The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch
|The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Julia Jones|
|Summary: New edition of a classic historical novel for children -- deservedly cherished by many adults and still capable of appealing to confident readers today.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 248||Date: March 2015|
The Gauntlet was one of the iconic books of my childhood. Why iconic? It's an over-used word. Why not say 'most memorable', 'outstanding', 'most magical and exciting', -- or simply 'best'? Any of those would do but I think I'll allow myself iconic. The gauntlet of the title justifies that word.
Young Peter Staunton and his friend Gwyn are staying in Carmarthanshire near the ruined Carreg Cennan Castle. They are close to being lost in the mountain mist when Peter trips over an iron glove. 'Like a huge batting glove,' comments Gwyn but when Peter slips his hand inside he hears the thud of hooves, shouts, a clang of metal on metal and the mist 'seems to swirl around him with redoubled speed and thickness'. The Gauntlet is a time travel book and I suppose I read it at around the same time as I read C.S Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Today's children probably have a better understanding of the concept of portals, port-keys, traveling though time and slipping in and out of worlds but as far as I'm concerned not even C. S. Lewis's wardrobe, leading little Lucy on and on into the prickly cold wood between the worlds, could quite compete with that first finding of the medieval relic on the misty Welsh hillside.
Ronald Welch is especially good on Peter's physical feelings of disorientation. He feels numb and giddy. Then later, when he is shown the child-size brass of young Peter de Blois in the local church, he is obscurely troubled by the pull of the past and his own unfamiliar response. To an experienced adult reader this has all become familiar territory but, for me, The Gauntlet is iconic as it continues to epitomise the thrill of reading itself; that feeling of disorientation that one feels travelling between the world of fiction and the everyday.
Unlike the Pevensey children Peter Staunton is not transported into a fantasy world, he finds himself the son of Sir Roger de Blois, a Marcher Lord of the fourteenth century, whose ancestors have seized Carreg Cennen castle from the indigenous Welsh. Reading this story in the twenty-first century could give a sensation of post-colonial unease, a residual guilt at being imaginatively complicit with these land-grabbing imperialists. Perhaps I shouldn't be recommending this much-loved book to my part-Welsh grandchildren? Except that the world of Sir Roger de Blois did exist and also Ronald Welch is a sufficiently honest writer, and good historian, to allow moments of doubt about the rightness of the Marcher Lords' brutal dominance over a countryside that is not their own. Peter comes to love Sir Roger – and this is one of the best things in the book – but he also sees his limitations.
One of the pleasures of re-reading The Gauntlet as an adult is to see it as a historical novel in itself. It takes place in a world that is almost devoid of women. It's a world where chaps wear grey flannel shorts and a school tie even in the holidays; where they go and stay with friends' bachelor uncles and are driven recklessly around the countryside by enthusiastic pipe-smoking vicars. It's a pre-WW2 world in many ways, and one which has now gone, even from literature.
Keen child readers will be untroubled by this, I think. They will take it in their stride just as (I hope) they will also relish the unfamiliar language of armour, hawking and siege weaponry – surcoats, bascinets, tiercels and misericordes: trebuchets and mangonels. The vicar (and the author) are determined that young Peter should be educated in all aspects of medieval life for a young nobleman and it's possibly that some passages are overly didactic but, as a child, I lapped this up. I know I'm not the only person who has found that the information gleaned from childhood and teen reading of historical novels is information that has stuck solidly in the head decades later.
Despite the absence of women it would be a mistake to categorise The Gauntlet as a story for boys. Lady Marian, Sir Roger's wife is the sole female character but I never felt troubled or excluded as a child. The power of the gauntlet drew me into a world where gender didn't matter. Emotionally I was Peter and Welch's unobtrusively fine writing enabled me to share his sense of wonder and uncertainty. The heavy clinging darkness of the medieval countryside at night was new to him.
I re-read Welch's Carnegie winning Knight Crusader for the purposes of comparison. It's a fine evocation of the heat and confused politics of the Kingdom of Outremer but not a book that has weathered the last sixty years quite as well as The Gauntlet. I'll be passing this new edition to my grandchildren just as soon as any of them are ready to read it. I might even offer them a trip to Carreg Cennen itself – in the hopes that we might find ourselves alone on the hillside with the mist coming down and hear the thud of hooves, the clang of metal on metal ....
Clearly every child should be offered the opportunity to read The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis. Another much rarer but welcome reissue from the past is Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff. Adults whose imaginations (like mine) were caught by the falconry descriptions in The Gauntlet might relish a more far complex and personal exploration of the subject in H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch at Amazon.com.
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