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Retold Epics, Part One

Today is part one of retold epics. We will hear more, soon, from Karyn, and it absolutely will be epic. Today is my day to talk about lovely knights and raging ladies, about feats of strength, about reclaiming honor. 

yvain

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson and Andrea Offerman
Candlewick, March 2017
Reviewed from an ARC

There is a lot that I loved about this retelling. A lot! And I don’t think it’s all/entirely because I have a super nerdy, entirely genuine love for King Arthur and his wackily, entertainingly, accidentally dysfunctional court. (That is probably some of it, though.) You may have to talk me down in the comments; this is the first write up of the year giving me even a hint of wobbly, giddy, contender-type feelings.

And maybe these hints are too faint to take seriously. I would love some conversation to help me make up my mind! 

I did find a lot that worked for me within the pages. Offermann’s art is especially strong. It’s delicate, detailed art; her drawing is full of fine lines, giving the pictures texture and intricacy. Her hands are super fabulous, the fingers go on forever and are so expressive. She throws in all kinds of close ups — lots of intense eyes at important moments in the story. Her lion is eloquently drawn, too — fierce in battle, and other times catlike lazy.

She’s great with the action. Offermann keeps the action clear, cinematic, and fluid — despite many of the characters wearing face-obscuring helmets. She manages to use both wide angle shots — to help us follow the beats of the battle — and up close shots of eyes narrowed, swords clanging so that the fighting is personal and immediate. Offermann keeps a steady flow from left to right throughout the panels. The action panels get fragmented to show the quick changes and fast action of a battle, but generally maintain that left → right direction.

Offermann’s work takes a lot from tapestries — the stories within the story are told through drawn tapestry, sometimes worked in as a part of the background (the threatening giant, the demon castle), sometimes in place of panels (Sir Calogrenant’s story). The way she uses space to show time owes a lot to tapestries, too — there’s a lot of fluidity. Her panels flow from one to the next very quickly, and are largely arranged on the page in horizontal lines — like tapestries laid out to tell the story. There are a couple of points of intense contrast; it gets all swirly at significant plot points. The dreamy Part II, with its swirling action (and magnificent serpent/dragon), uses this to full effect as the panels gradually restore themselves to order and linearity.

And linearity is the right concept to come back to. The plot is fairly straightforward — it’s really a series of “and then’s” (and then Yvain falls in love, and then Yvain breaks his promise, and then Yvain…). He just keeps going and his essential self never grows or changes. Which is not usually how we think about quest stories because the entire point of like every quest story, JOSEPH CAMPBELL, is about the hero’s growth and change. We expect Yvain to end the story altered. At one point, Yvain even tells us he’s changed a lot but like the panels of the story, he’s probably ready to go and go and keep going, honorable battle by honorable battle. Basically, the ending is totally enigmatic, with the hero returned, ostensibly restored, but the undercurrents say exactly the opposite. Things don’t feel super settled. All that action, all that effort, all those quests, and we’re just ready for more “and then’s” to happen. AH BARTLEBY.

Anderson makes some choices about what to include from the original — which I only fuzzily remember, to be quite honest. I remember Yvain promising to return and failing, and I remember magic rings? Or a magic ring? Though I forget their purpose? Anyway, my point is, if you have further knowledge based on your smart reading and excellent memory, I hope you’ll jump in the comments. He and Offermann give the action and big emotional beats a lot of space on the page, but his dialogue is also sharp and so sly.

Let me show you:

KING ARTHUR: What’s this? An adventure? Sounds jolly. Is it full of honor and so forth?

This is Ortbergian in its brilliance and affectionate dopiness.

SELFISH OLDER SISTER: This is touching. Have they forgotten us?

Ah, how does she manage to keep centering herself? And how is her point ALSO that yes, of course the dudes have forgotten the ladies OF COURSE.

GAWAIN: Where have you been since you ran off? Where’s that wife of yours?

That wife of his is probably with the lost magic rings, who knows where these things end up.

OK, OK, some of this is fantastic and brilliant because of the body language (via Offermann) and/or larger context of the story, I’ll grant you that. But they are still improbably funny moments that keep bobbing up unexpectedly. They were delightful, and necessary. I have a lot of fragmented notes about medieval and/vs postmodernism and the necessity of humor, and they are excited but confusing. I think what I was trying to say is that we need this permission to laugh because these heroes are absurd. They are trying, and they are absurd. (Trying, as in making effort. But let’s be real, also trying, as in annoying.) And despite the good Yvain has done (he’s freed people from demonic tapestry factories! He’s helped a younger sister save her inheritance! He has a beloved and awesome lion!), he’s still obtuse and seems all too likely to run off for a bromantic adventure instead of taking on actual, personal, supposedly-chosen responsibilities.

Yvain has only gotten 2 stars, and here are my theories on that: The characters have a lot of life visually, but the dialogue can be formal and stilted. (I would argue that it’s undercut and enhanced by some short, quick, modern phrasings that bring levity — but I’ve already shown my hand on this title, so you may not want to hear it from me!) It’s an odd story in that it goes in a zillion directions without feeling like it gets anywhere (I’d say that’s a feature not a bug, but I can understand how it could feel unsatisfying to read). The conscious, structural repetition makes it feel longer than it actually is. Yvain as the main character is the worst (except for King Arthur. And Gawain. And Kay. How do you not love this story that so mercilessly skewers toxic masculinity? I DO!!!!). The main character’s quest is really sort of a fail despite his suffering and all his efforts; maybe that makes it hard to emotionally connect with him? Or maybe the unexpectedness of his failure (and the understated-ness of his failure) breaks reader’s expectations for a story, especially a quest story. I can easily dismiss all of these — but I’ve already admitted my gushy feelings.

Really, the flaw that I see is that it’s an all-white world; it absolutely didn’t have to be. Especially once you add the giants and demons in. Maybe this is the deal breaker and why it didn’t get more stars — but no trade review mentioned this as a criticism.

So all of this is to say that this very well might be a personal problematic fave and not even a real contender. RealCommittee may not even see the same positives as I do, and we may not hear much more about it when January rolls around. And/or RealCommittee may see these positives and still find the lack of diversity enough of a problem that it doesn’t medal. (Speculation is tricky.)

I am going to wrap this up now, because I’ve done enough and then-ing. I’d love to read your take on this. Think it has a shot?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Just came here to say how happy I am about the adjective “Ortbergian.” That is all.

    (Okay, I’ll say something about the book. Arthurian legend is not my forte, but I had read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a few months before I read Yvain and I was happy to have that context going into this book. I was really impressed with what Anderson did. There was a definite continuity of style, but it still felt refreshed and modern. And the illustrations were gorgeous.)

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Kelly, I am wondering if some familiarity with Arthurian legend might be useful for readers. Then again, I think readers can appreciate many parts of it — especially the pictures — without that context, so who knows?

      And in lieu of re-reading any actual King Arthur translations, here’s this tag’s worth of retelling: http://the-toast.net/tag/king-arthur/

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