Sir Humphrey du Val has had enough. Relegated to the Table of Less Valued Knights–Camelot’s least prestigious spot, boringly rectangular in shape and with one leg shorter than the other so that it has to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking–he has been banned by King Arthur from going on quests, and hasn’t left the castle in 15 years. After a chance meeting with Elaine, a young maiden in search of her kidnapped fiancé, Sir Humphrey, along with his squire Conrad (an undersized giant) and Jemima (Conrad’s elephant), sets off on a journey to find the distressed damsel’s betrothed, hoping to restore himself to a place of honour at the Round Table.
Meanwhile, Martha, an errant queen on the run from her new power-hungry husband, is in disguise and on a quest of her own to find her long-lost brother, the true ruler of her realm. Martha soon runs–literally–into Humphrey’s eccentric group, who take the incognito queen captive, believing her to be a boy. As they journey through countryside, castles and villages, they gather unlikely friends and enemies along the way. While each member of the party secretly harbours their own ambitions for the quest, their collective success, and the fate of the realm, rests on their grudging cooperation and unexpectedly interconnected lives.
There’s a scene in the Princess Bride that makes me giggle every time – and spoiler here if you haven’t seen the movie (although I can’t even imagine that…). Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, ably played by Andre the Giant and Mandy Patinkin respectively, have brought the limp body of Westley (Cary Elwes) to see Miracle Max (Billy Crystal). He is reluctant to do anything, but is eventually convinced to take a look at him, and discovers that he is “mostly dead”. Underneath the wicked ad-libbing and the classic Borscht belt shtick, there is a vein of honesty and vulnerability in the characters that bleeds through. Max is hurt that his work has been dismissed so readily. His wife is passionate about the power of True Love. The two companions believe in the power of justice and the will of right.
This almost effortless blend of bawdy humour, unexpected emotion and clever social observation came to me again and again while reading The Table of Less Valued Knights, by the wonderful Marie Phillips (author of Gods Behaving Badly). Let’s be clear at the start – this book is incredibly funny. There are moments where Phillips riffs on medieval history and Arthurian legends in such a way that you can’t stop giggling, and her contemporary twists on the familiar are brilliant. There are also some wonderfully sly digs at gender roles, human nature and story conventions along the journey that make you stop for a minute to re-read what you just read. It’s these little twists that kept me engaged in the quests and in the development of the wonderfully diverse roster of characters. Sir Humphrey, for example, is witty and likable, with a back story that makes you pause and view him a little more sympathetically, and Martha is an unconventional if desperate noblewoman who realizes that she doesn’t want to play the role that life has determined for her.
There’s a host of wonderful other characters, both good and evil and everything in between. Conrad, Jemima the elephant, the Lady of the Lake (well, the Locum of the Lake – someone had to fill in), Edwin, and more – they’re such fun to meet. Women take a strong role in this book, and while he may be the male lead, Humphrey is an admirable straight man to the various female roles without losing his own quirky personality. Edwin is deliciously evil and self-absorbed, and I love that Phillips allows him to revel in being so unrelentingly awful. |Tony the Outlaw is hysterical, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s had construction work done recently.
I noticed that there isn’t any kind of deliberate mocking of any particular person in this book. Everyone takes their knocks, and there is no maliciousness towards any one group (well, except for the aforementioned Edwin, as you’ll find yourself booing him like a high-class panto villain). In fact, it’s fair to say that Phillips turns some of the usual targets around, giving the best qualities to those characters who might otherwise have been sidelined, and placing the conventionally “perfect” characters in the most awkward situations you could imagine.
Marketing materials for this book refer to it as “The Princess Bride meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail ” and while that’s absolutely true, you don’t need a familiarity with either – or even of Arthurian legend, although it will let you in on some of the best jokes – in order to enjoy this book. Looking for that perfect clever read that you’ll share with friends and quote to each other for months to follow? This is the only one on your list.
The Table of Less Valued Knights was provided by Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase from your favourite indie bookstore and other fine booksellers. ISBN: 9780307359940, 320 pages.