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Thursday 19 March 2015

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

There are certain things that don’t happen in my reading activities very often: books which I read in a day and funny books. The Table of Less Valued Knights surprised me by being both of those. I picked it up on a whim on a visit to the library on a day I was crazed from book acquisition starvation towards the end of my TBR20, which I seem hell-bent on never allowing myself to finish. I still haven’t finished. It’s been three months now, I may never buy another book.

Anyway, ignoring my book-buying withdrawal symptoms, I was attracted to this Baileys Prize longlisted book because it is different from the books I ordinarily read. It’s not serious for a start (except when it is) and it’s set in King Arthur’s court making it fantasy/historical which is a genre I generally avoid like the plague. Yet what I found was a very fresh, very entertaining, very current story about the danger of appearances and the stupidity of putting people, and fiction, into stereotypical boxes.

Our stories follows Sir Humphrey du Val, one of King Arthur’s knights. Specifically a knight of the ‘Table of Less Valued Knights’. To explain:

Image result for the table of less valued knights“For there were two other tables in the Great Hall of Camelot, two tables less sung of by storytellers and balladeers, in fact barely mentioned at all. One was known as the Table of Errant Companions. Oval in shape, tucked in the shadowy space beneath the minstrels’ gallery, it housed those young upstarts who aspired to the Round Table, who busied themselves with minor quests and prayed for a precious chair in proximity to Arthur. The other table, to be found in the draughtiest corner furthest away from either of the fires, was rectangular, and had one leg shorter than the other so that it always had to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking. It was home to the elderly, the infirm, the cowardly, the incompetent and the disgraced, and was called the Table of Lesser Valued Knights.”

It is Pentecost, and the Knights are waiting for the Pentecost quest to arrive. Sir Humphrey is bored, hungry and irritable. Less Valued Knights are not permitted to go on quests. When the Pentecost quest arrives, it is a strange man: Edwin, who claims to be King of Puddock though, as Humphrey observes “Puddock had a queen now. So this must be her husband. But surely that made him Prince Consort?” It is a theme which recurs often in the book. Edwin’s wife, the actual queen, has been kidnapped, and the Pentecost quest is therefore to discover her kidnappers and recover her. The quest falls to the knight which volunteers the fastest, which in this case falls to Sir Dorien Pendoggett, the Errant Companion who took Humphrey’s place at the table. Humphrey is not pleased.

As Humphrey is hanging around the hall later, sleepless and grouchy, a lady turns up. Lady Elaine, it seems, is a damsel in distress (not quite the typical kind) whose fiancé had been kidnapped just as they were to ‘plight their troth’. Humphrey sees an opportunity here, suspecting that the Lady Elaine’s quest is, in fact, the ‘true’ Pentecostal quest given that a damsel in distress ‘trumps a king’ in quest hierarchy. In such circumstances, Humphrey should wake Arthur’s court and allow the true knights to compete for the honour of fulfilling Lady Elaine’s quest. However, Humphrey decides to cheat the rules and take the quest for himself. He wakes his half-giant squire, Conrad with whom he has a shared and complex history which includes the story of how Humphrey is demoted to the Lesser Value’ table, Jemima the elephant (Conrad’s ‘steed’) and together they set out to find the Lady Elaine’s missing  fiancé.

If one thing is true about this story, it is that nothing is quite what it seems. The Lady Elaine is not a traditional damsel in distress, Sir Humphrey is not the traditional knight and Conrad not the traditional squire. Edwin, The King of Puddock is no king and his kidnapped wife, the Queen Martha, is not entirely his wife, entirely kidnapped or entirely female. Phillips spends much of the novel ever-so-slightly perverting the traditional roles in a traditional story of this type, with amusing side effects. In the process she also highlights the hazard of making judgement on appearances or convention and the differences in treatment between men and women – this particularly seen through Martha’s story, as described here:

“She hadn’t realised how different life was for me. They looked her straight in the eye when they spoke, asking her questions and listening to her answers, treating her with the easy, casual respect of equals. She liked it, but she was thrown by the expectation that she would have something to contribute to the conversation. The frustration that she had felt as a girl her entire life – that nobody believed her to be competent at anything – was replaced by the terror that her competence was now assumed. Either way, her actual abilities didn’t seem to come into it.”

This is an amusing, satirical novel which is also extremely entertaining to read. It addresses the question of gender bias and gender opportunity through humour and a slightly offbeat cast of characters who never quite act in the way you’d expect them to. Gender is not its only target: traditional power roles, the image of the ‘knight in shining armour’, marriage, sexuality, jealousy and appearance are all targets of Phillip’s satirical eye. And in the traditional, perhaps the only traditional sense here, way of a good satire it’s strikingly and uncomfortably accurate. I found The Table of Less Valued Knights a very engaging read that sneaks its message in with a joke, until you realise it isn’t really sneaky at all: it’s the carrot-eating elephant in the room – she’s called Jemima and she’s about to poop all over your nice, new shoes.  

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