Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Lev Butts Reviews The Parsival Series by Richard Monaco

Possibly the best book covers ever to grace bound wood pulp.
If you've been following my Authors Electric posts from the get-go, you all know that Richard Monaco is the writer who has had the most influence on me.

I've spoken elsewhere about how I came to meet Monaco and how he came to be one of the most important writing mentors I've had, so here I want to talk about his book series and why it's set apart from other Arthurian fantasy novels.

Monaco's Parsival series tales as its starting point the Perceval legend as set down by Chretien de Toyes in Perveval, the Story of the Grail and by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival.

And, yes, they are about as riveting as you might expect.
In both these versions, the young protagonist has been raised by his mother in the wilderness, far away from all the killing and bloodshed normally found in civilization. His mother hopes to protect her son from all the evils of men: the aforementioned killing and bloodshed, as well as other evils such as adultery, abuse, politics, and in general all the various types of cruelties, petty and great, that mankind tends to take so much delight in.

Her plan seems to work well until the boy comes in contact with a group of Arthur's knights in their shiny armor on their way to hunt down some other poor sod who's crossed the king in someway. Parsival takes these knights for angels, and when he learns that they are in fact noble knights, he is told he can go to Camelot and Arthur will make him a knight, too. Parsival leaves, and on his way to Camelot meets the Fisher King, has a vision of the Holy Grail, and completely fails to understand what he is experiencing.

For the first third of the book, Monaco pretty much retells the traditional myth with subtle changes: Its fairly clear the knights are having a laugh at the foolish Parsival's expense when they tell him to go to Camelot. Once there, Arthur seems far less noble than traditional legends portray him. Not corrupt or evil, though, just fairly mundane and petty. He sends Parsival on a quest that would surely get him killed, to destroy the evil red knight who is terrorizing Camelot, without so much as a buckler or sword, all for a laugh at the foolish boy who would presume to be a knight.

Once Parsival leaves Camelot, though, Monaco leaves his source material firmly behind, and we are presented with a grim depiction of life in the Middle Ages, a life which seems suspiciously like our own. This is where Monaco's version of the tale shines. These books deal with far more than just a retelling of the Holy Grail story. They use the Percival legend to examine man's conflict between his duty to his family, his country, and himself. The relationship between Parsival and his wife, Layla, brings up questions of marital fidelity, both physical and emotional, and Parsival's estranged relationship with his son Lohengrin (which reaches its climax in later volumes) becomes a frank look at how even the best of us can, through our own self-absorption, fail as parents despite all our best intentions.

Monaco’s genius lies in his ability to masterfully take archetypal stories and mold them into metaphors for modern dilemmas. Pick a book at random and you will see it, though I recommend Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha and his 1987 novel Unto the Beast as the next best examples after the Parsival books.

One final note for those of you who, like me, are obsessed with narrative chronology: Besides the original Parsival trilogy (Parsival, or a Knight's Tale, The Grail War, and The Final Quest) there are now two other Parsival books: Lost Years: The Quest for Avalon and Blood and Dreams: Lost Years II. These last two make a duology of interquels to the original series, and both books take place during the lost years between the first two volumes of the trilogy (hence the name of the duology series). The Quest for Avalon begins immediately after Parsival or a Knight’s Tale, and Blood and Dreams occurs some time shortly before The Grail War.

These covers aren't too bad either.

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