The Squire’s Tale is what I love to see out of kids’ fantasy. It’s charming, it’s well-told, it’s entertaining for a number of age groups, and even as it simplifies and plays with the mythology it uses, it remains lovingly respectful of the original texts.
I was actually surprised by how closely the novel sticks to the Arthurian legends. The Squire’s Tale introduces the character of Terence, Sir Gawain’s squire, and gives the magical end of things more of an Irish mythological slant, but beyond that scope it’s clear that Morris has read Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and probably a lot of other material as well. This firm grounding in the tradition gives his work a feel of casual authenticity. Yet Morris is also careful never to let his own clear interest in the original legends get the better of his efforts to write his own story. He alters characters and events freely, while still maintaining some whisper of the original’s feel. I can’t praise him enough for that achievement.
I admit, I’ve grown a bit tired of the recent trend in children’s fantasy toward using rich traditions of story as merely a kind of perfunctory spice, little considered for any merit it might have beyond filling a gap. That may have somewhat influenced my enjoyment of Morris’s text, as, I admit, a lot of my thinking when reading it boiled down to tremendous geeky satisfaction that someone was out there making the Arthurian legends I know and love accessible to a young audience. Still, for anyone who (like me) is already an Arthur fan, this is a must-read.
All of that aside, it’s not a perfect novel. The Squire’s Tale is very much a set-up for a series rather than a standalone, and I’ll admit that those who are not quite as interested in the King Arthur stories as I am might be a little bemused by some of the tongue-in-cheek jokes Morris makes about certain characters. Was this not a King Arthur book but merely a fantasy on its own (in other words, taking the intertextuality out of the equation) I would still say that it was a great, fun read, but I’ll admit that it might not be a particularly memorable one in the entire range of fantasy.
Taking everything into account, though, I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun with a children’s retelling. It really is a goofy, funny, well-meaning little story, and I’d give it to a young reader (or even a few older ones) in a heartbeat.
Squire’s Tales — (1998-2006) Ages 9-12. Publisher: In medieval England, fourteen-year-old Terence finds his tranquil existence suddenly changed when he becomes the squire of the young Gawain of Orkney and accompanies him on a long quest, proving Gawain’s worth as a knight and revealing an important secret about his own true identity.