Monday 9 April 2012

Galahad - Paul Newman

 (Halsgrove, 2004, 126 pages)

I spent quite a while trying to pin down the genre of this idiosyncratic novel. Eventually I decided on the Polonius-style definition of ‘alternative historical fantasy’, and that’s about as close as I can get.
The narrative – ‘and I swear by the Holy Rood it is all true’ – follows our titular hero from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. Galahad begins with the intention of becoming a novice monk, but alas, he is assigned to the monastery at Cerne Abbas, where he soon learns that God is not the community’s most prominent member. With his purity somewhat compromised and his religious ambitions thus thwarted, he embarks on knighthood, eventually becoming a knight of the Round Table, sent by Arthur on a quest for the Holy Grail – which is what forms the backbone of this book.
The setting, as my classification above hints at, is a somewhat elastic one. The fantasy label stems not so much from the inclusion of magic – there’s very little – but rather characters and creatures from myth and folk tales: Herne the Hunter, for example. I call it ‘alternative’ because the past it purports to be set in never really existed. Defined in the novel as the ‘Dark Ages’, it’s actually a realm where Iron Age tribes rub shoulders
with Roman names and dress, and marauding Vikings – although the milieu is overwhelmingly Medieval, with lots of talk of chivalry, knights charging around in hauberks (well, a bit more than hauberks, actually, but you get the idea), and castles in plenty. Many anachronisms are clearly deliberate (the proto-disco lights, for one); with others it’s harder to tell. Having read the novel before, I was prepared to take it on its own terms in this regard, and by and large that was fairly easy.
There were times, however, when the novel felt a bit uneven. Galahad wasn’t an uninteresting character, but in many ways I preferred his younger self; the older Galahad can be an endearing rogue, but he also has a world-weary cynicism that might have benefited, I feel, from more humour to complement it. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t funny: indeed, I could go further with my earlier definition and try terming it ‘alternative historical comic fantasy’. But that too can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair: some parts are extremely amusing, whereas elsewhere, the humour can seem forced.
This sort of see-sawing characterises the novel as a whole for me. Sometimes the vignettes which form the tale are entertaining, sometimes they appear strained attempts to make a point or joke; sometimes Newman’s prose tips into cliché, sometimes it’s captivating and innovative; sometimes the dialogue snaps, sometimes it’s banal; sometimes Galahad’s ‘philosophical’ asides are tedious, sometimes they’re interesting; and sometimes the characters seem flat, whilst at others they’re appealing. I do wonder if tighter editing may have been beneficial here. Closer proof-reading would certainly have been so: there are numerous spelling issues (the Dylfric/Dyfric switching is enough to make your head spin), word muddles (e.g. ‘Father’ instead of ‘Farmer’), omissions, and repetitions, including one several lines long.
‘[T]his book’ says Galahad, ‘should appeal to all, from swineherds to archbishops’. Well, when I first read it back in 2008, I really enjoyed it. Now it’s a bit of a curate’s egg for me. In some places it definitely seems a bit off – but there are parts that are excellent. And as a final comment: I think it’s testament to Newman’s ability that, even though I knew the ending, it was still as poignant for me as it was four years ago.
A quirky reworking of the Grail Quest with some enjoyable elements. And disco lights.

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