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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sir Gawain the True

Morris2 Sir Gawain the TrueHere’s one for the boys!

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.

PLOT

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.

CHARACTER

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?”

“What?”

“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 . . .”

“Yes?”

You seem to have a good deal of food.”

“So.”

“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.

SETTING

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.

STYLE

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

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.

CONCLUSION

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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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Blakeney says:

    I think the book is delightful. Full of humor, action and also character development. You make a good case for it. I am curious about what Arthur experts think. It seems that as it maintains its focus of courtesy throughout and friendship in the end, that it holds to the kind of principles the Round Table was known for.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Jonathan’s comments make me really want to read this one, especially since I’m a medievalist who frequently teaches Arthurian literature. But where is it?! Not in two library systems I have access to (one with a great children’s collection), not in the local bookstore. I’m wondering why it isn’t more widely available.

    As to Blakeney’s comment, courtesy is an important quality in many versions of Arthurian lit, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Friendship isn’t, really, although generosity is. Many of our modern ideas about the principles of the Round Table come directly from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, not from medieval texts. Not that that matters particularly; each generation tends to make the Arthurian story its own, and no single version is more valid than another.

  3. DaNae says:

    Ok, you’ve convinced me. I’ve ordered all three in the series. But will they hold up to Clementine and Alvin Ho? We shall see.

  4. Sondy says:

    Ah! My library has it as of today! You’ve convinced me, Jonathan — I’m checking this one out tonight.

    And I have to admit, with all the talk of how books for older readers are eligible for the Newbery, I would be very happy to see a book win that is solidly aimed at CHILDREN.

  5. Mr. H says:

    Oh Jonathan, I returned some books to my library last night and even though my To-Read pile is a mile deep, thought I would perouse the shelves in case anything intriguing had been turned in . . . Low and behold, SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE was sitting on display so I snatched it up and read the whole thing last night! I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The first chapter was hilarious! As was his encounter with the lady in the end. The entire plot was tightly woven and came together perfectly. You definitely may have something here . . .

    The only thing that bothered me was Morris’ “economics” reference toward the middle of the story. He wrote: “Things are different nowadays. Nations are not founded on keeping promises so much as on bleak and gloomy things called economies, which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they’ve said they would do.”

    It just felt like an odd sidebar in a chapter book for this type of audience. It made me scratch my head.

    Other than that, I really honestly cannot say a bad thing about it. Thanks for putting it on the table!

  6. Cheryl says:

    I read this book aloud to my 1st grader and we both loved it … we laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the characters (we both loved when the fight between the knights turned to throwing sand/mud at each other). It seemed to me that not a word was out of place …. except the section Mr. H mentions. I, too, was surprised by the economics reference. When I read it aloud I said, ugh! … it was completely jarring. I need to re-read this book to see if there are other instances in the book like this one. The only other real asides that I can recall are about how dull it is to recount every blow in a battle since the narrator will be way behind the action. However, that is a direct reference to what is happening in the story at that moment, not a modern political reference.

    The vocabulary choices in this book were outstanding, too. For a short chapter book, the word choices were extremely lively!

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m glad to hear from Cheryl, because my only qualm when reading it was that I wasn’t sure if a youngish child would find it as funny as I did. I didn’t remember the economics reference, but even beyond that, there were some jokes that seemed aimed at people who knew the Arthur legend already. Anyway, I loved this book, and it’s good to hear that real live 1st graders love it too.

  8. Wendy says:

    I’ll be the dissenting voice, I guess: I didn’t think that was great. It was funny, especially at first, but after a couple of chapters it felt schticky. I wasn’t impressed with the development of characters or setting, and I thought it started to feel rushed at the end, like maybe he’d used up too many of his allotted pages in the early chapters (which I liked best) and still needed to complete the retelling–so I didn’t find distinguished development of plot, either. Theme I’ll give you–not really the courtesy/friendship theme, which I thought was afterschool-special-obvious, but the idea of a funny retelling of Sir Gawain for children.

    The “economies” paragraph didn’t bother me at all. I thought it was completely in keeping with the theme of the book, the writing style, and the other asides.

    I read a lot of books when I was a kid that had literature references I didn’t understand. Edward Eager has Arthur (as does Susan Cooper) and Ivanhoe, Jane Langton has the transcendentalists, many books have Greek myths–none of this interfered with my enjoyment of the material, and when I revisited these after learning more about literature, I understood more of the references and still enjoyed them. That doesn’t concern me.

    In a book this short, I think every element needs to be very tight for it to achieve distinction; I don’t think this book is there, and I don’t know why Jonathan says “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”. Show me, don’t tell me–you say what you think is distinguished in this one, but what novels are you finding wanting in comparison, and in what way?

    Overall: I have no doubt that kids will think this is hilarious, and I smiled several times, too. I passed it along to my second-grade niece so she could enjoy it. But I don’t think this is Newbery material. Not an indictment of the book itself, just as a Newbery option. As funny books for this age/reading level go, my vote would go without question to The Trouble With Chickens first.

  9. Jill B says:

    I read this one last night and enjoyed it. However, I am with Monica. Sir Gawain is entertaining and I immediately thought of kids who would enjoy it, but I just don’t think it is Newbery worthy. All the asides about vows and courtesy felt like a lecture. I think the point could have been made as effectively within the story, without sounding so much like a teacher or parent.

    I did enjoy the development of friendship between Gawain and Gologras and did feel that Morris effectively showed the changes in Gawain’s attitudes towards fame and attention from the court. These parts showed real character development to me. The changes in courtesy felt less like actual changes in Gawain and more like he was simply responsive to Arthur’s requests. Unfortunately the ending felt rushed to me as well. I would have liked to see how the friendship changed or developed after the big reveal at the end.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, you wrote: “In a book this short, I think every element needs to be very tight for it to achieve distinction.” Why is this especially expected of books that are shorter? Why let longer books off the hook? I mean, in your last comments about THE QUEEN OF WATER you acknowledge that there are arguably too many plot threads and the stepmother is not developed. She used 350 pages, but she still couldn’t get it right? You need more examples of diarrhea writing? Which fish in the barrel to shoot first? Pick any book over 350 pages, but start with OKAY FOR NOW, DEAD END IN NORVELT, BREADCRUMBS, and run the entire gamut. No rushing the plot here, is there?

    I do think all the elements are distinguished, especially for an audience of primary grade students. The setting is communicated briefly but efficiently, certainly better than CLEMENTINE, ALVIN HO, and THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS (although I am willing to listen to arguments that this book is more distinguished in other respects). Can you tell us why you do not find character to be distinguished?

    Jill, some people dislike intrusive narrators such as DESPEREAUX or Lemony Snicket, but I don’t have a problem with them. Thus, I had no problem with the asides at all. What can you tell me to assure me that the problem is in the text rather than just a personal preference? Then, too, if you are expecting a more character-driven piece then I can certainly understand why the ending would seem rushed to you. I happen to think it’s a plot-driven piece with characters that are types rather than fully fleshed out characters, so this didn’t bother me because once the action of the plot is over and the mysteries are solved, then so is the story. Again, I’m wondering if this just doesn’t come down to personal preference . . .

  11. Eric Carpenter says:

    I had some problems with SIR GAWAIN.
    First the whole thing seemed cartoonish. A bunch of knights with lances and swords and no one dies or loses a limb? I had the same issue with Lancelot (the first book in this series). I just find it unbelievably ridiculous that the worst thing to happen to any of the characters is a bump on the head or being rendered unconscious. Why not maim or kill some ancillary characters. Wouldn’t some realistic violence raise the stakes for the main characters? (At the very least it would make the intended audience very happy.)
    Second the dialogue is wince inducing. I couldn’t find a single authentic conversations in the entirety of the text. Every conversation either imparts a lesson or explicitly explains a character’s motives.
    An example: “Don’t you see that without a king to keep order, some people–I mean recreant knights and so on–would choose to go about robbing and stealing and behaving very badly, the way it was before?” (page 49)
    Reading that aloud it’s just sounds ridiculous.
    Finally, I feel that the general silliness of the characters and dialogue undermine the plot in a way that removes all suspense. After seeing battles end in mud throwing why would any reader believe that Gawain’s fate is in anyway insecure?

    As to whether or not Morris “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” this is unknowable since we don’t have any idea of what the author set out to do.

  12. Wendy says:

    Jonathan, did you read The Queen of Water before you referred to it as “diarrhea writing”?

    Of course it’s expected that shorter books have to be tighter to be great. It’s what people keep raving over in the Elephant and Piggie post–how difficult it is to write something good using just a few words. You can’t waste any of them. A longer novel has more room to explore every element of Newbery criteria. Longer books and shorter books are generally trying to do different things. And if everything isn’t just right in a very short book–if there’s a character who falls flat, if there’s one paragraph that seems out of place to some readers–it really stands out.

    I didn’t think the characterization in Sir Gawain the True was BAD; I just didn’t think it was outstanding. I didn’t notice any real distinctive voice or subtle levels of meaning. That last, you could fairly say that that’s not what the book is going for. I would respond, similar to what I said about Grand Plan, that–as an oddsmaker more than anything else–subtle levels of meaning are what the Newbery books are all about.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Eric, but don’t you think it is intended to be cartoonish? Don’t you think the cover art and the spot illustrations suggest this? So given that it is cartoonish and aimed at ages 6-9 why would we expect death and maiming? It just seems like you wanted to read an entirely different book than the one Morris wrote.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, I still haven’t read THE QUEEN OF WATER because it has been checked out for the past two weeks. Diarrhea writing was a harsh choice of words, wasn’t it? Even for those books that followed. I don’t disagree with what you have said about shorter books; I just think we hold the longer books to a similarly high standard, and that eliminates virtually all of them from contention. More doesn’t necessarily mean more distinguished.

    It seems that you and I also read a different book. The one I read had wonderful characterization, a strong narrative voice, and levels of meaning. But it was humorous–unabashedly, unapologetically humorous. But humor is such a subjective thing, so maybe it’s not rubbing everybody the right way.

  15. Jill B says:

    Jonathan, I agree that Morris intended the book to be cartoonish and silly and he certainly achieves this goal. I found it very funny and am still thinking of all the children I know who should be reading this book.

    I actually enjoy intrusive narrators (love Bartimaeus!) and liked that feature in this book too. What I didn’t care for was the heavy handed tone of some of the asides. But yes, this is definitely a personal preference. When I read some sections, my educator side wished Morris had spent less time reminding us about courtesy and more time asking the reader if they noticed Gawain’s changing approach to others. But when I consider the child reader, I do think Morris’ writing probably does work for most kids.

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