GREENAWAY MEDAL WINNER – 1985
Selina Hastings, text
Juan Wijngaard, illustrations
Walker Books, 1985
Interests: knights, King Arthur, medieval history, magic
Next: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by same author/illustrator
Also: Saint George and the Dragon, The Kitchen Knight: a Tale of King Arthur, and Merlin and the Making of the King, all by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
King Arthur meets a mysterious black knight one day and must answer a riddle to save his life: What do women want most? In gaining the answer, he promises a “loathly lady” in the forest a husband from among his knights. Arthur despairs over his promise, for the lady is truly grotesque, but young Sir Gawain bravely volunteers to help his king. After a sombre wedding ceremony the couple retire to their room and Gawain discovers that his bride is actually a beautiful woman under an enchantment. Only a correct answer to her question can break the spell forever: would he rather have her ugly by day beautiful by night, or vice versa?
Besides the allure of knights and magical enchantments, this story holds a host of intriguing concepts and lessons: respect, kindness and tolerance, as precious few at the court are able to treat the loathly lady graciously; looking beyond appearances to the person beneath; duty and loyalty, as Gawain is ready to sacrifice all to help his king; and responsibility, as Arthur keeps his promise no matter the cost. And then there’s that the little riddle at the heart of the story – the answer being that what women most want is to have their own way. There is much to ponder in this tale!
It’s a tale of moral dilemmas which still speaks to us today, at any age. As this is a children’s book, of course, the references to the bridal bedchamber are downplayed, though Arthur is surprised the next day that the couple sleep so late. One amazon review by a teacher places this book at a grade 4 level, or age 9. Undoubtedly children of that age will fully appreciate the story’s themes, but I read it to my 6-year-old and, while the language required a little explanation, she was speechless afterward, totally lost in thought. She commented that most members of the court were not exactly nice to the lady. (Being nice to each other, or not, is a prime kindergarten concern.) And she was excited when the lady turned beautiful at the end, of course.
The illustrations do much to draw the reader in. The detail in the dress and rooms provide a tantalizing glimpse of medieval life, and the ornamentation around each page is gorgeous. I also liked the small character details: the gnarled hand reaching out to pluck at Arthur’s sleeve, Arthur and Guinevere conversing in front of the fire, the shocked expressions of onlookers at the wedding, Guinevere kissing the loathly lady on the cheek…
A beautiful and thought-provoking tale from King Arthur’s court. There is something for all ages from about 6 up, though the deepest messages are best for age 8 or 9 and older.
(P.S. There is one other thing I should mention. A little bad language. When Arthur foils him the Black Knight bellows “God damn you, Arthur! May you roast in hell!…” Which is a little surprising in a children’s picture book. But he is a bad guy, after all…)