Because it’s the 75th anniversary of the Prince Valiant comic strip this month, I thought I would summarize and review the first volume of the series, now reprinted by Fantagraphics Book, which covers the first two years of the series in print. Fantagraphics is planning to reprint hopefully the entire series, but so far the first five have been released (the 5th is coming in March actually).
The Prince Valiant strip is subtitled “In the Days of King Arthur” and consequently some people have been skeptical about whether it really belongs in the Arthurian canon. In truth, it is often marginal as Valiant goes off on adventures on the Continent, far from King Arthur’s court, but Camelot remains home base throughout the series. Following is a summary of what occurs in this first volume. I usually don’t like to give away full plots, but since this volume is the beginning of the story, it’s important to clarify just how much of the strip is relevant to King Arthur.
The story begins with the King of Thule and his family being forced to flee from their country. They go to Britain, fighting the locals to land on the shore. At this time, Prince Valiant is just a boy. He looks to be between about ages six and eight in the strip. King Arthur, to keep the peace, allows the King and his faithful followers to settle in the Fens, a marshy area where the people live on islands in a swamp and make their way through the swamps on boats and rafts. Lizard type monsters are also hiding in the Fens.
Valiant grows up in this environment until he approaches manhood. One day, after fighting one of the monster lizards, Valiant sees a mysterious light far off in the Fens and is determined to find its source. In the process Valiant is attacked by a monster who turns out to be a “huge misshapen man, horrible in his deformities.” Valiant wounds the man but then cares for him and takes him home to his mother, who turns out to be the witch Horrit (the first time she is mentioned her name is Horrid, but Hal Foster must have decided to change the spelling in subsequent strips). This meeting is significant because Horrit makes a prophecy that will haunt Valiant for the rest of his life.
As the witch makes her prophecy, Val gazes into the fire and becomes dreamy until he has visions of castles and armies, knights in armor, and then a king and queen, whom the witch says is “Stupid Arthur and his flighty wench, Guinevere.” She goes on to prophesy, “And you will confront the unicorn, the dragon and the griffon, black men and yellow. You will have high adventure, but nowhere do I see happiness and contentment,” and she tells him already his greatest sorrow awaits him.
Valiant leaves the witch to discover his greatest sorrow—that his mother has died. After grieving, Valiant decides it’s time to set off to seek his fortune. Soon after, he meets Sir Lancelot and his squire, and when the squire is rude to him, Valiant pulls him off his horse and beats him to give him a lesson. Lancelot is good natured but stops the fight and then rides off with his squire. The incident makes Valiant determined to become a knight. Eventually, Valiant finds a horse, learns to ride, and then saves Sir Gawain from another knight who attacks Gawain. Soon Valiant and Gawain have formed a lasting friendship.
Gawain takes Valiant to Camelot where two conspirators soon after decide to kidnap Gawain and hold him for ransom. They trick Valiant and Gawain to visiting the Castle of Ereiwold where Gawain is captured and becomes a prisoner. Of course, Valiant eventually rescues him. After the rescue, however, Gawain gets wounded in a fight with another knight, and Val has to take his place to go on his first quest to rescue the fair maid Ilene’s parents, who are being held prisoner in their castle by an ogre.
Once he sneaks into the castle, Val soon realizes the ogre is a fake with makeup to make him look frightening. Val decides to use fear, the same weapon, to conquer the ogre, disguising himself and appearing like a flying demon in the castle’s hall. In time, Val defeats the ogre and his men, and he rescues Ilene’s parents.
Val is in love with Ilene by this point, but she is already betrothed to the King of Ord. Val wants to stay and fight for Ilene, but Gawain has gotten in trouble again, kidnapped by Morgan le Fey, half-sister of King Arthur. Val goes off to rescue his friend, making the mistake of confronting Morgan le Fey, who puts him under a spell, but in time, he realizes his food is drugged and he quits eating so he’s in his right mind. Then he is able to escape from the castle. Val goes to Merlin, who works his own spell to scare Morgan le Fey into freeing Gawain.
Gawain is freed in time for Val to be invited to a tournament to celebrate the marriage of Prince Arn of Ord and Ilene. Val is determined to challenge Arn, but the challenge occurs on a bridge, resulting in Arn falling and nearly drowning and Val saving him. They plan to fight again nevertheless, but when they begin, a Viking raid occurs and instead, they become allies against their enemies. Before the battle with the Vikings, Arn gives Val the famous Singing Sword, which bears a charm and of course helps him to defeat his enemies. Despite his success, Val is captured by his enemies and he and Ilene are taken over the sea, while hoping Arn will rescue them. In time, Val and Ilene are separated and Ilene ends up on a ship that sinks, leaving Val and Arn heartbroken.
Once Val and Arn return to Camelot, Lancelot tells them they are fortunate Ilene drowned because now they are friends whereas otherwise there always would have been strife between them and Ilene would have blamed herself as the cause of it all.
To deal with his grief, Val returns home to the Fens. As this first volume ends, Val overcomes his grief and decides it’s time he lead his father’s people to return and re-conquer Thule, but before they can act on their plan, a major Saxon invasion threatens England. Val returns to Camelot to fight beside the Knights of the Round Table.
In addition to the strip itself, which is in its brightest glorious color because it’s reprinted directly from Foster’s colored plates, there is an essay in the back by Kim Thompson about the reproduction of Prince Valiant and the various plates, which is quite interesting to read, and even mentions a few of the more gruesome scenes in the story that were censored out. The book also contains a biographical essay about Hal Foster and an interesting interview with Foster.
The plot of Prince Valiant is more like a soap opera in terms of its cliffhangers at the end of most strips and its constant continuation with no end in mind. Foster reputedly was usually ahead in creating the strip by several weeks, but one wonders if he ever imagined when it began that the strip could run not only for many years but many decades and encompass all of Prince Valiant’s life basically. He had no need to plot it in a specific direction, yet there are still certain arching points to the story, including the prophecy that Valiant can never know happiness and the basics of the King Arthur story as well.
For people still uncertain whether they would enjoy Prince Valiant, I recommend getting a copy of this first volume and trying it out; then you can determine whether you want to continue to read the successive volumes, which would be quite a time commitment, but there are far worse ways to spend your time than with Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur.