Neil Gaiman, story and words; Colleen Doran, adaptation, art, and illuminated manuscript lettering
Dark Horse Books, 2022
Dark Horse has been publishing beautiful interpretations of Neil Gaiman short stories for many years now, adapted by a number of artists. This is the third by Colleen Doran, an artist who has been associated with Gaiman since The Sandman. The short story was first collected in Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (1998). Doran has long been an Arthuriana enthusiast, and expressed interest in adapting it: but a Hollywood producer held the rights for over 25 years. This is only the first stumbling block Doran relates in her Notes in the book. When she began work, she struggled with the best way to interpret the story visually, even spending months trying to create a genuine illuminated manuscript (which involved parchment and the difficulties of raised gold leaf technique).
The story is a charming tale about an elderly Englishwoman who purchases the Holy Grail from a second-hand shop. After bringing it home and proudly displaying it on her mantle, she is visited multiple times by Sir Galaad, a Knight of the Round Table. He wants to retrieve the Grail, and offers Mrs. Whitaker a succession of items in trade: first he offers gold; then the legendary sword Balmung; and finally, the Philosopher's Stone, a Phoenix egg, and one of the apples of Hesperides. She turns down the apple (with its promise of youth and eternal life), but accepts the other two in trade. Sir Galaad goes away happy, and she resumes her normal life (choosing to leave a magic lamp behind on her next visit to the junk shop).
The storytelling is a blend of real life and fantasy: it could even be called magic reality. Mrs. Whitaker is presented as an average widow and housewife, yet she recognizes the Grail immediately, and accepts Sir Galaad (complete with a suit of armor) and his horse as normal occurrences. Her memories and love for her husband are like a guiding star. Doran's art captures all of this, along with passages about Galaad that are rendered in a more formal Medieval style meant to evoke illuminated manuscripts of the era.
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