One of my best friends is pixelcandy, who lives in Portland and is a programmer and a gamer and also does these things with three children under the age of 6 and therefore in my eyes some kind of magician.
Her oldest child is Serenity, who’s so tall and articulate I often forget that she just turned five and can’t quite read yet and is not, in fact, eight. Until I have my own, the three of them are the kids I have the most contact with, and Seren particularly, as she’s the oldest and the most outgoing and also loves Fairyland and listens to the audiobook in her room which is adorable.
So I crashed at their house the other night and the kids woke me up at 6:45 am, so I went out to sit with them and watch Shaun the Sheep and bat kid-duty for a bit since I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was sitting on the couch with Seren and she reached up and touched my necklace, saying she liked it. And the following dialogue occurred, which I reproduce for you because a bigger facepalm I can hardly imagine for myself, and those should always be shared with the internet.
Me: I got that in England, you know. Do you know what England is?
Me: It’s a country on the other side of the ocean you can see when you’re on the island with us. If you went all the way across that ocean, you’d find England. The people who settled this part of America came from England and another country called France.
Serenity: *not interested, watches Shaun the Sheep*
Me: *thinks of awesome thing to interest child in England* And also that’s where King Arthur lived! *does mental TA DA*
Serenity: Who’s King Arthur?
And three things happen. I make the shock-grin-gasp thing that I do whenever someone hasn’t heard of a thing I love. Almost simultaneously I remember that she’s five, and it’s not really surprising she doesn’t know who King Arthur is. And then my brain goes OMG I GOT THIS and gets all excited that I am literally the BEST PERSON EVER to explain King Arthur to a little girl for the first time. I wrote a book about it! I AM ON THIS.
But then…it happens. My entire knowledge of Arthuriana lurches forward into the talky part of my brain, every little thing I know about it from childhood obsession to grad school fights to come out first, and I start talking before the kid can get bored again but King Arthur is a huge story and SURPRISINGLY HARD to soundbite for a kindergartner. So this is what comes out:
Me: Well, a long time ago there lived a good king named Arthur who gathered all the greatest knights in the land and made them swear a vow to protect England. They were called the Knights of the Round Table. And they fought giants and dragons and monsters and went on a long quest for a cup that would make you live forever, but then King Arthur’s wife Queen Guenevere….er. Ran off? With the best knight who was named Lancelot and there was a terrible war and eventually the King died. But some people think King Arthur is just sleeping under the mountains, and he’ll come back if England needs him.
Serenity: Why did she run off with Lancelot? (Earlier in the morning, upon finding out that Dmitri and I had both been married to other people before each other, she responded with “Ew, why?” Quite so, kid. But still, not quite up to explaining the Most Famous Adulteress.)
Me: Um, she liked him a whole lot.
Serenity: *still not in any way interested, grabs a video game and tells me to play Alice so she can watch*
Me: *flails* But wait! But King Arthur had a wizard who was named Merlin and he was the greatest wizard who ever lived! And he lived backwards! *In my head, the tiny medievalists roar: THAT WAS T. H. WHITE IT IS NOT CANON DON’T SAY THAT TO THE CHILD!
Serenity: *dubiously* The greatest?
Me: Yes! Like Dumbledore and Gandalf combined!
Serenity: *is five, probably doesn’t know who Gandalf is*
And now I am desperate to communicate how awesome King Arthur is, and the kid doesn’t care, and I have had like three hours of sleep, and like, my brain is full of screaming tiny medievalists going YOU ARE RUINING IT.
Me: Ok, so one time one of the knights named Gawain fought a giant knight made all out of leaves and trees and branches!
Serenity: Like a pile of leaves?
Me: No, like a guy but his body is made of magical green branches and leaves and glowing berry-eyes. Oh, oh! And the knight was enchanted by Morgan le Fay, who was the most powerful witch ever, and when I was your brother’s age (Said brother is almost four, I was four when I first got obsessed with Arthur) she was my very favorite *considers explaining “clerk of necromancy” to the CHILD and the tiny medievalists in my head are like OH MY GOD SHE DOES NOT CARE THE WORLD IS LOST*
By the way, when I was four or five and learning about Arthur, the phrase “clerk of necromancy” was SUPER CONFUSING. First, I thought: whoa, she works at a magical grocery store bagging spells! AMAZING. Then, when I was a little older, and I understood that clerk was short for cleric, and because I grew up in Mad Men and both my father and grandfather had secretaries to do clerical work for them I was all HOLY CATS SHE IS A MAGICAL SECRETARY AND MAYBE SHE TYPES MONSTERS ALIVE OR SAYS HER SPELLS INTO THE PHONE BEST PERSON OF ALL TIME.
Anyway. I have completely bungled this. This kid had a fantasy author on her couch and yet got an utterly unsatisfactory Arthurian introduction. I forgot the WIZARD and the WITCH until she wandered off! I didn’t even say the word Camelot. What the crap. I used to tell kids stories for a living! (Not like I do now, meaning: I was a camp counselor for a summer camp and then a guide for American military kids going to museums in Tokyo and I used to tell them Greek myths and things like that. I once kept an entire school bus full of 6th graders entranced and off their teachers’ back by telling them the story of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and some of the Euripides post-facto stuff over the course of the three hour drive. I used to be able to do this on the fly, just to let some teachers I barely knew get a little peace.)
The tiny medievalists in my head were like THERE. YOU ARE FIRED. NOW THAT CHILD WILL NEVER GROW UP TO BE A MEDIEVALIST. GODDAMMIT.
I have bought her a book and The Sword in the Stone to make up for the total failure she doesn’t even know I committed. And I take this as a lesson for the possible future child of ours, that I should probably take a minute to get things straight in my head before tackling a five minute version of a massive mythology. And also that I will probably get more than one chance to tell a kid a story and not to panic. Perhaps I can think of a way to retell King Arthur via claymation sheep…
All was not completely lost. As she was getting ready for school, Serenity looked up from her snowboots and said:
Cat, were the knights like policemen? Are policemen knights?
And I smiled and said: I guess you could say that, sweetie. But only the really good policemen are knights.