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There are so many great Arthurian books series in the world. Some heavily based in Celtic mythology, some based on chivalric romance. Some dark and epic, some flowery and poetic. But I want to take a moment to talk about The Squire’s Tales series by Gerald Morris. A lot of people haven’t heard of it and it makes me sad. We’re gonna change that right now. 🙂 (Also, I swear I’m not sponsored in any way to promote this work. I literally just love it to pieces.)
The Squire’s Tales is a book series essentially covering the majority of Arthurian legend in one series…all told from a different character in each book! (And very few of them already well-known characters!) Gerald Morris creates a new, original character to be the lead for almost each tale, and centers that tale around famous ones that we all know. It’s a brilliant way of retelling the legend from a new perspective. And of course, all the OGs are there, too. Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere, Percival (Parsifal), Galahad, Mordred, Morgan, Kay (Kai), obviously Arthur– everyone but Merlin is wrapped up in the series in a beautifully crafted way. And while each of the books has a new (or newly developed) protagonist, they all truly center around Gawain’s squire, Terence.
Terence is an original character that I wish was part of the older legend. He’s highly intelligent, sweet, sassy when he needs to be, a skillful archer, and much more than he appears. His character arc is lovely; from a rather clumsy, awkward, twelve-year-old servant boy to a refined, bold-hearted young man, he stays true to himself the whole way through. So does his master and friend, Gawain, who also has a great arc. First an arrogant, hot-headed Scot, he becomes a humbler, gentler, kinder (still wild af in battles) middle aged knight. He is everything that I’ve ever wished Gawain could be, from his flaws to his greatest qualities. And one of those qualities is his love for his friend and squire, Terence.
An aside: These books were written before BBC’s Merlin and I wouldn’t be surprised if BBC got much of their inspiration from Morris’s Gawain and Terence. Terence is the squire/servant that has “magic” or supernatural abilities because (MAJOR spoiler!!!!) he is, in fact, the Duke of Avalon. (Just don’t let anyone in Camelot know.) And Gawain is the noble that pretends only to barely tolerate his servant, though he relies on him constantly. Terence and Gawain’s relationship with one another comes before all others, even when both men find love interests. (It’s basically the happy ending to BBC’s Merlin that we never got to have, where Arthur learns of Merlin’s magic and has fun with it for years. ❤ ) But aside from this iconic bromance, there are other AMAZING aspects of this series that should make it an Arthurian requirement for all fans.
This series is filled with tons of strong, smart women. Period. Well, okay, semi-colon. The men are strong and brave, too. (Most of them.) This is not to say that there aren’t any damsels in need of saving here and there. Morris doesn’t shy away from the fact that there were, in fact, several ladies in our legend who fainted at the slightest bit of distress. Yes, there were maidens who floated around castle towers until rescued and noblewomen who were marvelously indecisive in the least convenient of times. But for each book, there is (at the least) one brilliant, gleaming image of a formidable female character. Whether she’s a little girl or an older woman, the power she holds is always an inspiration. Terence’s quippy love interest, Eileen, comes pretty close to winning the cake. But Guinevere certainly displays her quiet strength and wisdom. And several young girls in the series– human or fae– are blazing heroines in their own right. Everyone has flaws, of course. They’re all beautifully realistic. But that’s what makes them incredible. They are ladies that anyone of any age can look up to.
Storylines, as well as historical events, are explored through a unique perspective in each book. Morris takes a lot of his inspiration from Chretién de Troyes and the French Arthurian romances. Lancelot’s story of rescuing Guinevere from a tower is in there, which includes the famous Sword Bridge and his not-so-secret affair with the Queen. But the kicker is that this story is told from the point of view of a young girl whose family was recently murdered by knights.
This girl, Sarah, ends up tagging along on the road with Lancelot and others, including Gawain and Terence. Reading the story from her point of view actually made me feel like a little girl again. Perhaps I can’t quite relate to being a street-smart orphan, or desiring revenge, or witnessing the murder of innocent Jews by Christian knights. (Yeah, we go there. Beware, Templar fans.) But reading the story from her perspective made me remember the curious qualities of a twelve-year-old girl. It felt as if I was right there in her shoes; as if I rode on Lancelot’s back across the Sword Bridge right along with her. It’s simply magical. Lancelot’s once scandalous and scary tower tale becomes a heartwarming story with a brave little girl at its core. I chose to mention this story because it’s one of my all-time favorites BUT Morris does this exact same thing with every single book. 🙂
In some books, we read from Terence’s perspective. In some, we see through the eyes of Lynet. (Another fierce young lady who’s not afraid of a sword.) In others, through the eyes of Parsifal’s page, Piers. And in a few cases, we get to read from the perspective of Sir Dinadan– a knight who only longs to be a minstrel.
The tales from older literature, where Dinadan gets wrapped up in Tristan and Isolde’s world, are spun beautifully and tragically in this series. It’s amazing how in one book told from Arthur’s or Gawain’s point of view, love is such a beautiful, fragile thing worth protecting. Even if it hurts. And in a book from Dinadan’s POV, love is stupid and tragic, and it sucks. Playing the lute and storytelling is better, with far richer reward. Another brilliant original character– the witty bard, Rhience– gives a hilarious but eye-opening perspective on life, itself.
Morris’s Camelot is so beautifully, immaculately clear and even thought-provoking, thanks to his change in perspectives. He allows us to see these iconic Arthurian stories for what they truly are to the people in those stories. Sounds redundant but it’s surprising how detached we can get from some texts, where the characters are often paintings of perfection instead of real people. This series breathes new life into all of our favorite characters.
No one wants to read a book where the moral of the story is slapped in the readers’ face over and over again. Morris, instead, brings up topics that might have been controversial back then– some that may even be controversial now– and sprinkles bits of that topic throughout the book. It’s so subtle but so powerful, and beautifully worded by the characters that approach these topics every single time. A woman in a place of power, for instance. A person of color in Camelot. A knight who only longs to be a minstrel. Dinadan’s tale sounds like a comedy and certainly has room for laughs– but it also brings about the idea of loving a woman as a friend, without wishing to marry her. (Because he may or may not have stronger feelings for Sir Palomides.) While never specifically addressed in that way, The Ballad of Sir Dinadan is a very special book for Squire’s Tales fans in the LGBT+ community, myself included.
LGBT+ representation, quite subtle though it may be, can also be found towards the end of Beaufils’ story, The Quest of the Fair Unknown, between two women. Why does the fairest, most beautiful maiden in all the land have to end up with a charming, handsome knight? Why can’t she end up in the arms of an injured woman that she vows to heal and care for and love, for as long as she’s able? ❤
Religion is another one; addressed in manageable doses but much more directly. (As it should be; Arthurian legend can be said to revolve entirely around religion, given the adaptation.) But it’s addressed with a very open mind (especially given that Morris is a pastor at the First United Methodist Church in his Wisconsin town!) For someone who was raised Baptist the way that he was, it blows my mind how well Morris seems to be able to understand the ancient Celtic way of thinking, including Druidic/pagan beliefs. His non-Christian characters are so well-developed in that regard. Gawain, Morgan, the Orkney family, even mysterious older enchantresses from older traditions… (I’m talking Hecate-level, y’all.) Seeing Britain’s values through their eyes makes me appreciate and understand their beliefs more than I already thought I did. Morris also makes it easier to understand the Christian way of thinking, through the eyes of Beaufils, Parsifal and Lancelot, among others. There are, of course, characters who give their religion a negative connotation; Morgause and Mordred on the pagan side, for instance, and sadly, Galahad on the Christian side. But these discussions feel healthy and needed in such a fun-spirited series and are sprinkled deliciously throughout. Without being overbearing, it gives us a very distinct taste of the religious climate in Arthur’s Britain.
And you can’t have a bit of controversy without race. Morris doesn’t shy away from the fact that Sir Palomides is, in fact, a man of color. Certainly the only black Knight of the Round Table. It may be a tad subtle but it’s ever present– and not easily forgotten by Arthurian fans of color. Neither are the other POC characters that come from Greece, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Morris makes sure the reader knows how important equality is at the heart of Camelot. In all regards. And that makes Arthur, himself, all the more wise and honorable.
Speaking of which…you can’t go wrong with the classics. And they’re all there; some with excellent upgrades.
Kai isn’t inherently awful, for instance. He’s a by-the-book kind of guy and loyal to Arthur, almost to a fault. We know this. But he’s not a jerk. Stiff and kinda cocky? Yes. Rude and pompous, as he is in older texts? No. A lovely redemption for him. 🙂
Morgan’s not (entirely) evil, though she’s never fully trustworthy. I know many people want Morgan to be good and are sick of seeing her painted as a villain. But I personally LOVE Morgan as a villain, especially here, and only ever wish to see her portrayed as such. (Except in Mists of Avalon, of course. Marion Zimmer Bradley makes her an angel and I just want to hug the poor thing and give her tea.) Morris’s Morgan, though, has a delightful amount of layers and depth, as well she should. She is elegant, classy, humorous and charming…while also maintaining that secret dark streak underneath it all, that could rise once and for all, at any time. And if you wanna talk truly evil, Morgause wins by a landslide. Definitely got the “one-witch-to-rule-them-all” vibe. And it’s delicious.
Speaking of Morgause, her sons (AKA Gawain’s brothers) get spotlight, too! We don’t get to know the Orkney boys’ personalities all that well in older literature. But for the first time, Morris sheds a light not only on Gawain but on Gareth, Gaheris, Agravaine and Mordred. It’s a joy to see them with such distinct personalities! And it helps us get to know Gawain a whole lot better. (Don’t judge me, but the Orkney boys sort of remind me of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Duey and Louie! No one could tell those boys apart until Disney released a reboot of the cartoon, “Duck Tales”. This series is the Orkney Bros’ reboot. It’s everything.)
Then of course, there’s Arthur. As Arthur-ey as Arthur can get. Kind, gentle, firm, fierce when he needs to be, incomparably brave, flawed, self-conscious in his love life. He is caring, fatherly and endlessly determined to lead his people to peace. It’s impossible not to want to follow him into battle. And to want to feast with him afterwards.
But most importantly, The Squire’s Tales is pure fun. It makes the reader feel warm and fuzzy inside. The series is clearly written for a younger audience. But it is, without a doubt, for all ages. It’s hilarious, it’s enchanting, dark and sad at times, yet still indescribably fun and absolutely riveting. And it’s simply magical. If you couldn’t tell from the entirety of this post, it’s one of my favorite versions of the Arthurian world. There are so many great ones; so many versions of Arthur’s Britain that are dark and beautiful, and mystical and iconic. But this one is my go-to happy place. ❤ I hope you come to love it as much as I do, too. Cheers to Gerald Morris for creating such a thrilling, magical, inclusive world for our beloved legend.