Children's Literature · Medievalism

The Fine Line Between Nostalgia and Reality: A Look At Kit Pearson’s A Perfect Gentle Knight

Canadian author Kit Pearson was one of my favourites as a child. While the Guests of War trilogy was my favourite because of my intense love for anything World War II related, her Arthurian spin A Perfect Gentle Knight was probably my second favourite. When I heard that I had to write a short paper on medievalism for my Arthurian class, this book at once came to mind. I just finished reading it and am in more love with it than ever. It’s funny how a book that you once read as a child is so much richer when you read it as an adult.

The story, in summary – eleven-year-old Corrie Bell is the narrator. As the Bell mother is dead and the scholarly father is working on his next book, Corrie and her five siblings are left to themselves. Sebastian, the oldest at fourteen, is the only one who keeps the younger children – Harry and the twins Juliet and Orly – in check. He has all of the Bell children involved in an intricate game of knights (the Round Table) that Sebastian himself started after their mother died as a coping mechanism. However, as older sister Roz is getting bored of the game and Sebastian is retreating more and more into the game, Corrie finds her family starting to drift apart.

It’s a great children’s book, but what I love the most of all is how mature the themes are. Corrie struggles with the attempt to keep her family together at the same time as figuring out her identity when all the other girls at school are mooning over boys. Sebastian, grieved by the loss of his mother and bullied by the boys at his school because of his long hair (grown that way because he is Lancelot in the game), ignores reality with the game of knights. At home, he is surrounded by his family members who love them and he is their leader, Sir Lancelot. But the game becomes dangerous and Sebastian loses his touch with reality when he meets a girl named Jennifer. He starts to believe that he is Lancelot and Jennifer is Guinevere. I think this passage shows just how far Sebastian has gone:

Sebastian nodded solemnly. “I know you probably think I’m crazy, but why else have I felt so drawn to him [Lancelot] all these years? And why else would I keep on with the Round Table? I hate to admit it, but Roz is right. It’s fine to play at knights when you’re your age, but fifteen is too old for it. Except I’m not playing! The rest of you are – it’s just a game for you. But for me, it’s real. I have no choice.” (174-5; bold added for emphasis)

Obviously, I’m not going to go too much into depth here about my paper since it’s an assignment (and I never post assignments on the web so they aren’t stolen), but I wanted to make a couple notes. I will be using “The Romance of Medievalism” by Laurie Finke and Martin B. Schichtman – I chose this article over the other one because this one looks at nostalgia as being perhaps not quite such an innocent thing (as in “Medievalism and its discontents” by Renée R. Trilling). Trilling believes that nostalgia is only maintained by the fact that the object of one’s desire can never be reached. This is obviously not the case with Sebastian. While nostalgia is most likely where Sebastian started when his mother died, it becomes dangerous and much more than nostalgia.

Finke & Shichtman’s article focuses mostly on the nostalgia which is the focus of medieval studies  and what creates dollars for the heritage tourism; however, what struck me was the fact that “cultural nostalgia produced by medieval tourism becomes a form of telepathy, a means of touching the dead” (295). While the reader never sees Sebastian’s perspective, the whole story being through Corrie’s eyes (most appropriate for the audience), his depression is directly linked with his mother’s death.

“It’s all right, my boy. We’ve come to take you home.” Fa’s voice was gentle and calm. He squatted in front of Sebastian, who kept staring at his father. Then his eyes focuses and he gave a short, anguished cry.

Fa held out his arms. Sebastian unfolded into them. His thin bare shoulder shuddered with sobs. “I want Mum …” he croaked. “I want her so much!”

Sebastian does not know how to get along with other people in the real world, retreating to his family and his position as Sir Lancelot. Nostalgia becomes “the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition and denies the repetition’s capacity to form identity” (Finke & Shichtman 296; bold added for emphasis). While Corrie realizes “the impossibility of a return to the past,” Sebastian is more concerned with “the affective power of that return” (296) – the return to a past that is based upon simple values of honour and bravery becomes much more desirable, much more real. The “semantic gap between past and present, here and somewhere else” (297) is blurred.

Another thing that interested me about Finke & Shichtman’s article is the difference between medieval studies and heritage tourism. While the two share similarities in that they are both works of medievalism, there is a distinct difference between the two which reminds me of the difference between Sebastian and his father. While both males enjoy the medieval, Mr. Bell is able to keep a scholarly distance from his work. Mr. Bell is engrossed in his studies, but is immediately ready to help and there for his children when they make him aware of the situation. He is the scholar of medieval studies. Sebastian, on the other hand, while he does not look for the crass and cheap side of tourism, his focus on the experience of the medieval being as real as possible, even to the point where it’s fiction becomes blatantly obvious, reminds me of the heritage tourism’s attempt to make the experience as real as possible. People are hired to dress up and speak as if they were from that time period. Games, events, music – all is constructed to make the experience seem real, but it becomes so over the top that its counterfeit nature is what ends up being highlighted.