Terence, an orphan being raised by the hermit Trevisant, is out working his snare lines one day, when he comes across a man with three large horses (two of which are pack horses), a suit of armor, a sword and lance…and one of the rabbits from Terence’s trapline. All day Terence has been beset by mysterious tricks–a branch that slithers away like a snake, a squirrel that sings like a nightingale and everywhere a snickering little green man who pops up and vanishes away like a will-o-the-wisp. He is disinclined to be polite when he realizes the source of the large red-headed man’s rabbit dinner, but reluctantly invites him home to Trevisant’s hut for supper.
Like T.H. White’s Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, Trevisant sees time backwards, remembering the future and awaiting the past–and he has already packed Terence’s possessions, expecting him to ride away with this strange man to be his squire. Even when informed that this is Gawain, heading off to Camelot, Terence is dubious until Trevisant reassures him that it will prove both profitable and educational, and besides, is meant to be; he should know, as his past is Terence’s future.
The pair’s introduction at court is cut short at first by bagatelles such as the advent of the Army of Five Kings, who wish to take issue with this upstart bastard son of Uther, and Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere. The Five Kings’ conceit is ended by Terence’s theft of their Ring of Kingship–only he who holds this ring may rightly rule England or some such–with the aid of the green trickster whom he met in the beginning, though the Matter of Guenevere must wait until book two. The main plot device begins with a white hart bolting through the main hall, hotly pursued by a white hound. This mystery is only deepened by the arrival of a hag (no particular color) arriving shortly thereafter, who challenges the knights present at the banquet to follow the hart and the hound. Gawain is among the knights compelled to take up the…er…lady’s challenge, and with him, Terence; the two travel in pursuit of the hart and/or hound, but despite finding the two fairly early on in their travels, they continue on through the “England” of the time rescuing the usual quota of maidens from evil knights, brave knights from evil ladies (or not, as the situation requires). In the course of their travels, Gawain begins to learn humility–skilled though he may be, there will always be something to learn and eventually a more skilled knight–but perhaps more importantly for the series, Terence begins to learn something of his own heritage…and it’s not entirely human.
This is an amusing mashup of several medieval stories. For the most part, it centers around Arthur and Camelot, but also the variants on the “give the hag her choice when she asks whether you’d prefer her ugly or beautiful” trope which Chaucer retells in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the tales involving the differences in time flow between the mortal world and that of Faery. It’s a kids’ book, and while no one can compare to Lloyd Alexander and his Prydain, Gerald Morris’s books are well worth reading for themselves. The fact that they also can provide an overview of medieval and Middle English literature is an added bonus; subsequent books touch on (surprise, surprise) Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and other oft-studied works from College English 101. The characterization is nowhere near White’s “The Once and Future King”, but hopefully will serve as an engaging introduction to the literature and the period; Gawain, Arthur and Guenevere are here as human, though not as detailed, as they are in White’s work. Though they are not central characters in the stories, Morris does touch on why Guenevere would consider Lancelot over Arthur.