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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors of books young people may enjoy.

'We were also here': Sharing the story of the only Black knight at Arthur's Round Table

A Media Lab team gathers after interviewing co-author Kaliis Smith. Standing, from left: NEPM’s reporter Nirvani Williams, Jose Romero, Christopher Rosario-Ducoff, Ejay Velez. Sitting, from left: Kaliis Smith, Jeremiah Merced.
Maggie Kocsmiersky
Media Lab
A Media Lab team gathers after interviewing co-author Kaliis Smith. Standing, from left: NEPM’s reporter Nirvani Williams, Jose Romero, Christopher Rosario-Ducoff, Ejay Velez. Sitting, from left: Kaliis Smith, Jeremiah Merced.

There are a lot of stories about the white knights at King Arthur's Round Table. But Kaliis Smith — along with her friend, the best-selling author Holly Black — set out to write about the only Black knight in Arthur's court.

The resulting picture book, "Sir Morien: The Legend of a Knight of the Round Table," is among those highlighted in a series of interviews of local authors conducted by NEPM's Media Lab.

Smith, who is also a host on NEPM's The Fabulous 413, sat down with the Media Lab's Jeremiah Merced, a student at Springfield's Putnam Vocational Technical Academy. Merced asked Smith how it felt to turn Sir Morien's story into a children's book.

Kaliis Smith, author: Well, I think it's really important to, especially for the way that people think about medieval times to try and broaden that for people. It's so Eurocentric. People forget that, literally, the rest of the world was happening at the same time with — in a lot of cases, civilizations that were way more advanced than Europe — but trade routes existed. People from middle Europe — like France, England — were trading with folks from northern Africa, from southern Africa, from all over Asia. It's important to remember that that's true.

So when we encountered this romance, we were like, "Oh wait, there's a Black knight of the Round Table and it's canon? OK, cool." There's paintings of Sir Morien. There's other fanfic of Sir Morien. But this is the one that's based off of the actual romance, I think, discovered in the 14th century initially. And he's the only one. He's the only Black member of the Round Table, which has so, so many knights — like, just a pile of them. But finding that one needle, we thought, was really worth sharing.

Jeremiah Merced, Media Lab: I found it curious how there was like only one Black knight, because we were doing our research about it, and it was like when we came across it, it was like, "Damn, most of the knights were white." So to see one Black knight, that was like, "Oh yeah, this is interesting to me." And it's different.

But then you see there's other points in history where this happens. Like the story of Yasuke, who was the one samurai who was part of Nobunaga's set of knights. And that's real too. It's interesting and important to see where those intersections happen, even if it's just the one person who got documented. Even though, you know, Arthurian tales are mostly fiction, not actual history. But when you find that one connection point, it's important to spread it around and make people understand that, like, "No, we were here. We were also here." It wasn't like Africa was being discovered. They'd always been involved in these things too.

Knowing this is a retelling of the tale of Sir Morien, what was the process in doing this research? Because I would assume that there's a lot of research that would go into this topic.

Holly Black and I both have a pretty good base understanding of the basic knights and the basic timeline of Arthur. He's born of Mab, roams around the Welsh countryside, has some mishaps, shall we say, and forms the Round Table after taking control of Wales.

But, for this particular one, especially like with Morien's connection to northern Africa, we wanted a lot of the illustrations to reflect more of that than the European side. Because even when you see paintings of Sir Morien, you'll see him in a European set of armor, but then you'll also see him in Moorish garb. So we wanted to make sure that there were some elements of both medieval, Middle Eastern history and costuming in it, as well as as European. 

And then, just digging into this rather short romance itself was interesting, to say the least. We cut a lot out. We had to simplify, like just super, super concentrate this story to make it more palatable for — palatable is a terrible word — but just easier to digest for the age of kids that we were looking at. So there was a lot of editing and a lot of reframing. But it still kind of hits the main points of what happens in that original story of Sir Morien.

While reading the story stood out to me that Sir Morien envied and fought with Sir Lancelot. But Sir Gawain tried to mediate peace in the group. Why do you think it's important to show kids how to work as a team?

You're going to have to work with other folks your entire life, pretty much. Even being out in the wilds, like doing things mostly on your own, there's no point where you're only going to have to work with yourself forever. You will have to learn to work with other people at some point. 

So let's get that in early, shall we? Yeah, just learn to work together through your differences as much as you can.

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