Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grails: Quests of the Dawn: Or, where’s my knights, dude?

In John Boorman’s Excalibur there’s a scene in which an ailing, aging King Arthur prepares to send his knights on the quest for the holy grail. With his warriors assembled about him, faces grim at his pain-wracked appearance (or perhaps the prospect of not returning from said quest), Arthur whispers a final, cryptic order: "Only the grail can restore leaf and flower. Search the land, the labyrinths of the forest, to the edge of … within.”

The holy grail is as much a concept as a cup. We assume the knights are looking for an actual, physical vessel, but Arthur’s hint suggests that the quest is a search within the individual—the voyage of a soul seeking spiritual perfection. Excalibur is a film steeped in Arthurian lore and it practically demands at least some cursory knowledge of the myths in order to make complete sense of it. That’s one reason why I like it so much. The other is that it’s got knights riding around in armor fighting, jousting, and in general causing a ruckus. It’s smart and delivers on the battle scenes, too.

It was with images of armor-plated knights riding out on a great quest that I eagerly dug into Grails: Quests for the Dawn (Roc, 1994), a collection of 25 short stories and a handful of poems by such greats as Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Mercedes Lackey, and Neil Gaiman, as well as many other lesser literary lights. Alas, my anticipation did not live up to reality. Grails: Quests of the Dawn gets it half right, delivering stories about broken characters in search of healing. But it comes at the expense of, well, knights. There are precious few in the book and as I recall only a single sword is drawn in anger (Brad Strickland’s “The Gift of Gilthaliad”). Most of the stories in fact don’t even take place during the Middle Ages but instead opt for modern or in some cases pre-medieval settings.

Now, lest I be accused of being a literary lowbrow, as I said previously I get the symbolism of the Grail Quest. But couldn’t we get the literary bits after Launcelot whips up on a half-dozen would-be robbers in the Forest Sauvage? Too much to ask, I guess. You won’t find the clash of sword and lance or the quickening heartbeat that betokens impending battle in Grails: Quests of the Dawn.

Despite my complaints about its lack of blood and thunder there are a few worthy stories in this collection. Neil Gaiman’s “Chivalry”, a story about a kindly old woman who finds the grail in a second-hand shop but doesn’t want to relinquish her prize so quickly to a handsome young knight, is very good. So is “Atlantis” by Orson Scott Card. The latter does not feature the grail, though it does include a famous (waterborne) vessel. It’s a clever retelling of the Noah’s Ark/flood story and how that begat the myth of Atlantis. There are a few other decent entries too. “Greggie’s Cup,” though a bit telegraphed, is a heartwarming story about a child with special needs who befriends a ghostly Launcelot in the ruins of an old castle, as the latter rejoices to find a trusting, non-judgmental spirit in whom he can confide. Alan Dean Foster’s “What You See … ” would fit nicely into a Year’s Best Horror anthology with its E.C. Comics’ “you reap what you sew” harsh morality tale of an ending.

Unfortunately there are an equal number of stinkers, too. “The Awful Truth in Arthur’s Barrow” is 25 pages of mildly interesting buildup to a bad punchline, the world’s worst pun. A few other stories felt like cloying Hallmark Channel fare.

I was eagerly looking forward to Gene Wolfe’s entry “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun” but I must admit I was left scratching my head at this (symbolic? lunatic?) story about a farm boy who leaves his drab home life to seek adventure on a whaling ship out of New Bedford. When the crew lands on an uninhabited island he decides to remain and a talking ape named Jacko (not making this up) takes his place among the crew. Wolfe is a great writer but has a tendency to veer off into rather strange territory at times. If anyone has read “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun” and has a theory of what it’s supposed to mean, drop me a line.

Grails: Quests of the Dawn has a companion volume that I have sitting on my shelf: Grails: Visitations of the Night, though I’ll admit after volume one I’m not so keen on starting. Karl Edward Wagner (author of the savage Kane stories) is one of the contributors, so I may take up the quest yet, hopeful that it may satisfy my less than noble spirit, which yearns for a little action in its fantastic tales, too.

Final verdict: Three out of five stars.


David J. West said...

I love all things Arthurian, but this makes me apprehensive, and Wolfe is a writer I feel like I'm supposed to appreciate but have yet to actually do so.

And I would want to grab the companion volume for KEW's sake.

Paul R. McNamee said...


I searched around for the table-of-contents on the companion volume.

The KEW story is "One Paris Night".

You can find that in the 'Mammoth Book of Wolfmen', which was released last year to coincide with the release of 'The Wolfman' movie.

The original Mammoth anthology was titled, 'Mammoth Book of Werewolves'.

'Wolfmen' is still available new from Amazon.

'Werewolves' if out-of-print.

Content is the same.

Paul R. McNamee said...

And Brain,

Thanks for the review. I'll probably avoid the two Grail anthologies, though!

James said...

The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun is among my favorite Wolfe short stories. On the other hand, I'm surprised to find it in a volume of Grail stories. So, perhaps it was context that spoiled it for you. Still, I'll tell you what I think of it and why I like it.

What it is (and it is nothing more) is an extrapolation on a picture in EA Wallis Budge's "The Gods of the Egyptians" (The Book of Am-Tuat chapter):

Secondly, its an extremely well done Comic Fantasy. There is an alternate universe where Fantasy High Seas stories are as popular as tales of boy wizards are here. In that world, Wolfe is Rowling, Tolkien, Kipling, and London all rolled in to one.

The story of the the boy and ape trading places was intended as comedy. Wolfe does here a kind of humor that can only be done in literature and never in movies.
Their conversation starts with the ape just acting like a curious ape. Wolfe provides the meaning of his gestures. As the conversation proceeds, we are told the ape becomes more verbal but it is not clear at what point that occurs. I found it easy and really funny to imagine what the ape was doing that illicited Wolfe's translation.

Then Jacko joins the crew. Eventually, they glom that he's not the boy, but by that time (funny again) they don't care because he's a better sailor than the boy ever was. The First Mate goes to the Captain for advice about him: "What's the problem wit this guy?" "Well, for one thing, he's really hairy." "If he's doing his job, then let him be."

And at the end the Sun takes Jacko back in Time. It's kind of a sweet ending really. In his passion to experience more than a monkey on a Pacific island, Jacko has become endeavoring to be a sailor, Jacko has become more as well. The boy, on the other hand, was probably happily howling from the trees.

Brian Murphy said...

I searched around for the table-of-contents on the companion volume.

The KEW story is "One Paris Night"

Thanks for the research! Yeah, I wish there was more to recommend about Grails, but at best it's a mixed bag.

James: Huh, well, even after reading what you have to say I still can't make heads or tails of the story, and I didn't find it particularly comic, just puzzling, I'm sorry to say. I had all kinds of crazy theories: Perhaps Reuben became "nativized" while wandering in the jungle and Jacko was not an actual ape but some new, more primitive part of him that he discovered inside himself, for example. The theory didn't really work though. Accepted at face value I can't see how the story makes any sense.

Andy said...

Puzzled might be the proper reaction to Wolfe's story (which I haven't read) because I've read interviews with him in which he boasts that he prefers to write stories that require multiple readings to understand.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've got a rather considerable collection of fantasy anthologies, and I've found the bulk of them to be a really mixed bag.. very few of them are solid all the way through. but I don't tend to read them all the way through anyway.. I buy them because of specific author's entries and only read the authors I've not heard of before incidentally because they happen to be included.. i suppose thats the point though.