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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 9 – Tristram, and Others

Have not updated lately, I know. I have been in a writing slump, a reading slump, a generally bleh kind of place mentally. Things are better pandemic-wise (locally), but not enough better that I feel I can actually relax. The weather has been miserable, alternating heat waves and rainy spells that are just as effective at keeping everyone indoors as lockdown was last summer. I have been doing a lot of yoga this week and trying to get back into creative projects.

In five weeks it will be the end of the first year of the three-year plan I wrote up last summer, and that’s taking up a fair amount of mental space, as well. And now, back to Malory.

Although this book eventually gets back to Tristram, it starts with a whole new character, a fellow who goes by the name La Cote Male Taile. (Spelling was even more haphazard for French than English at the time.) There are echoes in this book of Gareth’s story, the young man who comes to Arthur’s court in search of adventure and hooks up with a shrewish damsel who turns out to be nicer than she seems.

There are a lot of differences, though. Gareth is part of the Lothian clan, while this one (his given name is Breunor, not to be confused with the evil king Tristram killed in book 8) is no one in particular. Gareth is mocked for having beautiful hands, Breunor for wearing an ill-fitting, slashed up coat–the coat his father was wearing when he WAS MURDERED, thankyouverymuch. Lamorak and Gaheris both approve Breunor’s knighting, and so Arthur goes ahead with it. Continue reading “Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 9 – Tristram, and Others”

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 8 – Tristram

I already did a thing about Book 7 a while ago, so we’re skipping it.

The problem with the Tristram story is that we are basically shoe-horning an entire other book into the literal middle of this one. Up to this point, the stories have been reasonably cohesive. The first seven books covered Arthur’s origins and the establishment of the kingdom, and some adventures of other prominent characters that happened during more or less that same period of time

Tristram comes out of left field, and despite dogged effort to integrate him into the main story, it never works. No matter how many of them he beats in fights, Tristram’s interactions with the Round Table never seem organic, and I honestly think that at one point Malory forgot where he was in the story and started repeating himself.

Dramatis Personae:

  • Tristram, a wet blanket of epic proportions
  • Elizabeth (d), Tristram’s mother, sister of Mark, the king of Cornwall
  • Meliodas, Tristram’s father
  • ????? Tristram’s stepmother
  • Gouvernail, Tristram’s tutor
  • Agwisance, King of Ireland
  • ????? Queen of Ireland
  • Sir Marhaus, brother of the Queen of Ireland, a knight of the Round Table (we last saw him back in Book 4)
  • Sir Dinas, Mark’s seneschal
  • La Beale Isoud, daughter of Agwisance
  • Sir Palomides the Saracen, friend of the K&Q of Ireland, loves Isoud
  • Hebes le Renoumes, a squire sent by the French princess to Tristram with letters
  • Sir Segwarides, one of Mark’s earls, whose wife is coveted by both Mark and Tristram
  • Sir Bleoberis, one of Lancelot’s infinite cousins
  • Sir Blamor, brother of Bleoberis
  • Dame Bragwaine, Isoud’s servant
  • Sir Lamorak de Gales
  • Sir Andred, a cousin of Tristram who hates him
  • Howel, King of Brittany
  • Isoud la Blanche Mains, Howel’s daughter
  • Kehydius, Howel’s son

Book 8 Recap

  1. Tristram is born. His mother dies birthing him, while his father is being held prisoner by an evil woman.
  2. Merlin rescues Meliodas, who remarries and has some children with the new queen. She’s so keen to kill Tristram that she poisons one of her own children and nearly poisons Meliodas, who is on the point of executing her when Tristram pleads for her life.
  3. Tristram goes to France, learns music and hunting, goes back to Cornwall and reaches manhood.
  4. One of the Irish kings demand tribute from King Mark, and sends Marhaus to collect. No one in Cornwall is brave enough to fight him until Tristram volunteers, although he hasn’t even been knighted.
  5. A French princess falls in love with Tristram, sends him letters and a puppy, and dies of unrequited love. King Mark knights Tristram.
  6. Tristram prepares to battle Marhaus, who waits on an island for a worthy challenger.
  7. Tristram fights Marhaus and leaves a sliver of sword stuck in his skull. Marhaus flees to his ship.
  8. Marhaus returns to Ireland and dies of his wound. Tristram has also been wounded, and Marhaus used poison on his spear. The antidote can only be found in Ireland, so Tristram is shipped off to Agwisance’s court, where he calls himself Tramtrist.
  9. Palomides and Tramtrist side-eye each other over Isoud. Agwisance declares a tournament for the hand of his cousin. Isoud is afraid Palomides will win it, and asks Tramtrist to fight. Hebes arrives, recognizes “Tramtrist,” but promises to keep his secret.
  10. Tramtrist joins the tournament and trounces Palomides. He demands that Palomides leave Isoud alone and wear no armor for a year and a day. Much is made of Tramtrist by his hosts.
  11. The queen figures out that it was Tramtrist who killed her brother, and tries to kill him. (In the bath, no less.) The king is sad, but he will let Tramtrist go unharmed in exchange for his true identity.
  12. Tristram and Isoud exchange rings and have a sorrowful parting.
  13. Tristram goes home for a bit, then goes back to his uncle Mark’s place, where they both fall in love with a lady. Mark ambushes Tristram on his way to an assignation with her, and wounds him without being recognized.
  14. Segwarides discovers his wife’s infidelity and rides off after Tristram, who defeats him. Mark conceives a lasting hatred of Tristram.
  15. Bleoberis arrives and asks a boon of Mark: the fairest lady in his court. Because Mark is scared of Round Table knights, he agrees. Bleoberis picks Segwarides’ wife and rides off with her. Segwarides goes after them and is wounded. Tristram goes out later and meets a knight of the Round Table, who tells him about two other knights who are riding around looking for trouble in the area.
  16. Tristram encounters the visitors, Sagamore and Dodinas. They trash talk Cornwall for a bit. Tristram defeats them both.
  17. Tristram catches up with Bleoberis. They fight, and agree that the lady can go with whoever she prefers.
  18. She goes with Bleoberis, who delivers her back to her wounded husband unharmed. Tristram is chastened by the whole incident.
  19. Mark decides that the best way to hurt his nephew is by taking Isoud for himself, and sends Tristram to fetch her. Along the way, he ends up in Camelot long enough to defeat two more of the Round Table.
  20. Agwisance, meanwhile, has been summoned to Camelot on a charge of treason and must fight Blamor. Tristram offers to help a random lady get a stolen shield back from the knight who took it; she was supposed to give it to Lancelot.
  21. Tristram recovers the shield for the lady and hears about Agwisance’s dilemma. Tristram offers to take the duel with Blamor for him if Agwisance can swear that he wasn’t in the wrong, and Tristram will ask for a favor later.
  22. Tristram and Blamor fight.
  23. Defeated, Blamor refuses to yield. Tristram doesn’t want to kill him and asks the judges to intervene. Agwisance is cleared, everyone makes up, and Lancelot’s family are fondly disposed toward Tristram. Agwisance and Tristram depart for Ireland and a warm welcome (even from the queen).
  24. Tristram reveals that he has come to ask for Isoud’s hand for his uncle Mark. The queen gives Bragwaine a love potion for Isoud and Mark, but Isoud and Tristram accidentally drink it on the way across the sea. They reach a castle and are taken prisoner by its lord, Breunor.
  25. Tristram has to fight Breunor, and the loser will be beheaded. Isoud must compete against the lady of the castle in beauty, and the loser will be beheaded. WTAF says Tristram. Isoud wins, and Tristram cuts off the other lady’s head.
  26. Tristram fights Breunor and cuts off his head. Breunor’s son Sir Galahaut arrives with a friend and an army.
  27. Galahaut etc. fight with Tristram, who prudently surrenders to Galahaut, who isn’t actually all that upset about the deaths of his terrible parents and is happy to spare Tristram if he’ll go report himself to Lancelot (as a sort of parole, I assume), which he doesn’t actually do until I think book 10.
  28. Meanwhile, Lancelot rescues Gawaine from some guy.
  29. Isoud marries Mark. Two of the court decide to get rid of Bragwaine and tie her to a tree in the forest. She is rescued by Palomides, who returns her to Isoud but requires a boon.
  30. Palomides goes to Mark and demands that as his boon, Isoud should go with him. Mark figures Tristram will rescue her, and agrees. Tristram is away hunting, and it falls to a random knight to attempt the rescue. While they are fighting, Isoud runs away and takes refuge in a nearby castle. The knight there fights Palomides and is defeated, but Isoud is safe inside the castle.
  31. Tristram gives chase and finds both of the knights Palomides wounded, and then the castle where Palomides is camped outside. They fight until Isoud asks them to stop. She tells Palomides to go to Camelot and report to Arthur on how true a lover Tristram is.
  32. Tristram returns Isoud to Mark, where the two enjoy themselves more or less under her husband’s nose until someone tells on them. Tristram retreats to the forest for a while and fights off some pursuers. Mark’s advisers tell him that it would be dangerous for Tristram to flee to Arthur’s court, and Mark should allow him to come back. Everyone pretends to be friendly again.
  33. An impromptu tournament breaks out at which Lamorak distinguishes himself. Mark demands that Tristram fight him. Tristram demurs–Lamorak is tired, and he is fresh–but eventually relents and knocks him down but won’t keep fighting after that. Lamorak hates him.
  34. Lamorak intercepts a magical plot of Morgan’s to expose Gwen and Lancelot, a drinking horn that will spill itself if an untrue lady was to drink from it. Lamorak sends it to Mark. Not just Isoud but almost every other woman at court is judged poorly by it, but Mark’s barons point out that it doesn’t make much sense to trust Morgan of all people? so nothing happens until Sir Andred catches the two in flagrante. A naked and tied up Tristram nevertheless grabs a sword, fights his way to freedom, and jumps into the sea.
  35. Tristram’s friends save him, but Isoud has been locked up by King Mark. Bragwaine finds Tristram and tells him to go to King Howel in Brittany for help.
  36. Howel is getting the worst of a war and sends Tristram to help out. He makes a good impression and eventually marries the new Isoud. They are actually in bed when Tristram repents; they never consummate the marriage, but Lancelot is very disappointed in him when he hears about the wedding.
  37. La Beale Isoud complains to Gwen, who assures her that Tristram will come back to her. Meanwhile! Lamorak has been ship-wrecked on an island ruled by the giant Nabon.
  38. Tristram, his wife, and her brother go out sailing and are cast up on the same island. Segwarides is there, too, and willing to be friends now (with a line that directly translates to “bros before hos”). They meet up with Lamorak, who grudgingly admits that maybe Tristram isn’t terrible.
  39. Lamorak fights Nabon and is defeated, and Tristram fights him and kills him and his son both. They leave Segwarides as ruler of the island.
  40. Lamorak heads for home and runs into Lancelot, who is traveling incognito as usual and off on a quest he can’t delay.
  41. Lamorak has some random fights and finally returns to Arthur’s court.

So we end Part 1 of this famous love story with both lovers married to other people. Isoud is Mark’s prisoner, and we’re not even sure where Tristram is, but he doesn’t seem to be trying to get back to her. We end on this side character for no obvious reason.

It’s a weird story no matter how you slice it. There is a reduplicated plot in which Tristram is twice wounded and twice crosses the sea to be healed by a woman named Isoud, in Ireland and Brittany respectively. He fights for both of the women’s fathers, and falls in love with both Isouds. The bits with Lamorak have been tenaciously spliced on, but don’t actually mean anything or go anywhere. It’s a fine illustration of the difference between a plot, and things just happening in a sequence.

Book 9 continues with Tristram. It breaks up the interminable tale by interleaving it with another, more interesting, story and adding a hefty dose of Lancelot, but even he has a tough time lifting this inherently drippy morass into the realm of entertainment.

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 6 – Meet Lancelot

This book collects a lot of short adventures. It breaks with the quasi-historical feeling of the previous books, which on a high level were concerned with Arthur’s wars and the establishment of the Round Table. From this point on, it’s more about individual characters, without the framework of larger events around them like we had in Book 2.

Lancelot has been only briefly introduced in the story previous to this. He gets mentioned by Merlin in a couple of foreshadowing pronouncements, and appears with the rest of them in the Roman war, but he hasn’t really had center stage until now. The story picks up after everyone comes back from conquering the Empire.

The Adventure of Sir Turquin involves a lot of elements common in Lancelot stories:

  • Lancelot is napping. (This happens a lot.)
  • His traveling companion, one of his apparently-infinite relations who change designation randomly among brother, cousin, and nephew, ends up a captive of the horrible Turquin.
  • Lancelot himself is enchanted and taken prisoner by Morgan and some of her friends, who demand that he pick one of them for his paramour. (Every woman in the kingdom wants his body.)
  • Lancelot is set free by a damsel working for Morgan, if he will help her father Bagdemagus win a tournament. (Women are also constantly helping him.)
  • Lancelot makes friends with a random knight after a farcical in-the-wrong-bed incident. (He is always making friends with people.)
  • Lancelot wins the tournament for the damsel’s dad while in disguise. (He does more tournaments incognito than openly.)
  • With the help of another damsel who demands a favor in exchange, he finds Turquin’s castle. Turquin hates Lancelot for having killed his brother. (We often run into people complaining that Lancelot killed one of their relatives.)
  • Lancelot kills him, sets one of the captive knights free to let the rest go, and heads off with the damsel.

That ends the first adventure. In short order he next deals with a knight who guards a bridge and robs and/or ravishes all ladies who pass thereby, and two giants who are keeping 60 women prisoner–you may see a theme. Then he saves Kay from some knights who are chasing him, and swaps armor so that Kay can get home safely (incognito, again). He rides around for a while baiting jerks into attacking what they think is one of the weaker knights, and generally has a great time for a few chapters.

Then there’s the Chapel Perilous, a delicious little magical adventure involving undead knights and a malevolent sorceress (who wants his body), followed by a silly adventure in which he is deceived into being unarmed and has to use a stick to defeat his attacker, and then a somber one in which he tries and fails to save a woman from being killed by her vengeful husband.

In some ways this isn’t so different from the adventures back in Book 4, which also involved Morgan, enchantment, imprisoned knights, and a lot of fighting. There’s a different tone and emphasis here, though, a lighter touch with the whole story. It took me a while to figure out what strikes me as different, but I think it’s because this is the first of the adventure collections in which there’s a strong theme of people asking the knightly character for help–and being given it, or at least an attempt being made. The early adventures are more ambiguous, are touched off by mysterious or magical manifestations like Lady Lile or the White Hart, and whether they go well or not seems to be almost random, or dependent on the intervention of other magical forces. The Book 6 adventures are larger than life, obviously, but they are also more human, more grounded, and less alien. They’re also the first stories to include an overtly humorous tone.

The book after this is Gareth’s story, which I already did a long post about the last time I delved into these books, so I think I will skip it now. Then we get into the exhausting muddle that is Tristram, and then back to Lancelot and the start of the Grail stuff.

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 5 – Arthur vs Rome

This book provides more or less the complete story of the alliterative poem also called The Death of Arthur. I have a separate version of that, and it’s an interesting read in its own right, but here it’s just another episode to be Frankensteined onto the structure.

It’s a short book, and surprisingly little happens in it. I should perhaps mention that the entire thing is wildly ahistorical? I find it interesting that this was a fantasy people wanted in the centuries after the end of the Western Empire. If I remember my reading correctly, early on in the post-Roman decades, a few British warlords took a stab at continental conquest. They had little success, but the idea was popular enough to have been projected into the Arthurian context and to have survived there in a few different versions.

The war with Rome is logically slotted into the timeline. Arthur has consolidated his power locally, and the Round Table has settled down. Twelve envoys arrive from Lucius, Emperor of Rome, demanding tribute, to which the response is basically, “No U.” Every king unites behind Arthur, who treats the envoys well and sends them back to Lucius laden with gifts and a command that they recognize Arthur as the rightful Emperor.

Lucius musters his armies and 50 giants, to boot, and sets out for Flanders. Arthur assigns two governors in his absence (neither of them is Mordred, although in other versions of the story his being left in charge while Arthur is off on this adventure is what provides Mordred his chance to take the throne). Arthur names Sir Constantine as his heir, leaves Gwen fainting at being left by both her husband and her lover, and the whole army takes ship.

Arthur has a peculiar dream while at sea to presage the next chapter, in which he fights a truly monstrous giant of the old-fashioned, child-eating, maiden-ravishing sort. This is the last real adventure he gets in Malory, so at least it’s a good one. I think of this book as the end of “part 1,” in which the stories have a distinctly older feel to them than the rest. They emphasize Arthur as a warrior, and are full of strange magic and inexplicable events. The later stories are more narratively sophisticated, but they reflect a very different world than the one we started in.

There follow a few pages of battles, but in short order Arthur has faced Lucius himself and killed him. Some of the cities fight on anyway, and the army makes slow progress toward Rome. Gawain gets a side quest in which he shows better than usual. He meets a Saracen named Priamus who eventually converts and joins the Round Table.

Arthur is crowned emperor by the Pope and comes back home, and nothing more is ever said about the whole adventure–partly because in Book 6, Lancelot shows up and more or less takes over the story for a while.

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 4 – Adventures with Ladies

This book starts with Merlin, and how he became obsessed with the lady Pellinor brought back from his quest, one Nimue. Nimue is “one of the damsels of the lake,” a hazy designation that seems intended to align her with the Lady of the Lake whom Balin killed. She provides the link between the stories in this book.

Merlin’s End

Merlin can see his own doom approaching, but apparently can’t do anything about it. He loads Arthur up with advice (which he likewise won’t take) and takes Nimue to visit the Continent, where Lancelot is still a child (this brings up a lot of perplexing issues with the timeline, but we’ll just ignore those as the author does). The vacationing magicians return to Cornwall, where Nimue finally gets sick of Merlin’s propositioning her and tricks him under a great stone, where he will be buried forever. An odd way to write him out of the story, to my way of thinking.

Arthur fights a couple more wars, with Pellinor as his trusty ally, losing eight knights of the Round Table in the process (numbers!). Pellinor nominates their replacements, including his own son Tor, Arthur’s brother-in-law Uriens (Morgan’s husband–she plays a larger role starting in this book, although very much off and on for most of the collection), his nephew Gawaine, his foster-brother Kay, and a few other minor characters. I am emphasizing all of the family relationships here because I feel like it’s an element that tends to get forgotten. To be fair, it doesn’t really come up overtly in the stories very often, but I like to keep it in mind.

Arthur’s Adventure

Arthur’s days of having adventures on his own are coming to an end. He gets some more center stage in Book 5, the war with Rome, but starting in Book 6 the stories are more those of individual knights. In this one, he, Uriens (Morgan’s husband), and Accolon of Gaul (Morgan’s lover–awkward!) are all out hunting and find a mysterious, luxuriously appointed ship. Being player characters, they go on board, enjoy a sumptuous meal, and go to bed.

Uriens wakes up back in Camelot with his wife; Arthur wakes up in prison with 20 other knights; and we don’t find out about Accolon yet. Arthur and the others are captives of the evil knight Sir Damas, who is looking for a champion willing to fight his good brother Sir Ontzlake. Arthur apparently follows a utilitarian code of ethics, and volunteers to fight the good brother in order to free the 20 captives.

Now we go back to Accolon, who wakes up by a well. A dwarf comes by bearing Excalibur, and tells him that he is going to fight another knight this morning, and all of this is Morgan’s devising. You can guess what happens here, right?

Accolon ends up with Sir Ontzlake, who as bad luck would have it is currently wounded, and can’t fight the champion his evil brother has finally come up with. So the fight is set up between Accolon, who has the real Excalibur (and its magic scabbard), and Arthur, who has a fake created by Morgan. They fight. Although Accolon can’t be hurt and Arthur can (and is), there is no yielding, even when Arthur’s sword breaks. Nimue happens to be hanging around and feels sorry for Arthur who is trying so hard; she makes Accolon drop the sword. Arthur picks it up and demands his name, and the plot is revealed. Arthur shows mercy to Accolon, who later dies of his wounds, but is very put out with Morgan.

Morgan, meanwhile, is plotting to murder her husband, but is stopped by their son Uwaine, who… warns her not to do it again. She is very sad to find that Accolon has been killed, and sneaks off to Ontzlake’s castle to steal Excalibur’s scabbard again. Arthur pursues her, and she throws the scabbard into a nearby lake while making her getaway, continuing the water-and-swords motif. She encounters Accolon’s cousin Manassen, helps him with a murder, and sends him to Arthur to deliver her taunts. Arthur swears revenge.

Arthur appears to have the memory of a goldfish, because when the next messenger from Morgan arrives, bearing a richly jeweled mantle, he accepts it in good faith and is only saved by “the damosel of the lake” (Nimue again, one assumes) who warns him not to put it on. It is instead placed on the messenger, whom it kills dramatically. Arthur is really pissed now, and banishes her son Uwaine from court. Gawaine goes with him, out of loyalty to his cousin.

Adventure Triad

Gawaine and Uwaine have some adventures as a pair, and then meet up with Sir Marhaus. The three meet three ladies on the road, and each knight follows one of the ladies in search of further adventures.

Gawaine’s is very complicated and fun, as it involves him meeting a lovelorn knight named Pelleas and his beloved, Ettard, who can’t stand him. Gawaine promises to help Pelleas and distinctly fails to do so by sleeping with Ettard himself. A furious Pelleas is on the point of killing both of them, talks himself out of it, and goes off to mope.

Nimue wanders into the story here. She helps Pelleas get revenge on Ettard by making her fall in love with Pelleas, who now wants nothing to do with her. Nimue ends up with Pelleas herself, and Ettard dies of sadness. Nothing happens to Gawaine other than Pelleas continuing to think he’s a jerk (he has plenty of company).

Marhaus and Uwaine have much simpler adventures that just involve fighting a bunch of guys. Afterward, Uwaine is allowed at Arthur’s court again. Marhaus eventually gets killed by Tristram. Pelleas does well in the Grail adventure.

Next up: The gang conquers Europe.