescue’ a knight and his lady from themselves: she’s treating him terribly, so Gawain figures he should be made to understand that she’s horrible for doing this to him. Of course, that has the opposite of the intended effect . . . on the lady, not the knight. It’s riotously hilarious, and has to be read to be believed. Gawain himself is awfully good at the one-liner, and overall, though the book has serious parts, it’s definitely a good laugh.
The hermit with memories of the future is not Merlin (for those of you who have read The Once and Future King, or seen The Sword in the Stone), but he is distinctly Merlin-like. All good heroes need a hermit-like/Merlin-like mentor, though, and Terence is expected to be on his way to being a hero. Overall, I’d recommend this book to younger readers who haven’t been overexposed to the King Arthur tale; it’s probably a good book for reluctant readers, especially boys, as well. 4/5 stars.