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.

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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 appears in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood