I am a great fan of Howard Pyle. I first became familiar with him through his
artworks, particularly his pirate art. Then I read The Book of Pirates and was so
impressed with his talent for retelling legends. Here is another book of legends, this time from the days of King
Arthur. It is the second of four books he wrote on Arthurian legends, although he also wrote other books from the medieval period. Sometimes books about this
era can be stuffy and over-complicated, especially trying to keep one's mind organized about who is related to whom, but this one is definitely not. It is
technically classified as a children's book, but please don't let that stop you if you're an adult. I was totally entertained the entire way through, and I
can't wait to read more books by this great story-teller.
I will state up front that I have issues with the whole warrior mindset, whether it's a knight in shining armor, a samurai, or a modern soldier. I just don't like killing and violence. Back during this period was almost as bad as Roman times, where people gathered to see the jousts, which often turned gory, even though the tournaments were meant as entertainment as well as competition. Of course, unlike in Roman times, the participants had a choice as to whether they wanted to be there. I especially disliked the fact that horses, who obviously didn't have a choice, were often killed or injured. But, other than that, there is really little I did not enjoy about the stories, and of course, Pyle didn't make them up, he just re-told them. Now, I can see when an evil knight is terrorizing everyone, especially a lady, that a brave knight would have to rescue her, and that was often the case. But I still didn't like when the horse got hurt.
The book is divided into three main sections, each focusing on the life of a famous knight: The Story of Launcelot; The Book of Sir Tristram; and The Book of Sir Percival. There is also quite a bit about Sir Lamorack, Sir Percival's brother. Of course, numerous other knights, and kings and queens are parts of the legends, but these three are the main characters. To make it more authentic, Pyle has used a semi-ancient sounding style, not enough to be confusing, but just right to give the stories that medieval touch. And of course, there are lots of Pyle's beautiful artworks, one at the beginning of every chapter. Briefly, here are some highlights from each section.
We begin as Launcelot's parents, King Ban of Benwick and Queen Helen are besieged by King Claudas. They escape to seek King Arthur's help. As they stop for the night, King Ban goes to the top of a hill, only to see that his castle has been taken. He dies of a heart attack The queen finds him dead, and when she returns to Launcelot, she finds that a fairy, (Fay) known as Lady Nymue, or The Lady of the Lake, has taken the child. She says he will return to mortal land eventually, but now must be reared by her so that he may become great. The queen faints, and is taken to live in an abbey with nuns.
Seventeen years later, while out hunting on the eve of Saint John, King Arthur and his party come upon a celebration of Fay (fairies), who can be seen by mortals on that particular night. King Arthur's men join the celebration, and it is here that The Lady of the Lake presents Launcelot to Arthur, and requests that he make him a knight, because he has been trained in the enchanted kingdom and is destined to be a legendary hero—one of the greatest knights to ever live.
After Launcelot is knighted, he goes out to prove himself and have lots of adventures. Soon he establishes a reputation for exemplary strength, skill and bravery. But he gets himself into some binds, too. The first is when he is captured by Queen Morgana le Fay, an evil enchantress and also Arthur's sister. She cannot harm him because he is wearing a protective ring, but she keeps him asleep while he is taken back to her castle, then held prisoner. But Eloise the Fair, daughter of King Bagdemus, is Queen Morgana's attendant. She fears her, and wants to escape back to her father, and also helps Launcelot to escape. He promises to serve her father in a tournament against the King of North Wales. Meanwhile, he kills the evil Sir Turquine, who has been capturing other knights and holding them prisoner. He has many more adventures, including playing a trick on Sir Kay, another of King Arthur' knights.
The longest section in the book is about Sir Tristram, and unlike Launcelot's adventures, most of Sir Tristram's life was tragic. I want to point out that, even though I don't believe in the violence presented in these legends, Pyle certainly stresses the positive aspects of honor and loyalty. Sir Tristram's life was made miserable by the fact that he pledged his loyalty to a real scoundrel—his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. In fact, throughout his life, it seems, everyone whom he loved and trusted betrayed him, with the exception of his true love, Lady Belle Isoult.
Tristram came to King Mark to prove his prowess, even though he had no knightly experience. He vowed to do battle with Sir Marhaus, who represented the King of Ireland, who was forcing King Mark to pay truage on a certain island. Both knights were severely injured, but Sir Marhaus died. Sir Tristram's wound would not heal, so he traveled to Ireland, where he had heard the Lady Belle Isoult was a great healer. She did heal him, and they fell deeply in love, but when it is discovered he was the one that killed Sir Marhaus, his life was in danger. So he left, but not before dealing with another knight, Sir Palamydes, who was determined to have Lady Belle Isoult.
Tristram, now back with King Mark, has gained so much fame for his brave deeds that his uncle begins to become extremely jealous and hateful. Since Tristram serves and trusts the king who knighted him, he is willing to do whatever his uncle requests. Tristram also plays the harp and sings beautifully, and one day, as he is playing and singing of his love for Belle Isoult, King Mark makes him promise to do him a favor, before telling him what it is. Sir Tristram promises, and is dismayed to find that the request is to bring back his lady love—to be Mark's queen!
Tristram also becomes very close to Sir Launcelot and Sir Lamorack, and finally goes mad from his distress. If you want to know more about these famous lovers, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is another book you may want to read.
The last section about Sir Percival is more of a humorous nature, as opposed to Sir Tristram's tragic life. Sir Percival's father and brothers are killed, except for Sir Lamorack, so he and his mother live in hiding. She protects him so intensely that he has no idea about anything going on in the world. But eventually he sees some knights, and the fire within him is ignited. He weaves a suit of armor from willow, and goes out into the world totally naïve, leading others to believe he is mad. But he has knightly blood, and soon proves his strength and skill, even without training. When he finally meets his brother, he won't admit who he is because he wants to prove himself first, so his brother will be proud. Sir Launcelot takes him under his wing, and trains him to be a superb knight., and he does indeed make everyone proud.
This is a really enjoyable book, for children and adults. Highly recommended reading. It is no longer available from Dover, but you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg.
Below: The Lady Nymue beareth away Launcelot into the Lake.
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