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Posts Tagged ‘the Singing Sword’

The jury is still out on theories that King Arthur visited North America (more on that topic to come in future blogs), but I wonder whether Hal Foster knew of such stories; regardless, in this volume he brought Prince Valiant to North America, and he definitely knew of theories that the Vikings had made it to North America.

Valiant doesn’t set out to discover America in this book, but rather it is an unexpected journey that begins with Aleta being kidnapped by Val’s fellow countrymen from Thule, which sends him and his men on a journey over the sea to an unknown land that turns out to be North America. The journey takes Valiant down the St. Lawrence Seaway and over Lake Ontario all the way to Niagara Falls.

Of course, Val succeeds in rescuing his wife, but by that point, it is autumn so Val and his men decide to spend the winter in North America among the friendly Native Americans who have aided Val after he convinced them to help him because Aleta’s kidnappers were wreaking havoc on the land.

Prince Valiant, Vol 6 - yes, that's Niagara Falls in the bottom frame

Prince Valiant, Vol 6 – yes, that’s Niagara Falls in the bottom frame

This special Fantagraphics edition comes with an introduction that discusses Foster’s own journeys through the area depicted during a canoe trip in his youth with his pregnant wife, which inspired the story and Aleta’s pregnancy and the birth of Val’s son. This introduction is interesting for two reasons. First, it discusses how Foster sought to be respectful in depicting the Native Americans, not turning them into the typical enemies or sidekicks they were in other media at the time. While for the most part, this is true, he does make a reference to the Indians taking pleasure in cheating their customers when bartering. Worse, he builds on the myth of the Fair God, allowing the Natives to think Aleta is a goddess, and Val does prophesy his son will someday return to the land to lead the people to greatness, which supposedly became a legend that made it to the Aztec empire, causing them to think Cortez the fair god—a bit of a stretch in my opinion. (Later in the 1960 installments of the strip, Prince Arn does return to North America to teach the Natives white people’s ways, only to realize they already are doing fine on their own, which shows some progressive thinking on Foster’s part, though perhaps it was in line with Civil Rights thinking of the 1960s and not something he would have considered in the 1940s). The strip is more groundbreaking in the sense that a few years later, one of the native women marries one of Val’s men, and in 1953, the first interracial baby will be born in the strips.

The other key event mentioned in the introduction, and perhaps the most significant part of this volume, is the birth of Valiant and Aleta’s son, Prince Arn. The introduction even includes photos of birth announcements sent out in Foster’s circle of friends regarding this event. Arn was actually the name Foster first proposed for the strip, but it was decided Valiant would be a better name. Still, he introduced a character named Arn into the strip, who possessed the Singing Sword and loved the same woman as Val. When that woman died, Arn and Val both agreed never to marry another. In friendship, Arn then gave Val the Singing Sword.

After returning back to England and some other adventures, Val reunites with his old friend, Arn, wanting Arn to be the newborn Arn’s godfather. In a comical moment, Arn berates Val for not being faithful to their oath never to marry, only for Val then to see a baby who turns out to be Arn’s son, and named Val for him—truly the most delightful moment in the book.

All in all, I have seen many reviewers rave that this is the best volume of Prince Valiant to date. Honestly, I thought the story could have used more plot. Once the characters arrived in North America, it was a bit slow for me. I am turning out to be less of a fan than just curious and interested in the Prince Valiant strip. I will continue to read each volume as it comes out—though Fantagraphics appears to be taking longer and longer between each volume—Volume 7 won’t be published until September. I am perhaps most looking forward to seeing how Valiant’s children turn out, so I will be patient and continue to read on.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is currently working on a series of novels about Arthur’s descendants. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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This volume picks up with Prince Valiant escaping on a ship and trying to get back to Camelot only to have his ship attacked and captured by Angor Wrack, the Sea King, who takes Valiant’s Singing Sword. For the rest of these two years of strips, Valiant is trying to get back the sword, leading him on many adventures throughout the Mediterranean and into Africa before he finally returns to England and Camelot.

The back cover of this volume claims that Hal Foster reached his peak in these years, now that Prince Valiant was into its fourth year, and he never came down from that peak. I don’t know that I would go that far, not yet having read all the strip, but I did find this volume more entertaining than the last two despite it again having very little connection to King Arthur and the Round Table since only a small part takes place in England. The adventures are entertaining enough that, honestly, King Arthur and his other knights’ absence isn’t even noticeable by this point since readers know Camelot is largely marginal to the story.

I won’t go into a full summary of this volume, but the most important part of the adventures have to do with the Singing Sword and Valiant meeting his future wife, Aleta. The story begins with Valiant on a ship that is captured by Angor Wrack, the Sea King, who takes Valiant’s sword. Valiant manages to escape after being a prisoner for a while, but he leaves behind the sword, vowing to reclaim it when he is in a better situation to do so. Valiant manages to obtain a small boat, but he drifts about the Mediterranean, becoming weak from lack of food. At one point, he nears shore and meets Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. She fills his ship with provisions and feeds him and then orders him to sail off. Enchanted by her beauty, Valiant’s search now extends to coming back into contact with Aleta, questioning everyone he meets about how to get back to the Misty Isles.

Valiant’s adventures eventually take him to Jerusalem, as a slave along the Euphrates River, to Athens, up a river with a group of Vikings to find gold, and finally, he reunites with Sir Gawain and they return to England. After a short stint at King Arthur’s court, Val goes north to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall and he also solves the mystery of a haunted castle.

But finding Aleta is the key adventure in this book, and although most readers of the strip know that Valiant will end up marrying her, Foster was not about to make it easy. After Valiant’s first meeting, he finds himself shipwrecked again on the Misty Isles, and this time, he witnesses his crew killed and their bodies hung on stakes by Aleta’s subjects, although he does not understand why—Foster makes it clear they deserved it for their crimes, but this knowledge is withheld from Valiant. When Valiant meets Aleta, he is discouraged and feels she, as the queen, must be the worst of her people for allowing such cruelty. She in turn tells him she warned him not to return before. She has her women again give him provisions and leaves him a note saying, “You merit punishment for speaking harsh words to a queen, impetuous youth, but once again I help you to escape from this troubled land. You will never guess why!” Aleta’s reasons are withheld from both the reader and Valiant, so we must wait for successive volumes to find out how Foster will reunite Valiant and Aleta in love.

But Valiant has plenty of time for love, for he only celebrates his eighteenth birthday in this book in the October 26, 1941 strip—it’s hard to believe he is so young after all the adventures he has already had.

I was expecting some sort of social commentary on World War II in this volume after the assumption that Foster’s depiction of Valiant fighting the Huns in previous volumes related to the war against Germany; however, there is no hinting of World War II in this book that I saw. Even following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nothing changes in the strip. No past and present day parallels exist, although I did find an anachronism. When Valiant is in Jerusalem, he consecrates a pagan sword he acquires to Christian service under the scowls of “Islamites.” Since the strip takes place during the time of Attila the Hun (died 453 A.D.) and King Arthur (died perhaps in 539 A.D.), it would predate by about a hundred years the beginning of Islam (but Foster isn’t the first writer of Arthuriana to ignore historical dates). I did feel Foster was bordering on racism in these scenes (June 1 and June 8, 1941) when after freeing a group of slaves held by Arab merchants, Valiant “leaves behind such hate and desire for vengeance as only an Arab can feel.” Of course, Foster was a product of his time and the prejudices of it, and he did not go overboard to the extent other writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (of whom I am a huge fan regardless, and whose Tarzan strip Foster illustrated before Prince Valiant) did in depicting Muslims or Africans.

While I still feel it would be difficult to stay engaged reading Prince Valiant in its original weekly format, this third volume really drew me in with all the adventures, and I highly recommend it over the first two as an impetus to want to keep reading—if not Foster’s peak, he is nearing it, improving on the story and interest from previous volumes. This volume also contains some interesting commentary on scenes that were considered too violent in the strip that were changed in some printings by various newspapers.

Stay tuned for my review of Vol. 4 in a future post.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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