I can’t remember when a book had me chuckling as much as “The Table of Less Valued Knights.” It made me wish I could shut the world out, curl up somewhere snug and read the whole thing in one go. Marie Phillips cleverly recreates an Arthurian landscape that sends up all the pomp of the famed Round Table by portraying fame-hungry knights, princesses that will do anything not to marry, an acne-riddled giant with parent issues, a blacksmith with a loyalty card scheme and a Lady of the Lake who is just working the job as a temp. After being shamed by an incident from his past, Sir Humphrey du Val can no longer sit with the most esteemed of Arthur’s knights and instead sits at another “less valued” table with the deposed, elderly and ineffectual knights. Although he technically isn’t allowed to take up quests, he seizes his chance to redeem himself when a damsel in distress shows up late one night looking for a knight to aid her in recovering her kidnapped fiancé. Alongside other knights seeking glory, they ride out on a quest with lots of comic misadventures along the way.
The quests which the knights valiantly set out upon are gradually revealed to be more complicated than they initially thought. Unlike mythic tales of Arthurian legend these are no simple 'good knight chases bad villain to rescue virgin maiden' tales. Phillips is consciously working against such simplification. It's observed at one point that “People think with their eyes, not with their minds, that’s the problem.” The novel satirizes the macho men who wish to dominate the narrative of history as pompous fools. A prince errant who schemes to control as many kingdoms as he can insists: “War is what men were made for! War and fucking. War and fucking and – no, just those two.” This is a man who could appear as a revered figure in a stately portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. Yet here he's shown to be a small-minded ruthless tyrant stomping his feet when he doesn't get his way. In this novel the people who emerge to shine are those with a more nuanced understanding of what both men and women are capable of.
Like a lot of Shakespearean comedy there is a hilarious dose of gender confusion. In order to escape detection a lady masquerades as a man. There is a man who likes to dress as a woman and prefers being called by a woman's name. Amidst all the swapping and mixing of gendered presentation there is also a questioning of roles. When a woman takes on a more assertive attitude Sir Humphrey “felt flustered, as if she were the knight and he were the maiden.” The political landscape is painted in a contemporary shade where traditionally-minded heterosexual majorities seek to oppress women and gays. Yet there are strong displays of opposition to this and a burgeoning consciousness of respect and flexibility. The effect of consciously eschewing historical accuracy for the pleasure of relatable sensibilities gives a more inclusive sense of history – as if we could actually inhabit and relate to this medieval carnival. It makes this novel a participatory joyous experience.