arthurian literature

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 10 – Still More Tristram

Picking up where we left off last year ….

Tristram is finally admitted to the Round Table–getting Marhaus’ old place, ironically enough. That would have been a good place to end this interminable piece of the story, but no. Instead, we focus on his evil uncle Sir Mark, who has followed his nephew to Arthur’s lands in order to kill him. Mark falls into the company of better knights than himself and behaves like the cowardly murderer he is. He gets beaten up and made fun of a lot.

Mordred is Gawaine’s brother again here. Like I’ve said, continuity was pretty much a new idea at the time.

Mark encounters Palomides (who, along with Tristram, has been pining for Mark’s wife for the past hundred pages, and who is also currently following the Questing Beast) and ends up Arthur’s court. Here another knight accuses Mark of treason, having witnessed his murder of a knight who refused to help Mark with his plot to hunt down Tristram, and having likewise refused to take part in the plot. Mark wins their judicial fight–big flaw in that system!–and flees Camelot. The death of two knights just because they wouldn’t do his evil uncle’s bidding makes Tristram sad, which upsets Lancelot, who begs Arthur for leave to go after the perfidious King Mark.

This is pretty much the worst possible outcome Mark could have gotten from his (poorly-laid) plan to assassinate his rival. Lancelot fetches him back to court in a hot minute, whereupon Mark pinky-swears that he will be nice to Tristram and not murder anybody from now on. Of course, Mark is lying, but one should also be clear that Tristram wants to go home so he can resume banging Mark’s wife.

At several points in this book Malory resorts to one of his most annoying mechanisms, which is to have characters talk about the adventures other characters had and then to argue about which of the other characters is the best knight. If you were telling this story out loud, I’m sure it would be great for audience participation; since the beginning of time, fans have enjoyed the “my fave could beat up your fave” thing. In written form, it’s tedious. 

After a bit of that we get back to the Mark and Tristram story. Having been officially reconciled, they ride off together all friendly-like. Lancelot is still in mother hen mode, gets Mark alone and makes it clear that Mark is a dead man if anything happens to Tristram. 

That brings us to chapter 22 of 88. Sir Thomas is having trouble keeping track of his plot threads. He’s trying to juggle the Mark/Tristram/Palomides/Isoud situation. He’s doing a lot of stuff with Sir Lamorak. Lamorak is one of Pellinor’s kids, part of the Welsh faction embroiled in the on-and-off feud with the Orkney boys, and generally considered hot stuff in these stories. In the knightly hierarchy, Lancelot is always the best, and Tristram is almost as good as Lancelot; Lamorak is almost as good as Tristram. 

The feud is on again when Lamorak sleeps with Morgause, who is promptly murdered by one of her own sons for it (one of the weirder episodes, I gotta say). Percival, another of Pellinor’s, is introduced with an actual miracle as a bit of setup for the Grail stuff. There’s more chapters about the Orkney clan. Then we circle back to Mark, who is furious to find out that everyone he doesn’t like is writing letters back and forth about how awful he is. He writes some letters of his own, advising Arthur to keep an eye on his own bedroom for a change. Arthur, bless him, considers the source and dismisses the thought, but he’s also concerned that Mark will try to kill Tristram again. One of Lancelot’s friends writes a mean song about Mark and makes sure that it becomes popular. 

Oh, and by the way Mark also kills his brother Boudwin who was never mentioned before now, but who likes Tristram, and his wife barely escapes with their young son Alisandre and some of his murdered father’s clothes.

Sir Thomas, what are you doing? You’ve already interpolated the whole mammoth Tristram story into the otherwise reasonable structure of this collection. Now you’re spending seven chapters talking about Tristram’s cousin Alisandre, who in another weird involution of the timeline starts as a young child, grows up and becomes a knight, has some adventures with Morgan le Fay, becomes her prisoner, and is rescued by a damosel who turns out to be one of Lancelot’s infinite relatives.(1) They retire to Benwick and have a child. Mark finally kills Alisandre at some point, and it’s his child who avenges father, grandfather, and uncle (because Mark does kill Tristram, although that isn’t included in this book) even later. So a generation and a half worth of time passes, and then we return to the main story–only halfway through Book 10, mind.

We’re back to the Palomides thread and a tournament at which Lamorak is the star, braiding those plots together. Lovestruck damosels pop up all over the landscape. Lancelot beats up a lot of people, at one point doing so in a dress. Galahaut gets pissed off because he is served fish at dinner, which he hates, and people make jokes about it. Everybody seems to have fun except for Lamorak, who’s sure that Gawaine and Co. are plotting his death. (He’s not wrong.)

Chapter 50 brings us back to Mark and his latest scheme to get rid of his nephew: he’s going to send Tristram to a tournament in disguise. Everyone will think he’s Lancelot and try to kill him. Unfortunately, Tristram wins the tournament, so Mark resorts to the much simpler tactic of throwing him in prison. He next tries to send Tristram off on Crusade using fake letters from the Pope (!), but Tristram sees through that one. Percival breaks him out and then cheekily pays a visit to Mark to tell him off. Mark re-imprisons Tristram, who finally makes plans with Isoud to have some of their allies deal with Mark, upon which the two of them flee the country.

Everyone is happy. Lancelot gives them a castle for their very own. Tristram returns to his first love, hunting, by day, and spends his nights with Isoud, who worries for his safety out there in the forest. That they are BOTH married to other people at this point is politely overlooked by absolutely everyone. Tristram runs into Palomides and a bunch of other knights again, including Percival and a couple of Lancelot’s clan. There’s the usual gossip session, interrupted by an encounter with an evil knight. Palomides mentions that Percival’s brother Lamorak has been killed by the Orkney faction, much to his distress. Two of the northerners end up at Tristram’s place; they trade on being Arthur’s nephews, so Tristram trounces them but lets them live.

A meandering narrative time later, Tristram is traveling with Dinadin when they run into Gareth (the youngest of the Orkney folk, he did not participate in Lamorak’s murder), and then the three of them once again encounter Palomides. Now four, they ride on. Palomides picks up a side quest avenging a treacherously slain king and promises to meet up with them later.

By chapter 66, Palomides, Tristram, Gareth, Dinadin, and most of Tristam’s household are headed for still another tournament, all of them incognito this time, and in green. This is a very detailed tournament, as we are finally nearing the end of this section. In one of my favorite parts of the story, they make their plan for the first day and decide that they’ll fight against Arthur’s team, which includes the Orkneys (except for Gareth) and the Benwick bunch. After watching Tristram and his friends in green beat up on the B team for a while, Arthur sends in Lancelot and Co. (over Lancelot’s protest, being a good sport who doesn’t like going up against tired knights), and takes the field himself. Things get intense. Tristram loses his horse and changes his clothes so he’s all in red now.

Palomides sees Isoud laugh and is suddenly keen to impress her again (having left that whole thing aside for many chapters). He starts fighting even better than usual, which attracts Lancelot’s attention. In a dreadful tactical error, Palomides kills Lancelot’s horse. Palomides successfully begs for mercy; it was just that he was overcome by his love for this woman. Lancelot lets him off with a warning that he’d better not let Tristram find out about that. The rest of the fighting would make such a fun movie scene; there’s this massive melee, in the middle of which Tristram and Lancelot are avoiding have to fight each other, and Palomides is now avoiding Lancelot. Regardless of all of that, Palomides is the winner of the first day.

Alas, treachery is brewing in Palomides, and on the second day he feigns weakness to Tristram and then goes off solo to fight, intent on winning all glory for himself. Tristram exerts himself to outdo his rival, and Palomides is bitter. Tristram changes his clothes again, this time to black. Palomides disguises himself, too, and takes on Tristram directly. Isoud recognizes them both and starts to cry. Lancelot decides to take on the knight in black, and Gareth and Dinadin rescue Tristram (much to his annoyance). In the ensuing scrum Lancelot overhears someone address Tristram by name and is so upset with himself that he refuses to accept the honors that day but gives it to Tristram.

11 chapters to go! Palomides pretends to have been confused about who was fighting for who, and Tristram allows it. Isoud, however, saw the whole thing unfold and is most distressed. Palomides insists again that it was all a mistake, and Tristram again lets it go.

This is almost like real plotting here. Arthur and Lancelot visit, and everyone has a great evening socializing. Palomides stays up all night nursing his bitterness. The third day of the tournament takes everything up another level. Arthur’s team is getting the worst of it, and so Tristram and his friends change sides. Palomides refuses to join them and sticks with their original team, which gets trounced. Tristram and Lancelot split the prize, and Palomides goes off swearing revenge but also regretting having lost Tristram’s friendship and an excuse to hang around Isoud. He meets another sad knight, and they exchange sad stories. The other knight’s lady was kidnapped, so Palomides goes off to rescue her. He runs into one of his brothers in the process, and they are later taken prisoner by the relatives of a knight Palomides killed at the tournament. They’re going to execute Palomides, but Lancelot wanders by and rescues him. Palomides is returned to Tristram’s castle, where he and Tristram finally agree that they need to have a fight, but Tristram gets hurt while hunting and so they don’t. Instead, everyone goes on to have even more adventures. (And Mark does kill Tristram. Somewhere.)

Fortunately for us, Malory finally lets go of these characters so we can get back to books that have a sane length, lots more Lancelot, and the utter bizarreness that is Galahad.

(1) Lancelot never has any kids other than Galahad. As far as I can tell from Malory’s inconsistent descriptions, he has at least one brother and at least two male first cousins, all of whom must have been quite busy.

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