Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book is a Newbery Honor Book, so it fits with our rather unsystematic exploration of Newbery winners and honors. I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, as it is unusual, to say the least. Let’s start with this: the book is definitely an example of Magical Realism. So there’s that. But it is more than that, and unusual for more than that too.

As the title suggests, The Inquisitor’s Tale is a bit of a nod in the general direction of The Canterbury Tales. Most of the book consists of a series of tales told at an inn. However, these are not a bunch of unrelated or loosely related stories, but one story, told by a series of narrators who witnessed various parts of the story. Oh, and telling the tale of what went on in the inn is the Inquisitor (whose identity doesn’t become clear until near the end of the book.) So that is one way to look at this book.

Another is that it is a collection of Medieval legends retold in an imaginative way. After all, very little of the story is truly “original.” Gidwitz borrows ideas liberally, but weaves the threads into a single story. 

The story itself is of three children from disparate backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. And also a venerated dog come back from the dead.

The first child is Jeanne, a French peasant girl. The dog is Gwenforte, a greyhound who saves Jeanne from a snake, but is killed in the mistaken believe she has harmed Jeanne. The peasants of the village venerate Gwenfortet as a saint for her heroism, and decorate her grave. Then, an inquisitor is sent to stop this idol worship, and things start to get magical - and scary for Jeanne. The incident of the holy dog, minus the resurrection, is based on real events.

The second child is William, who is based loosely on Guillaume D’Orange, a real person who later became legendary as a kind of monkish Paul Bunyan. In this story, William retains his large size and superhuman strength, but becomes the illegitimate child of a crusader and an African woman. William is abandoned at a monastery by his father after his mother dies in childbirth, and William is raised as an oblate. When we meet him in this book, he is on a mission to deliver books to Saint Denis for his superior.

The third child is Jacob, a Jewish boy recently escaped from the destruction of his village. (This incident is also based on an historical event.)

The children are thrown together by chance, and end up fleeing together as Jeanne is sought by the inquisition, Jacob is trying to find out if his parents survived, and William has his books to deliver. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters, from Michelangelo di Bologna, a giant monk who may be the villain - or not - to King Louis IX and his mother, Blanche of Castille, to Mamaluke, the good hearted but slow witted knight. Their adventures include historical events such as the mass burning of Talmuds by Louis, as well as legendary ones like the curing of the Dragon of Deadly Farts.

This second story is the one my kids thought was the most hilarious. But it isn’t original to Gidwitz. Rather, it comes from, of all places, a collection of tales told about the saints. Who says the Middle Ages were dour?

On the one hand, there are humorous moments like this. On the other, there are some really serious topics in this book. Religious and class prejudice pervade Medieval society, and all three children are looked down on as a result. Religious persecution is addressed without softening the blow at all. People are burned to death, books are burned, villages are burned. All in the name of religion.

There is also an extended examination of the Problem of Evil. I appreciate that Gidwitz doesn’t talk down to the intended audience on this. Or worse, lecture and pretend that he has a solution. There is no solution, just a combination of questions and potential partial answers. And that is okay! No person, religious or not, should fear this question or gloss over it. Humans have pondered this since the dawn of civilization. Gidwitz presents two contrasting views. The first is that of Job, where the answer is merely a question back: “where were you?” The second is that of the troubadour, who theorizes that life is like a beautiful yet tragic song. The bad things that happen are not beautiful, but the song itself is, and both the good and bad that happen are necessary for the beauty of the song of life.

The book has a rather modern sensibility, rather than a Medieval one. The author (although not always the characters) is aware of the evil of prejudice, of religious persecution, of sexism, and of superstition. As one of the characters puts it, part of being a saint (in the general sense) is to fight for good and kindness and love, and against the forces of hate and ignorance. (Hey, we could use a bit of that right now in our present time, yes?) Gidwitz gently argues for religious tolerance (also pointing out teachings in the Talmud similar to those of Christ.)

My kids liked this, but I will warn that there are some pretty intense scenes. Some children might find things scary. (And, adults should find this stuff scary. Humans can be so dreadful to each other.) This is a book full of humor, but not particularly lighthearted in its themes. But it is, like the famous cheese which gets a scene, strong and complex, and a lot like life itself.


I strongly recommend reading the Author’s Note at the end. Gidwitz explains how he came to write the story, and indicates where the various legends and tales that are incorporated came from. 


The audiobook is read by a full cast, including the author. I approve of this approach, and thought the Listening Library version was excellent. 

1 comment:

  1. I picked up this book a year ago. Really enjoy some of the lines of Michelangelo towards the end. Good stuff, good pictures.