Jul 4, 2008

Parsival

or A Knight's Tale
by Richard Monaco

Parsival is one of the minor figures (at least, I never heard of him before) in the Arthurian legends. His mother kept him shut up in their castle in total ignorance. Then he set out into the world as a young man, totally clueless and gullible. He wanders around the countryside looking for Arthur's castle, getting himself mixed up into all kinds of things. He is awestruck by the first knight he sees and determines to become one himself. This seemed to happen a bit too easily. Maybe that was part of the legend, that Parsival had a natural knack for fighting? I'm not sure. Anyway, he sets off originally to find the Grail, but ends up in the middle of a hideous war.

What I really liked about Parsival was the vividly depicted setting. Nature was a pervasive, almost towering presence. Trees loomed over the paths, forests were trackless unmapped expanses, human dwellings sat in small scraped clearings among the wild growth. The impact of the seasons, the dependence upon crops and game, the utter simplicity and squalor most of the people lived in. It felt so real. And the terrible brutality of warfare, total disregard of the noblemen for the lives of serfs, awful physical punishments, waste and horror of rape, plunder, destruction- all here in these pages. It gave me a very stark picture of how life might have been for people in medieval times.

But the story was awful to follow. In the first place, it jumps around between several different characters' views- sometimes as frequently as every paragraph or two! Several significant scenes never had an explanation. There are also many incidents which don't make sense if you're not familiar with details of the Arthurian legends. I missed some of the references. Some of the characters seemed to have no clear idea where they were going or why they were doing what they did- and neither did I. Parsival seemed to be always either fighting or tumbling women in the hay. It got rather disgusting after a while. The profanity bothered me too. It felt incongruous with the setting. I mean, how many medieval peasants or knights do you think had the f-word in their vocabularies?

Maybe if I read the complete series I'd get a better sense of it all. But based on reading Parsival, I'm not sure if I want to continue. In my experience, the first book in a series is usually the best one. However, the vivid descriptions in this book are such a strength I'm still ambivalent about keeping it or putting it on the swap shelf, and I feel compelled to give it a 3, in spite of its flaws. Make of that what you will.

There is a very interesting interview with the author here.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 343 pages, 1977

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