I don’t know whether it is fair to say Parsival or a Knight’s Tale is Richard Monaco’s best known work or not. Quite unlike authors like Michael Moorecock or Gene Wolfe, introduced to me by fellow nerds, I picked up Monaco on an aimless trip to Half Priced Books. The cover art caught my eye and the idea of Parsival as modern fantasy in modern prose sounded amusing. But Parsival or a Knight’s Tale is not a modern fantasy novel in the post-Tolkien sense of the term.
Parsival is a less known figure in Arthurian legend, usually the subject of literary works not studied in school (unless you’re taking a class in Arthurian literature) and not prominently featured in mainstream films. In the Medieval telling, Parsival is an innocent of such purity that he sets eyes on the grail but is too naïve to inquire after it. His innocence is something that can exist in the world of chivalry according to the romances. Monaco writes Parsival from what John Clute calls a “disenchanted, modern perspective” (The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 653) in which irony and cynicism obliterate innocence.
Parsival or a Knight’s Tale starts with an achingly poetic description of the Red Knight’s attack on a castle before setting into the narrative of Parsival, the prince whose mother shields him from the world to such a degree that when he kills a fish, he is mystified at its death. Parsival’s naivety, his growing physical strength and a chance encounter with Knights cause his mother to send him out to become a knight of Camelot, and broken-hearted by his leaving, she gives up, dying upright on her throne, unmoved since the moment he left. Two of her subjects, Broaditch and Waleis go to fetch him back. His mother needs to be buried, and he is technically a king. These characters are one of Monaco’s injections to the story.
The narrative follows the story of Parsival as laid out by Wolfram Von Eschenbach and Chretien de Troyes, filtered through the author’s disillusioned, although often lyrical prose. Broaditch’s cynicism, Gawain’s opportunism and Waleis’ whining make these characters the most relatable to the contemporary audience, which might have been an unforeseen consequence of updating the telling of this story. Parsival, ostensibly the protagonist and the hero, is very difficult to understand in his innocence. In fact, the episode with Jeschute is utterly revolting in spite of the fact that Parsival does not understand the relatively difficult concept of interpersonal relations, especially so given Monaco’s writing of the scene. It is only after he loses his innocence, when he has experienced violence and women that Parsival becomes a character that in any way resembles human beings as we know them.
But Parsival’s innocence does not mollify the wrongness of his actions. There is a deeply set irony to Monaco’s world that isn’t always funny. Innocence causes Parsival to do some very, very wrong things, and his disillusionment causes more pain and death still. Parsival or a Knight’s Tale is a story in which the protagonist is basically an accidental rapist.
But underneath the pessimism is a grail quest -- a quest for grace and mercy. It seems to this reader that Richard Monaco did not update the Arthurian myths themselves; he merely restated them with the word “fuck” inserted countless times in the text. The most basic story of Parsival is of an innocent whose purity leads him to the Grail but inadvertently away from it, and from a life of embittered worldliness seeks to find his way back again. Readers observant of history will note that the world described by Monaco is one of anachronism not unlike that of the medieval poets who wrote of Arthur, Perceval, and Camelot. Those same readers might also notice instances of structured alliteration in passages that resemble prosody in all but format. Monaco might have used modern vocabulary -- and his cynicism is clearly a product of the 20th century -- but his story is very much a traditional Arthurian narrative.
And so it pains me to say that I just didn’t like it all that much. The novel has an infuriating quality of pulling the reader in only to bore him or her. Scant pages after a thrilling description of the Fisher King from Parsival’s memory, the author plops a dull proleptic passage of a character telling the story of Parsival telling the story to Gawain. Monaco employs this trick often enough that it calls attention to itself. Also, while poetry is clearly among the author’s gifts, he employs it to a point that it verges on needlessly expository.
Parsival or a Knight’s Tale frustrated more than it enthralled me, but those moments that captured my attention did so completely. I already own the sequel, The Grail War, which I purchased after reading a thrilling sequence in which Broaditch has a revelatory experience in a slave mine. Shortly after, I was bored with Monaco’s prose again. I will read The Grail War, because in theory, Monaco wrote something that could not possibly be more in line with my interests. I fear it will turn out similarly.