“As strong as she was fair”

31 Aug

I’ve been saving this book for a special day, and as my little sister B starts junior high tomorrow, I think now is an opportune moment!

And example of Trina Schart Hyman's legendary illustrations!

Donald J. Sobol is best-known for authoring the Encyclopedia Brown series, but in 1970, he published a book entitled Greta the Strong. It follows the adventures of a peasant maiden in Arthurian England who possess inhuman strength (at one point she carries a warhorse on her shoulders) and is unfailingly polite. She is chosen by Sir Porthal, the only surviving knight of the Round Table, to become a champion for good, worthy enough to receive the legendary Excalibur.

Greta has many adventures – she defeats the Knight of the Sea, slays a giant so that he does not fall, wrestles an evil magician, and frees captured damsels like it’s her job. But more importantly, she also makes mistakes. She slays a kind dragon, is cursed by her brothers, and knocks out her true love, Sir Evren. Mostly this happens because of her politeness and desire to do good – though the Lady of the Lake grants her Excalibur because she is the purest knight in the world, what this essentially means is that she can be pretty darn gullible.

Her trouble always seems to stem from her femininity. At the opening of the story, Greta triumphs over each of her four brothers in their areas of martial expertise (swordplay, archery, jousting, and wrestling) to win Sir Porthal’s favor, but they perceive it as an insult, and conspire to curse her. Sir Evren, though initially smitten, is horrified when he realizes that Greta is stronger than he, sure that she could hurt him if she were ever angry, and thus leaves her. Constantly, she is underestimated or prejudiced against, and while she occasionally uses her gender as a disguise, it always hampers her adventures. At the end of the story [SPOILER] she throws off her armor in favor of wedded bliss with Sir Evren, and is thus hampered even by her author’s attention to her sex.

But, nevertheless, Greta represents a kind of heroine we’ve never seen before. She exists in a land of Arthurian legend peopled by monsters and enchantresses, but holds her own in a genre where female knights are pretty much non-existent – Arthurian women are beautiful queens or beautiful sorceresses, not knights. But Greta is (clearly) strong, noble, and smart: at the end when she is offered Excalibur, she refuses it, saying: “Never by the sword have men found peace and justice, not in Arthur’s day nor in mine nor in days unborn.” A remarkably clear-sighted prophecy (especially after she’s just spent the entire book waving a sword herself) that still rings true today.

Sobol masters the cadence of Arthurian myths, and Greta the Strong may as well come from Sir Thomas Malory or Geoffrey of Monmouth. He has imagined a woman onto a scene dominated entirely by men, then and today, and she’s a legendary B.A. to boot! This book can be hard to get a hold of, but it’s a great story and the illustrations by the great Trina Schart Hyman are not to be missed!


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