The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog.
Written by Adam Gidwitz and Illuminated by Hatem Aly.
A Very Brief Summary
On a dark and stormy night, in 1242, patrons in a small French tavern share their accounts of the three magical children and their dog, all of which are wanted by King Louis the IX of France. What unfolds is a tale of courage, prejudice and unlikely friendship.
And that is only the beginning.
A few thoughts about the book
In short, this may be one of the single best pieces of children’s literature I have ever read. It is highly entertaining, well paced, extremely well written, and takes on some of the biggest and toughest social issues known to mankind, without ever feeling pontific or morally imposing. It seamlessly weaves elements of history, religion, magic, pain, wonder, humor and forgiveness without becoming preachy, doctrinal, judgmental, or, if you can believe it, overly serious.
All of this would be a tall order for even the longest and most complicated adult books ever written let alone a children’s book. Indeed, the arguments alone discussing whether or not such a thing could even be done, let alone how to do so, could fill a Talmudic worthy number of volumes. And yet Gidwitz manages to tell his tale in such a way, that not only does he do all of this, he makes it appear effortless and natural.
As in life, bad things happen to good people, and often times justice seems more of a fantasy than a reality. But like a good teacher, the author never once tells the reader what to think or how to feel. He simply allows the story to unfold, and then like the children in his story, he allows the readers to make up their own mind about what they are hearing and experiencing by presenting The Inquisitor’s Tale as a collection of stories and accounts gathered by the Inquisitor searching for the children and hoping to know more about them. By employing this approach, the reader is never exposed to anyone person’s slant on the story or its facts for very long. Likewise, it allows the reader, on several occasions, to hear about the same incident from multiple interpretations, all of which are at least partially right and partially wrong.
Throughout the first half of the book, I found myself laughing out loud because it was so very funny. In fact I would go so far as to say that it read very much like a Monty Python film, if The Pythons had ever attempted to make a children’s film. A little bit of well placed farcical humor, often helped not only to highlight the dangers that can be spawned by ignorance, fear, and superstition, but also made it less painful to read about, especially as the children get to know and trust one another.
The second half of the story, while still amusing in some parts is much more sobering. Though to the author’s credit, he never allows his narrative to become judgmental of those we the readers may come to see as villains, by always at least trying to offer the possibility, that these individuals may actually believe that what they are doing is right when viewed from a certain perspective. I found this to be one of the most profound aspects of the book, especially because it does not condone nor excuse their actions, it simply provides the reader with a lens with which to understand the motivation of those villains.
I apologize for the vagueness, but I do not wish to reveal the entire plot line if you have not had the pleasure of reading this book yet. Please let it be suffice to say for the moment, that there are a few truly heartbreaking moments depicted in this book that because of the author’s dedication to depicting the multiplicity aspect of reality he was able to infuse those moments with as much hope as he does pain.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to focus on one of the most beautiful aspects of, and in fact, what first drew me to it in the first place; this book is illuminated, just as many of the books of the Middle Ages would have been. I love, that the author takes the time to explain to the reader at the beginning of the book, before he even begins to tell his story, the nature of illumination in this book and in books from the period the story takes place. But I think what I love even more than his explanation, is the fact that he took the time to point out that because the author and the illuminator are different people they both have “unique interpretations of the story, and of the meaning behind it.”
However, like the story, the illuminations are beautiful, inspired by history and personal experience, quirky, child like in their purity, delicate and profound, often at the same time, and allow the reader to make their own decisions about their tone and meaning.
It has been a very long time since I read a book intended for young readers that made me laugh out loud as hard as this book, or made me cry as much. In truth I am not sure I ever have, and question whether I ever will again. I urge you to read it, not only because it is utterly unique, beautifully written and illuminated, and thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking, but also because it so deftly highlights how easily children are capable of moving beyond the world’s all to often employed divisions of of US and THEM, and offers a ray of hope in a world that sometimes feels, as it has throughout the human experience, as if it has gone completely mad.
Warning! The following section contains spoilers.
Locations Mentioned in the Story.
The Inquisitor’s Tale takes place France, during the year 1242. Although many of the people and places in the story are real, some have been altered for narrative purposes, and others are completely fictitious. Below is a list of the locations mentioned within the narrative of the story. Whenever possible I have provided links to the official websites for those locations.
- Holy Cross-Roads Inn is described as being a day’s walk north of Paris and is where we first meet the inquisitor and begin to hear the tale of the three children. My best guess, given that there are not many surviving, let alone operating medieval taverns still in operation today, is that the Holly Cross-Roads Inn is probably an amalgam of many taverns and inns the author read about during his six years of extensive research.
- Jeanne’s village is where we first meet Jeanne, the young peasant girl who is very roughly modeled after Joan of Arc (right down to her fits and prophetic visions). My guess is that this too is an amalgam of researched information and probably not one specific Medieval French village.
- The Holy Grove where Gwenforte, Jeanne’s sainted dog was buried, and later arose from the dead. This particular location has the unique characteristic of being both entirely fictional, and quite real. This because there was, an actual (folk venerated) Sainted dog, in 13th century in France, at whose burial site trees were planted and miracles were reported. However, unlike our Saint Gweneforte in the story, this dogs name was Guinefort, was a male and belonged to a lord living in a castle near Lyon (not a peasant girl and her family in a village). I was not able to locate the grave’s exact location, but I imagine it would not be hard to find should one have the opportunity to visit Lyon.
- Monastery Saint-Martin is William’s home in the story, or at least it is where he lives. As the son of a Crusading Knight, and a Saracen woman who is not his wife, William has been left in the hands of the monastery to be raised to be a monk. However due to his colossal strength, huge size, and dark skin he does not blend in as easily and some of the monks are quite cruel to him. While William is fictitious (but has roots in an actual historic figure), the monastery itself is real. Monastery Saint-Martin was was built in 1009 in the South of France near the Spanish border. Unlike at its inception, today, the monastery has its own website with plenty of photographs (including a virtual tour) and loads information about its history. https://www.stmartinducanigou.org
- The Forest of Malesherbes – In the story the forest of Malesherbes is populated with fiends that accost (or at least attempt to accost) William. In reality, it is an area in the French country side that plays host to a local legend about Guilhem, a man whom committed himself to the life of a monk to atone for his violent life, but is so loud and large that the abbot tries to dispose of him by sending him on a dangerous errand through this stretch of forest known for harboring murderous brigands. It is this man, who inspired William’s character.
- A Jewish village, Nogent-sur-Oise was Jacob’s home until a few misguided young men burned it to the ground. While Nogent-sur-Oise, was and continues to be a civil township in France, I believe that the village, much like Jacob himself, is a fictitious amalgam of what we can glean from historic documentation. However, unlike Jacob, the small village is without the power to heal neither itself nor the those unfortunate enough to perish in the fire.
- The Oise River runs, in the book as it does in reality, from its source in Belgium into France.
- The Hall of Lord Bertulf is where the children are taken by the knights and are charged with slaying the dragon that has been terrorizing the area. While Lord Bertulf was appears to have been a real person, I was unable to find anything about his residency, other than that it may have been burned down…if I in fact was reading about the correct Lord Bertulf, so the jury is still out on this one.
- Flanders is the area in the story being terrorized by the dragon. This area of France was once a part of Belgium. As such, the traditional language there is French Flemish (a sub dialect of the Dutch language), which would account for Lord Bertrulf’s unusual accent. However, the actual dragon in this story has been drawn from legend, and may (or may not) have actually existed.
- Monastery Saint-Dennis is described in the book as “the first and most holy of the new wave of monumental churches. The building that all the great cathedrals – Notre Dame, Chartres, Rouen – are modeled after.” It is here that William is instructed to deliver the books he carries from his own Monastery to the abbot here. In fact, the Monastery Saint-Denis, now a Cathedral, was built in 1144, and was the first example of true Gothic Architecture. You can see many photos of the cathedral and read about its history at: http://www.saint-denis-basilique.fr/en/ .
- Saint-Dennis, the town surrounding the great Church, and the home of the great rabbi Yehuda, is of course, like the church it is named for, an actual place that is now a northern suburb of Paris.
- Grandmontine Abbey is where the children meet the King, and just as it is described in the story, was known for being one of the most austere during the Middle Ages. The monks who lived there were characterized mostly for being hermits, and for the keen interest in acquiring religious relics, such as the one mentioned in the story. However, I was unable to determine whether or not King Loius IX of France ever stayed there, let alone if he did so in disguise.
- Notre Dame, which is arguably one of the most iconic and easily identified places of worship in the world was only briefly mentioned in the story as a point of interest as the children drive past in in a carriage. However, you can spend as much time as you like gazing at, and reading about it, on their website: http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/en/ .
- The Palace of Louis IX, known as the Palais de la Cité, was the residence of all the French kings for nearly 800 years (6th until 14th century CE).
- Mount-Saint-Michel, where the final chapters of the story unfold, is a famous and heavily fortified abbey housed on an island that is as picturesque as its tides are deadly. http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en