This is the first of the two “other stories” from King Moonfred and his Knights and Other Stories.
Once there was a king called King Caractacus: 64 knights.
King: Servants, bring me the joker!
There was one knight who had always wanted to be free and he was the Black Knight.
Black Knight: Oh, I wish I was free. (Thinks: It would be lovely.)
One day in battle the Black Knight slipped out of it into the country.
Black Knight: Oh good.
Wind in the tree: Woooo. Woooo.
Black Knight (thinks): What’s that?
There was a dragon in a cave.
He fights the dragon.
Black Knight: Oh dear.
The dragon captured the Black Knight.
Black Knight: Help.
He was put in prison.
Black Knight: Let me out.
The door fell down.
Black Knight: Oh good.
Dragon: Grrrr. GRRR.
(The thing in the bottom left-hand corner is a chest labelled “Captured things”.)
He fought again.
Black Knight (thinks): I’ll have to kill it.
The Black Knight killed the dragon.
Black Knight: Hip hip hooray!
The Black Knight and the Dragon: a critical perspective
By Nicholas Emir Brunsengett
We begin with a formal echo of the opening of King Moonfred, with the king sitting on his throne, calling out for something he desires, in this case the jester. This deftly wrongfoots the reader, for the protagonist this time is soon revealed to be not the king, but one of his knights. The theme of the story is the existential question of freedom – and what better setting for exploring this than within the feudal system, whereby everyone belongs ultimately to the arbitrary and selfish king?
The protagonist takes advantage of the endemic warfare produced by this system and makes a bid for freedom. Shevlin immediately confronts us with the primal danger – represented in the form of a dragon – that keeps each of us from freedom. After a struggle, the dragon seizes the Black Knight (another existentialist element here: the author refuses us the easy option of a “good” hero, a White Knight) and deprives him once again of his freedom.
And then the door to the Black Knight’s cage falls open. What are we to make of this? Has some supernatural force intervened? Is it simply chance that the door’s hinges give out at this moment? Should we assume that the Black Knight has discovered within himself the resources required for self-liberation? The author supplies no answers, encouraging the reader to supply his or her own meaning – to become an active participant and collaborate with the text. In this, the core of the story, the Black Knight and the Dragon is functioning as a Zen koan. In a simple story spanning just eleven pages, the author pulls off a feat that took Camus many years and hundreds of pages to achieve.
In narrative terms, Shevlin sticks within the structure he has established for himself: an enemy stands in the way of the hero’s objective and must be fought not once but twice. The battles, seemingly between identical opponents in identical situations, nonetheless have very different outcomes. By ending at the very moment of the hero’s triumph, Shevlin encourages us to ask ourselves, “What next?” Has the Black Knight really attained freedom? What will he do with it? And is he, with the dragon gone, now alone?
The author elaborates on these fundamental questions even in the way individual letters and words are written. Why should words and letters always face the same direction, when pictures (and therefore people) can face left or right? Why should “b” and “d” convey different letters, rather than the same letter facing in different directions?
By raising an army of questions, the author vanquishes untruth.