In the darkest, least distinguished corner of the Great Hall at Camelot is a table they never speak of in the songs: the Table of Less Valued Knights. Here the retired and the also-rans live in the shadow of their glamorous peers on the famous Round Table. Sir Humphrey du Val is one of these past-it paladins, banished from the first division for an unchivalrous act and resigned to spending the rest of his life in the company of toothless has-beens. But then, one Pentecost, Fate throws Sir Humphrey an unexpected chance to distinguish himself once again. Before he knows it, he’s out on the road, riding to avenge a damsel in distress; but little does the poor knight realise that his trials are only just beginning. Cheerfully silly, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossed with A Knight’s Tale, this is an all-out medieval romp.
Everyone knows that great quests come to Camelot at Pentecost, but everyone reckons that this year’s Quest has already arrived: the ostentatious self-proclaimed King Edwin of Puddock, who turned up earlier in the evening to report a missing bride. Sir Humphrey is the only one left in the Great Hall when another Quest arrives: a beautiful young woman, who announces that her fiance has been abducted by a knight in black armour. His heart swelling at the notion of helping a real, proper damsel, Sir Humphrey decides to aid the pulchritudinous Elaine and rallies his squire Conrad (a half-giant) and their mounts (Conrad’s is an elephant named Jemima). But it soon becomes clear that there are an awful lot of men in black armour in the countryside, and Sir Humphrey must somehow come up with a methodical way to interview them all – while Elaine grows rapidly, desperately more impatient.
In the neighbouring kingdom of Puddock, some days before, Queen Martha is having a bad time of it. Her father has just died, leaving her the sole heir to a kingdom that she really doesn’t want to be queen of. To make matters worse, her authority has been usurped by her Council, who plan to hand it over to her betrothed, Prince Edwin of Tuft, on his imminent arrival. And Edwin is just a bit of a prat. Martha decides that there is only one solution to her problem. Hoping to find her long-lost brother Jasper (and strong-arm him into being king instead), she cuts her hair and disguises herself as a man, escaping on her wedding night to ride forth. This would be all very well if Martha (or Marcus, as she now calls herself) had the first idea where to go. Fortunately, she soon encounters the Lady of the Lake – something of an occupational hazard in these parts – who gives her a sword and some not-very-helpful advice. The sword is meant to lead Martha to Jasper. But instead, it throws her straight into company with a motley crew of travellers, who just happen to be Sir Humphrey, Conrad and Elaine. Could it be possible that their two Quests might be able to throw light on each other?
This is a fun and thoroughly undemanding read, rather bubble-like in that it’s bright and engaging while it lasts, but probably won’t linger in the memory for long. Phillips happily goes around destroying some of the great Arthurian cliches and making fun of others and, as I said earlier, the result is very Pythonesque (even in so far as the slightly messy ending). At times it feels like a somewhat relentless series of gags, but it’s a warm and silly antidote to all the oh-so-serious Arthurian fiction out there. Recommended for a quick, easy read: a literary sugar-rush for the mind.
Interestingly, there’s another book with a very similar title out there: Liam Perrin’s Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights. It’s very odd that two novels should have been published within a year of each other with such similar titles. I wonder how they compare?