[(essay date summer 2003) In the following essay, Miller uses Philip's The Tale of Sir Gawain, a contemporary retelling of the Arthurian legend from Gawain's point of view, for a study of the suitability of Arthur stories for children.]
When we think of retellings of the story of Arthur intended for children, the names that come first to mind include Howard Pyle, Andrew Lang, Henry Gilbert, Sidney Lanier, and later T.H. White.1 These versions, which introduced generations of young people to Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin, the Knights of the Roundtable, and Camelot, were essentially all based on Malory's Morte Darthur. More recently other Arthurian works have been adapted for youthful audiences. Some classics include Selina Hastings's versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (both illustrated gorgeously by Juan Wijngaard), and Constance Hieatt's retellings of The Knight of the Lion (also retold by Gerald McDermott) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.2 The list of Arthurian works for children is lengthy, but I would like to examine The Tale of Sir Gawain, an interesting, but perhaps not well-known, addition to the Arthurian legend for children published in 1987.3 Written by Neil Philip, a critic and historian of children's literature, and illustrated by the late Charles Keeping--arguably the outstanding book illustrator of his generation--The Tale of Sir Gawain is a recounting of the Arthurian cycle (based on Malory as well as other Arthurian works) from the perspective of the dying Gawain. From his deathbed, Gawain dictates his memoirs to his youthful squire, Niall son of Eian, who in a brief postscript tells the reader,
These words I did take down from my lord Gawain in his time of trial. My lord was in a fever and in great pain. Much that he said was confused, and there is some that I do not understand. There is much that does not agree with the other chronicles I have seen. Yet I did not feel it right to alter my lord's words, and I leave them here as he spoke them, to be believed or not.(100)
I would suggest that Philip's choices of the genre of the memoir and of a youthful dramatic audience in the person of the young squire enable him to produce a redaction of the Arthurian legend, neither bowdlerized and devoid of passion, nor archaic and fusty, but nonetheless suitable in contents and tone for contemporary young people. The issue of the appropriate audience for this retelling also raises important questions about the general suitability of Arthurian legend for children.
The Tale of Sir Gawain is not a simple retelling of Malory or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Chrétien de Troyes's The Knight of the Lion, as is, say, Y.R. Ponsor's Gawain and the Green Knight: Adventure at Camelot,4 also intended for young adults. Instead it is cast as Gawain's final recollections, dictated to the youthful squire Niall, as the hero lies, grievously wounded,...