Review: The Green Knight, YA fantasy romance

Teresa Edgerton

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The Green Knight, by Vera Chapman

The novel is, as you might guess, a prose retelling of the medieval verse romance “Gawain and the Green Knight.” In this re-imagining, the main characters here are still in their teens: Vivian the granddaughter of Merlin and Nimue, raised in a convent as a child, then taken away by Morgan le Fay, to be lessoned in witchcraft for purposes unknown, then forced to marry the elderly knight Sir Bertilak. And Gawain the Younger (nephew of the more famous Gawain) a naive and idealistic youth who arrives at Arthur’s court at Christmas-time in order to be knighted. Once there he is hazed by other squires (led by the malignant Mordred), resulting in a series of embarrassing events taking place at Gawain's maiden tournament. Which in turn results in the thoroughly humiliated young knight being so eager to redeem himself, that he takes up the challenge of the sinister beheading game suggested by the Green Knight.

This is not the newly-coined hybrid “romantasy." On the contrary, it is fantasy quite unburdened by the popular tropes of genre romance—yes, even with a love story at the heart of the plot. From the first pages, the reader is plunged into a fantastical medieval world, a world of illusions and ancient beings, a world of tests and temptations by which the young hero and heroine are given the opportunity to show their mettle … or to die. The scene where the Green Knight appears at Camelot is particularly well-written. While the unknown writer of the original spends pages of description on the richness of the knight’s apparel, with a minuteness of detail that could send the modern reader screaming, Chapman concentrates on the monstrous nature of the creature with his enormous size and ghastly green skin, on the horror felt by the spectators as the Green Knight enters the hall, seeming to menace the women and children while at the same time paralyzing the men (who might otherwise leap to their defense) with an unnatural fear, so that none but Arthur dares to take up the challenge of the bizarre game the Green Knight proposes—that is, until young Gawain steps forward as the newest and least of the knights to take the King’s place and thus spare the realm.

From there, the story follows that of the poem fairly closely for the first half or so. It’s all a plot of Morgan le Fay, and the young characters are her helpless pawns, with one important difference: while they play their appointed roles, their feelings for each other become swiftly (and deeply) engaged. Nor does the story end when Gawain endures the Green Knight’s test. The witch has further plans for the boy and girl, plans which may change the history of Great Britain for all time.

I was thoroughly enchanted with this story and the characters the first time I read it, a half century ago, and on two or three subsequent readings. In fact, I recognize now that it gave birth to the dream I experienced one night shortly before my 30th birthday, from which I awoke with my imagination aflame, determined to finally write a book of my own that I would actually (for once) complete. As such, The Green Knight remains a sentimental favorite of mine—even now in my crabbéd old age.
 

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