- Mass Market Paperback: 456 pages
- Publisher: Roc (1 Sept. 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0451457978
- ISBN-13: 978-0451457974
- Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,381,885 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Kingdom of the Grail Mass Market Paperback – 1 Sep 2000
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It did not.
Far from it. After the first few pages, I could not put Kingdom of the Grail down.
It is the story of Roland, hero of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland in which Roland dies when he is ambushed by Saracens in the pass of Roncesvalles in the high Pyrenees. Only here he does not die: the story goes on, made wonderful, made mythical, by Judith Tarr's own brand of magic. Roland, a descendant of Merlin, is both enchanter and shape-shifter – it is in his blood – and warrior – he is Count of the Breton Marches and one of the King's Companions of Charles the Great of France.
A beautiful woman, Sarissa, appears at the court in France, bearing a magical sword, Durandel, and offers it as a prize. Roland wins it and becomes both her champion and her lover. But what does she represent? What force, what kingdom, is he now champion of?
As the story moved on, I noticed how much Tarr has been influenced by such writers as Tolkein and Lewis. Everything leads up to a final battle between the forces of Good and Evil that is the best I have come across since the closing chapters of Lord of the Rings and The Last Battle which brings the Narnia books to a close. And her wizard (Merlin = Gandalf) and wicked sorcerer (Ganelon, tool of the Dark Lord) are the real thing, as is her man born to be king (Roland) of the enchanted land whose ancient king (Parsifal) is dying, waiting only for his successor to take up the sword and fight the great war that he himself no longer can - though before that can happen, Roland, not fully trusted yet by Sarissa and blaming her for the nassacre of his friends at Roncesvalles, flees in the form of a hawk and is for a while lost to mankind, his home the wilderness, the wasteland. "He had been human once. He had no particular desire to wear that shape again ..."
But this is not mere imitation. It is great writing of the same genre. It has everything, and I cannot recommend it too highly.
Tarr, who holds a Ph.D. in Medieval history, clearly has a deep understanding of such primary sources as Einhard's Vita Caroli, Notker's De Carolo Magno, and the 12th century Chanson de Roland, as well as secondary sources such as Pierre Riché's La Vie Quotidienne dans l'Empire Carolingien. Her tale draws elements from all of those works and her use of short paragraphs is reminiscent of the verse style of the chanson.
The novel follows the basic plot of the Chanson de Roland, with Ganelon's arrival at Charlemagne's court, the decision to battle the Muslims in Spain and the subsequent ambush at Roncevalles. After the battle, Tarr follows the historical record, specifically the revolt of Charlemagne's son, Pepin. However, this is juxtaposed with Roland's adventures in Montsalvat, the Kingdom of the Grail, where his greater destiny is revealed.
While Tarr takes an interesting an under-explored legend and mixes it with the more popular tale of Arthur, the ideas she presents are more interesting than the novel itself. She never manages to get the pacing correct, and the characters are led by their fates rather than any sense of free will, although towards the end of the novel, the question of free will becomes important in and of itself.
Early in the novel, Roland forms a relationship with the mysterious Sarissa. However, the sense of mystery feels forced and the reader never really wonders where Sarissa comes from. Of more concern is why the two characters are together, since there does not appear to be any real chemistry between them.
Tarr has a great ability to create potentially interesting situations using historical precedents. Unfortunately, she has not yet mastered the ability to turns these stories into entertaining novels. While a fast-paced novel certainly isn't required, especially when dealing with more philosophical issues, Tarr could certainly increase the pacing in Kingdom of the Grail.