Good Knight: French actors perform during a rehearsal of Excalibur at the Stade de France, September 2011. Photo: Getty
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Beyond the Round Table: celebrating the underdogs of Camelot

Beneath the romping humour and fast pace in this book is a plea for the shy, feminine, humane and deviant to be understood and valued.

The Table of Less Valued Knights 
Marie Phillips
Jonathan Cape, 308pp, £12.99

We all know about King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table but if the Suite du Merlin (one of Malory’s most important sources for Le Morte d’Arthur) is to be believed, there was also a table of “less valued knights”. Sir Humphrey du Val, disgraced and demoted, is of their company and his table is, as Marie Phillips’s novel explains, “to be found in the draughtiest corner, furthest away from the fire . . . and had one leg shorter than the other so that it had to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking”. We have all probably sat at this table and, as the likes of Mark Twain and the Pythons realised, the high ideals of Camelot have long been ripe for a send-up by those of a liberal persuasion.

Phillips has Arthur sitting on a modest wooden throne, “a simple circlet of gold atop his brow, telling the assembled knights the familiar tale of how he pulled the sword from the stone, a story as lengthy as it was uninteresting. On Arthur’s left sat the loyal Lancelot, smiling at his liege’s tale and wondering if he could feign the need to relieve himself so that he could go and visit Queen Guinevere . . .”

Once the traditional Pentecostal quest arrives, things do not turn out in the traditional manner. Off gallops Sir Humphrey’s Round Table rival, Sir Dorian, to seek the missing Queen Martha, pausing only to fight a black knight in every village. When everyone else has gone, our hero seizes his chance to aid the beautiful Lady Elaine. Meanwhile, Martha turns out to be a run­away from an unwanted marriage. A witch transforms her into a blotchy-faced youth with a magic sword but no knightly training. When Sir Humphrey and Martha meet, she’s fighting with her eyes tightly shut.

Phillips’s previous novel, Gods Behaving Badly, delighted in imagining how ancient Greek gods might adapt to modern life. The Table of Less Valued Knights infects Arthurian legend with a brio not seen since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Martha’s efforts to pass herself off as a man are horribly funny, especially when they involve peeing upright with the help of a bark funnel similar to those employed at this year’s Glastonbury. A flighty Lady of the Lake (or her locum, as Nimue is off with Merlin), a soppy unicorn and a ubiquitous Customs dwarf add to the fun. If you have ever enjoyed Malory, Tennyson or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it will make you laugh aloud.

Forced to team up with Sir Humphrey and his companions, Martha can’t understand why men don’t cleanse and moisturise before bed. Sir Humphrey is accompanied by a small giant, an elephant and the increasingly unreliable Elaine; he wonders why he gets an erection when sharing a tent with Martha. Though she has been put off sex by learning the facts of life on her wedding night, she finds his odour mysteriously pleasing. It looks set for romance but the plot refuses to follow the obvious course.

There are so few genuinely funny novelists around that this stands out as noteworthy. The best character is Martha’s appalling fiancé, Prince Edwin of Tuft, the villain we love to hate, with his big teeth, vile puns, cruelty and selfishness. His medieval ideas about women are, sadly, shared by all manner of online trolls today, as commentators such as Laurie Penny and Mary Beard will attest.

Beneath the romping humour and fast pace is a plea for the shy, feminine, humane and deviant to be understood and valued. Even if the ending is slightly too pious, we should be grateful that Phillips, like all of the best comic writers, dares to make a serious point. 

Amanda Craig’s novels include “A Vicious Circle” and “Hearts and Minds” (Abacus, £10.99 and £8.99

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear