Sir Gawain the True
I like this book. A lot. You were warned.
THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE by Gerald Morris is the third book in the Knights’ Tales series. Chapter book series do have to fight against a sequel bias, but unlike the ALVIN HO and CLEMENTINE series, this one features a different main character in each book with King Arthur as the one constant, making it a true standalone. Not that this has anything to do with Newbery consideration, but the upside to recognizing a book in a series is that it allows readers to find books they otherwise might not have, and I do think that would happen here. Readers would likely move on to the other books in the Knights’ Tales and then to the Squire’s Tales series.
Another potential deterrent to committee members is the cartoony cover art and the interior illustrations. They will play well to the intended audience of young readers, but they don’t necessarily scream Newbery to adults the way that, say, Peter Sis’s work for THE WHIPPING BOY does.
The ideal audience for SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE is third and fourth graders, but it could work well for precocious first and second graders and for reluctant and/or struggling fifth through eighth graders, making it a book with a very wide range of appeal.
This book starts out with your typical episodic chapter book plot, but then somewhere along the way, Morris shifts gears and you realize that you are, in fact, reading the integrated plot of a novel. Gaiman did this in THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and Morris does something very similar here. Additionally, Morris throws a string of four puzzling characters into the middle of the story, each one a mystery that is revealed in the final chapter. To fully appreciate this, you have to read the book twice. Only then can you see, for example, not only the clues to the character’s identities, but that the early chapters, far from being episodic, are each the natural and logical result of the chapter before. It’s just that the reader doesn’t recognize this delayed emergence of causality until much later. Remember my earlier rant about book obesity? Well, here’s what I’m talking about. Morris outplots the competition, and does it with a mere 13, 714 words.
These characters are stock or types. Morris effectively draws each of them with a few broad brushstrokes, Sir Gawain more fully than the others. Few characters this year evidence as much growth and change over the course of their story. Morris is particularly skilled at conveying this characterization and character development though dialogue. Here is a snippet from an early exchange between Sir Gawain and a damsel he rescues, just after he portentously refuses the gift of a sash (p. 7).
“Oh,” the damsel said. “Well . . . if you wish. But I want to thank you somehow. Perhaps it would be enough if I gave you a kiss on the cheek, just to–“
“I say!” interrupted Sir Gawain. “You don’t think that just because I saved your life we’re, you know, in love or something, do you?”
“Because a lot of girls might think that, but really I would have saved any damsel. It didn’t have to be you. Besides, I’m not looking for a lady of my own right now.”
“A lady of your own?” gasped the damsel. “I never said–“
“Nothing personal, of course,” Sir Gawain said hurriedly. “I’m sure you’ll make a very nice lady for someone someday. It’s just that I’m not in the market for romance at the moment.”
“Of all the . . . All I wanted to do was show you my gratitude.”
We know just from this snippet that Gawain has a high opinion of himself, that he cuts people off, that he makes assumptions and leaps to conclusions. He’s not a bad person, just conceited and self-centered. But he’ll learn as we will see in several chapters when, while foraging for food, he comes across a dwarf with food to spare (p. 29-30).
Sir Gawain hesitated. “Er . . . I say, friend Spinagras . . .”
“You seem to have a good deal of food.”
“I was just wondering if maybe you had enough to share with King Arthur’s party.
Spinagras didn’t even turn around. “This is my food.”
“Yes, of course,” Sir Gawain replied. “But are you quite sure you need all of it?”
At last the dwarf turned and gazed challengingly into Sir Gawain’s eyes. “What if I said that I did? What would you do then?”
Sir Gawain sighed. The smell of roasting meet was tantalizing, but he only said, “I suppose I’d have to ride on and keep looking.”
King Arthur had chastised Sir Gawain for his account of rescuing the damsel, and Gawain has clearly taken that lesson on courtesy and humility to heart.
Just as the characters are communicated efficiently through dialogue, the setting is conveyed with a minimum of description. Then, too, the spot illustrations serve to reinforce the plot, character, and setting. This is not to critique the illustrations as part of what makes this book distinguished, but rather to make a general note that in any chapter book the spot illustrations serve this function.
The liberal quotes from this book so far illustrate that (a) Morris has full and total command of his storytelling voice and (b) that he is a humorist of the first rank. He draws humor from various places: from his characters (as evidenced above), from wonderful set pieces such as the one in chapter 6–A Fairly Useless Tournament–in which a duel between two ultra-competitive knights hilariously degenerates from jousting to swordplay to fisticuffs and ultimately to sand-and-gravel throwing, and from a wonderfully sly narrative voice that offers up great one-liners–
King Arthur’s cooks were kitchen magicians. It is said that Brussels sprouts prepared by King Arthur’s chefs tasted better than custard pies prepared by anyone else. Their recipe for Brussels sprouts has, alas, been lost.
–and makes metafictional asides.
As has already been mentioned, detailed accounts of battle are curiously dull to read. To do a fight justice, each attacking sword blow and defending parry must be noted. The problem is that the blow and parry together only take a fraction of a second, but it takes much longer than that to read about them. As a result, the poor readers get left behind. By the time they’ve finished with that first exchange, the knights have already gone on to have three or even four more. After that, there’s no catching up at all, but only falling further and further behind, and so readers lose interest. The same sort of thing happens at school sometimes.
Theme is another area where this book really shines. The themes are simple–courtesy, loyalty, and friendship–but they are delivered with a bit of sophistication. Making and keeping promises is something that we can all relate to in our interpersonal relationships, but in a philosophical diversion on the importance of vows and oaths at the beginning of chapter 4, Morris gives a bit of a political science lesson on the development of nation-states, taking those concepts to a whole new level. Furthermore, in order to really gain an appreciation of how well Morris has adapted and tailored this tale for his young audience, please revisit the original source material, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Some people have been impressed with what Anne Ursu did with “The Snow Queen,” but for my money, this one plays the intertextuality card much better.
Morris is writing for a younger audience here, and he accomplishes what he sets out to do with distinction and excellence–and does so at a higher level than virtually all of the novels we have discussed here. As a featherweight, SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE is not only pound for pound one of the best boxers here, but its got some formidable punches–plot, humor, theme–that would surprise some of those heavyweights. As I mentioned, I’m sorely tempted to spend a nomination on this title, and if I could find some converts, I could even put it in my top three come January.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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