It’s Pentecost at Camelot and the knights are waiting for this year’s quest to arrive so they can eat (or in Lancelot’s case, shag Guinevere). We’re introduced to the two other tables in King Arthur’s hall, the Table of Errant Companions and the Table of Less Valued Knights:
…to be found in the draughtiest corner furthest away from either of the fires, was rectangular, and had one leg shorter than the other so that it always had to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking. It was home to the elderly, the infirm, the cowardly, the incompetent and the disgraced…
Edwin, ‘King of Puddock and next in line to the throne of Tuft’, rocks up and tells the assembled knights that his wife, Queen Martha, was kidnapped six days previously on their wedding knight. Sir Dorian Pendoggett – ‘always looking out for the quest that would get him into a poem’ – takes the quest and the knights eat.
Afterwards our Less Valued Knightly companion, Sir Humphrey du Val, remains in the hall and is sitting in his old seat in the Round Table when Lady Elaine do Mont, of Tuft arrives with a quest. Her parents arranged a tournament to decide who would marry her, the outcome fixed to be a Sir Alistair Gilbert – from a wealthy family – but as he pledged his troth to Elaine, he was kidnapped by a Black Knight. Elaine needs to find him so their wedding can take place.
Humphrey takes Elaine’s quest and sets off to discover who the Black Knight is. Travelling with him are his short giant squire, Conrad, and his elephant, Jemima – bought from a travelling circus. We travel part way with Humphrey and co. before being taken back a week or so to hear the story of Martha, Edwin’s Queen.
Martha’s father, the King, has died and as her brother, Jasper, has been dead for several years, the throne is hers. She has no idea what sort of queen she will be:
…Martha didn’t know what Martha was. She presided over jousts, opened country fairs, exclaimed at the beauty of babies and judged vegetables. She shook hands. She sat at banquets next to foreign dignitaries who talked across her to other foreign dignitaries or lectured her on their own achievements. She bestowed favours upon and accepted love poetry from knights and the sons of lords who had never actually spoken to her. She wore stiff dresses and uncomfortable shoes. She smiled.
There’s a catch though: for Martha to become queen, she must marry – so her husband can make all the important decisions, of course. Her parents arranged this when she was born; by nightfall, Prince Edwin has arrived and the wedding takes place the following day.
Edwin has only two things on his mind: sex – he’s all about the banter – and proving he’s better than his older brother and King, Leo. As we know from the opening of the novel, Martha’s not around for long and Edwin sets off looking for her.
In terms of the structure of the novel, just before the halfway point, the two quests collide and the pace increases as the two groups race to solve the disappearances – and a whole host of other questions posed along the way.
While the plot’s great and the characters are well drawn, the absolute joy of this novel is the way it tackles its themes. Phillips looks at sexism, racism, homophobia and acknowledges transphobia without lecturing or letting up on the laughs. There are so many lines I’d love to quote but I’ll restrict myself to three sections to give you a flavour.
As Humphrey, Conrad and Elaine reach the border between Camelot and Tuft, they have to pass a customs official who is a dwarf:
‘Never thought I’d see the day,’ said the dwarf, shaking his head. ‘A giant as a squire. I thought he’d be burning down villages, raping, looting and the like. Thought it’d be more than my job’s worth with King Leo, letting a giant in. Even a small one. I feel quite ashamed of myself, making assumptions like that. Believe me, I know what it’s like. People see me, they think trickster, con artist, thief. Never imagine that I might be a government official. People think with their eyes, not with their minds. That’s the problem.
When Conrad questions Humphrey’s use of bribery:
There isn’t actually a prohibition against it in the Knights’ Code. In fact, the Knights’ Code relies a lot on interpretation. Lots of stuff about goodness, honour, faith and trust. Not so many specifics.
And when Martha becomes Queen:
‘Speech!’ cried one of the men.
The others took up the call. ‘Speech! Speech! Speech!’
Martha cleared her throat.
‘It is an honour –‘ she began.
‘Sir John!’ interrupted the first man.
‘Sir John! Sir John! Sir John!’ chorused the others.
‘Oh, well, if you insist,’ said Sir John.
Every year the Bailey’s Women’s Prize throws up a couple of gems that I otherwise might not have read, The Table of Less Valued Knights is one of those gems. Smart and funny with a cracking plot, what more could you want?
Thanks to Jonathan Cape/Vintage Books for the review copy.