Friday, June 19, 2009

Chivalry from M is for Magic

This story is one of my favorites from Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic, mostly because of its elaborately mundane tone. From the very first line--"Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat"--everything that happens seems entirely plausible. The fur coat is in an Oxfam shop, the British version of Goodwill, and an old lady buys it: "Mrs. Whitaker gave fifty pence to Marie, who gave her ten pence change and a brown paper bag to put the books and the Holy Grail in. Then she went next door to the butcher's and bought herself a nice piece of liver. Then she went home." She polishes the Grail and puts it on her mantel.

When one of her friends comes over and asks what it is, Mrs. Whitaker explains "It's the Holy Grail....It's the cup that Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper. Later, at the Crucifixion, it caught His precious blood when the centurion's spear pierced His side" and her friend, who "didn't hold with unsanitary things" says it's nice.

After the friend has gone home and Mrs. Whitaker has had her lunch and her pills, the doorbell rings, and it's a knight on a quest. He identifies himself by handing her a scroll which says he is "Galaad, Knight of the Table Round" before she'll let him in. Once he sees the Grail on her mantle, he drops to one knee and lowers "his head as if in silent prayer." He offers her gold for the grail, but she refuses, saying she likes it on her mantel, as "it's just right, between the dog and the photograph of my Henry."

Undiscouraged, Galaad returns a few days later and offers her a sword that will make the wearer "unconquerable in war, and invincible in battle." Mrs. Whitaker doesn't want it, of course, but she "made him some cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches for the journey back and wrapped them in greaseproof paper."

The next time Galaad shows up, Mrs. Whitaker makes him move things around in her attic while she cleans and tells him about her family and how she met her husband. In return, Galaad tells her about "his mother, Elaine, who was flighty and no better than she should have been and something of a witch to boot" and the rest of his family. They have tea, and then Galaad produces the Philosopher's Stone, the Egg of the Phoenix, and the Apple of Life and offers them in exchange for the grail. Mrs. Whitaker is tempted by the apple, which Galaad tells her "is one of the apples of the Hesperides....One bite from it will heal any illness or wound, no matter how deep; a second bite restores youth and beauty; and a third bite is said to grant eternal life." Although Mrs. Whitaker thinks about "how it was to be young: to have a firm, slim body that would do whatever she wanted it to do," she is no fool. She knows that necromancy never pays.

So at length Mrs. Whitaker tells Galaad to "put that apple away....You shouldn't offer things like that to old ladies. It isn't proper....But I'll take the other two....They'll look nice on the mantelpiece. And two for one's fair, or I don't know what is." Galaad goes down on his knee and kisses her hand. Then they finish their tea and Mrs. Whitaker wraps up "a large slice of fruitcake" for him, "along with a banana and a slice of processed cheese in silver foil" and tells him to use the toilet before he goes.

It's a charming story. Mrs. Whitaker is the exact opposite of a character like Blanche Dubois. Blanche desperately wants magic in her life, but Mrs. Whitaker reacts to magic in the same no-nonsense way she responds to slugs in her garden or her guitar-playing vicar. (Do you know a guitar-playing clergyman?)


Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

This sounds very funny! I love the phrase "elaborately mundane" to describe it -- that's what drew me into this review.


Memory said...

I love this story too! It's such a nice take on the Holy Grail legend.

PAJ said...

My minister plays the guitar. But I don't hold it against him!

Dreamybee said...

That does sound like a fun read, and the young priest on "Mad Men" plays a guitar.

Jeanne said...

It's a quietly funny story, but it builds.
My mostly southern family has remarked on the rise of the guitar-playing clergy in the last 10-15 years. "Mad Men," huh?
And Kim, I'm glad you enjoyed that phrase!

Joe said...

I have an MP3 of Jane Curtin reading this story for a PRI series called "Selected Shorts". The episode was called "Dazed and Knights;" don't know if you can still find it out there. She did a great job with Mrs. Whitaker.

Jeanne said...

Joe, thanks for the lead on this! Here it is:

Jeanne said...

Here's another link to Jane Curtin reading Chivalry--NOTE: Chivalry is the second story on the program.