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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.

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 3 – The Round Table

In Book 3 we get back to what most people would think of as “core” King Arthur:  the founding of the Round Table. Arthur has won his early wars, and everything is going fine, but his barons are on his case about getting married; possibly they don’t want another Uther situation, and the kingdom without an heir. Arthur has his heart set on Guenever, daughter of King Leodegrance (whom Arthur and his Continental allies delivered from a siege back in Book 1). Despite Merlin’s warning that she won’t be faithful, Arthur’s mind is made up.

There are several versions out there of where the actual Round Table came from; in this one, it belongs to Leodegrance, who was given it by Uther and now gives it (back) to Arthur as a wedding gift along with 100 knights. The Round Table seats 150, so Merlin goes out looking for 50 more to make up the shortfall, but he can only find 28. Every seat has a name except two, so we are left looking for 20 knights as the wedding festivities start.

Malory loves numbers.

The only one actually added to the Round Table here is Pellinor, but two other notable knights are created at the same time: Sir Tor, putative son of a cowherd, actually son of Pellinor, who raped his mom, and Sir Gawaine, already plotting revenge against that same Pellinor on account of having killed his father Lot.

There follows the wedding, and the Adventure of the White Hart. Gawaine, Tor, and Pellinor are each assigned a quest by Merlin to bring back a white hart, a dog and a knight, and a lady and another knight, respectively.

Gawaine’s quest doesn’t go well at all (he comes off terribly in Malory as a rule; I always have to go and reread The Green Knight afterward). He fails to show mercy when he should have, and accidentally kills a lady, and is thereafter required to be particularly solicitous of them in his future career. Tor has a nice successful little adventure, which is as a consequence rather dull.

Pellinor’s adventure is complicated, and his overall success is marred because at its outset he ignores a woman crying for help for her wounded lover, and both of them die. Merlin later tells Pellinor that the woman was his own daughter (Pellinor has more random kids than anyone else in this book), and Pellinor will be betrayed by someone he trusts as a result.

Arthur hands around some post-nuptial largesse. All of the knights promise not to do murder or treason or cruelty, to be merciful, to always protect ladies, and not to take part in wrongful quarrels. They frequently fail in these promises in the books to follow, especially that last one, and while there are kinda-sorta consequences sometimes, there isn’t a strong moral flavor to most of these tales (except the Grail quest, which is quite a different animal from the rest of them).

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Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 2 – A Tale of Two Brothers

This is legit one of my favorite books in the whole collection. It is mostly the story of two brothers, confusingly named Balin and Balan, sprinkled around with some other bits of plot. There is a level of “mistakes were made” here that one seldom encounters in modern storytelling, and the whole thing is just wild.

Balin is a poor knight who has been imprisoned for six months because he killed one of Arthur’s cousins (Arthur later decides that he has been misinformed on that account, but given what happens… was he really?). When a mysterious damsel appears at court with a magic sword, looking for the sole virtuous knight who can draw it from the scabbard, Balin is the only one who can do so; his poverty and ill appearance after being in prison belie his true nature (or again, given what happens… does it?).

Balin refuses to give the lady back her sword when she asks for it. She prophesies that he will regret it, and goes away.

The Lady of the Lake arrives, and asks Arthur to fulfill his promise of a return gift made when she gave him Excalibur. She demands the head of the knight who won the sword and that of the damsel who brought it, on account of them having killed her brother and father, respectively.

Balin, for his part, says that the Lady of the Lake is the reason his mother was burned at the stake, and so he cuts off her head right then and there and goes out on his adventure.

Merlin shows up to assure Arthur & Co. belatedly, as he usually does, that the mysterious damsel, whose name is Lady Lile, is in fact evil and the sword will cause whoever drew it to slay his own brother, which is a real shame because he’s a great fighter.

Thanks for nothing, Merlin.

One of Arthur’s knights, a fellow named Lanceor, pursues Balin to punish him for having embarrassed Arthur by killing the Lady of the Lake. He gets killed. To make it worse, Lanceor’s lover happens along, finds him dead, and kills herself. Then things turn around, however, as Balin encounters his brother Balan. To pacify Arthur, the brothers make a plan to take down King Reince, one of the alliance against Arthur.

There is an interlude here for some foreshadowing. King Mark (the villain in the Tristram story, which takes up a significant chunk of the later books) happens along, finds the bodies of Lanceor and his lady, and has a tomb built for them. Merlin shows up to foretell that two great knights (Lancelot and Tristram) will fight at that spot in the future but not kill each other, and also to tell off Balin for not stopping the suicide. Merlin departs but later rejoins the two brothers as they set out to take on King Reince. With Merlin’s advice, they prevail and take him to Arthur, who feels much more kindly towards Balin now.

There is a further digression to tell about Arthur defeating Reince’s brother Nero, owing to Merlin coming up with a ruse to delay King Lot and his force from taking part. Then there’s the follow-up battle with Lot. There’s a mention of Mordred here, again with the Morgause-mother version. Lot is killed by Pellinor, touching off another feud that goes straight through the saga as Lot’s sons and Pellinor’s find every conceivable occasion to fight each other. Balin and Balan are at both of the battles, at the end of which all of the kings who had banded together against Arthur are dead. There’s another burial scene–this one does include Morgan–and some more prophesies from Merlin, and then we return to the main plot.

Which immediately gets confusing. Balin is still hanging out with Arthur. Arthur wants Balin to fetch a sorrowing knight so the king can talk to him. Balin does so, but while they’re on their way to Arthur, the strange knight gets killed by an invisible knight. The dying knight charges Balin to avenge him. Balin and the knight’s girlfriend ride forth and meet yet another knight along the way, who is also killed by the invisible knight. They fetch up at a castle for some Grail Quest foreshadowing, and a few days later strike the trail of the invisible knight Garlon. Not only is Garlon invisible, but he inflicts wounds that can only be healed by the application of his own blood.

Balin kills Garlon in a refreshingly straightforward fight at the dinner table, but then has to fight Garlon’s brother (and their current host), King Pellam. Balin’s sword breaks. Balin has been carrying two swords most of this time, his own and the one he got from Lile–he is actually known as the Knight with Two Swords–and the magic one shows up again at the end of the story, but where it is in this scene is not accounted for.

There’s a running fight through the castle as he looks for another weapon. He finds an amazing-looking spear, runs Pellam through, and the entire castle falls down, because that was the spear of Longinus, and Balin has just dealt the Dolorous Stroke with it. Almost everyone in the surrounding countryside (including the first dead knight’s girlfriend) is killed, and Pellam remains unhealed until Galahad shows up as part of the Grail stuff at the end.

Balin recuperates and rides off, slightly chagrined by all of this. He meets a knight whose lady loves another. All three members of the love triangle end up dead, so a typical Balin adventure there. He goes on to a castle, where he is welcomed but told that their custom requires that he joust a knight on a nearby island before he can stay. He borrows a better shield than the one he came with–his final mistake–and despite being tired from traveling, goes to fight the other knight.

A mighty battle ensues, and both are mortally wounded before either of them asks the other his name. As foretold at the beginning of the story, the strange knight is Balin’s brother Balan, who didn’t recognize him because of the different shield, and now they have killed each other. They are buried in one tomb on the island by the people of the weird castle.

I am not being ironic in the slightest when I ask what is not to love about this epic disaster of a story? It’s got literally everything: weird magic, mysterious damsels, invisible knights, Merlin prophesying, and random intersecting love triangles. It is both prototypical in its elements and 180 degrees off from the stereotypical idea of what these stories were like. (Gareth’s story a few books later conforms much more neatly to expectations.)

Balin is supposed to be a virtuous knight as well as a good fighter, and at no point does the text say otherwise, but his only accomplishment is taking down Reince. He is deceived by Lile at the outset, doesn’t make any situations better when he interferes, and his rashness in killing Garlon leads directly to countless deaths. If one infers that Lile just wanted to cause trouble, picked a patsy, and has been watching all of this from elsewhere and laughing herself sick, I think one could defend the reading.

At the end, because no lily or tomb can go ungilded in this book, and because everything has to eventually lead to the Grail story, Merlin shows up to write the brothers’ epitaph in gold letters, and also for some of his unique brand of fun. First, he puts a bed in the tomb that will drive anyone mad should he sleep in it. (Dude… what?) Second, he takes the sword that started this whole wild ride, puts a new pommel on it, and sticks it in a great piece of marble that can float, which is how Galahad eventually gets it.

Yep! Galahad, the purest and bestest knight ever, ends up using a sword that came originally from an evil damsel and was used in multiple murders and a fratricide.

Then Merlin goes off to tell Arthur about what happened to Balin. “The greatest pity that ever I heard tell of two knights” sums it up pretty well.