Trigger warning: references to rape
Welcome to this year’s folklore and mythology research project, Year of the King, in which we’re going to work our way through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I’m using my beloved two volume hardback edition, published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. in 1978. The chapters are pretty short so each post will tackle several at a time. I will be using the spelling of locations and character names that are used in the book, but will also be referencing Arthurian legends from other sources where relevant.
The story begins while Uther Pendragon is, unfortunately, king of England. Think Arthur, but with the wrong vowels and the wrong moral standards.
Uther’s long-time enemy is a Cornish duke who goes unnamed by Malory but who is called Gorlois in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. There is an apparent attempt at accord when Uther asks the duke to come to him, but suspiciously he makes a point of insisting that the duke’s wife should come too. Her name is Dame Igraine. She is very beautiful, and very decisive. When Uther tries to seduce her, she not only wants nothing to do with him, she goes directly to her husband to tell him what happened. She is certain that Uther only asked for them ‘for that I should be dishonoured’ and wants to leave immediately, riding through the night until they reach the safety of their own lands. The duke agrees without hesitation, removing his wife from an unacceptable situation on her terms. I like him very much.
Uther throws an epic tantrum, aided and abetted by his councillors. He orders the duke and his wife to return, and when they obviously refuse, he declares war on them. Igraine stays at the castle of Tintagil and the duke departs for Castle Terrabil, where Uther lays siege on him. The king is claiming to be ‘sick for anger and love of fair Igraine’, a condition that his knight Ulfius takes perfectly seriously. It’s amazing what nonsense kings can get away with. Ulfius goes to find Merlin, who appears disguise as a beggar because that is his own particular brand of nonsense. Merlin says that he will give the king everything he desires – on certain terms.
Merlin knows exactly what risks he’s running, making deals with a man like Uther Pendragon. He makes Uther swear on the four Evangelists and his honour as ‘a true king anointed’ that he will fulfil Merlin’s (as yet undisclosed) own wishes. When that has been done, he tells the king that Igraine will conceive a child from their first night together and this child will be placed in Merlin’s charge. Uther is fine with this arrangement. And so, now for his desire.
From within Terrabil, the duke sees the king leave the siege and takes heart, charging out to fight. He is killed before Uther reaches Tintagil. After their departure, Merlin makes himself appear as Sir Jordans and Ulfius as Sir Brastias, knights of the duke, and Uther is enchanted to look like the duke himself. When he takes Igraine to bed, her husband has been dead for over three hours.
This is where the story of Arthur begins, with rape and death and deceit. And people really do like to blame Guinevere for the fall of Camelot, as if all that glory wasn’t built on blood and ruins, like all the best tragedies are.
Igraine finds out, of course, when word reaches her of how her husband fell in battle. Her grief is mixed with utter bewilderment, but she is not permitted to think on either for long. Uther sends his henchman Ulfius to press the royal suit on his behalf. The proposal boils down to ‘I’m single and you’re hot’, but there is a lot of pressure on Igraine to make peace with Uther, as if it was ever her fault they were at war. So she marries him. He hastily marries off the elder two of her daughters as well: Margawse (Morgause) to King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan, the youngest of Igraine’s daughters, is sent to be educated in a nunnery, where she learns…necromancy. Which is NOT a subject I expected to be taught by nuns, I have to admit. Once her education is finished, she is married to King Uriens of Gore. It is unclear if he knows that he is marrying an accomplished necromancer. It makes you wonder what the other two girls learned in school.
As Merlin predicted, Igraine is pregnant. Uther has the goddamn NERVE to ask who fathered her child, just to hear her confess that she doesn’t know, then tells her that he is the baby’s father himself, smuggled into her castle and bed by the wiles of Merlin. Igraine is said to make ‘great joy’ at the news. I doubt this immensely. Merlin appears like the Rumpelstiltskin figure that he is, reminding Uther of their deal. He does not intend to raise the baby himself. He’s a busy, amoral wizard with other things to do. No, there’s a nice responsible knight named Sir Ector, whose wife has had a baby, so Merlin’s plan is for their baby to be handed off to a wet nurse so that Ector’s wife can feed Uther’s son instead. You know, because if you can screw over even more women in pursuit of your plans, why wouldn’t you?
As soon as Igraine gives birth, two knights and two ladies take custody of the baby and deliver him to Merlin, as if he had never belonged to Igraine at all.
The next chapter is entitled ‘Of the Death of King Uther Pendragon’. This is what I’ve been holding out for, people.
Within two years, Uther falls sick, for real this time. His many enemies are quick to take advantage of this weakness. Merlin urges Uther out of his sick bed, though he has to be carried on a litter and cannot fight. When Ulfius and Brastias, now on the same side, win the day against the North in a battle at St. Albans, the king celebrates ‘his’ victory but pays for it – his condition worsens to the point where he cannot speak for three days.
His barons ask Merlin to do something. That’s what wizards are for, after all. Merlin serenely informs them that ‘God will have his will’ but there is one thing he does want the king to say and so arranges for him to say it. “Sir,” Merlin asks, “shall your son Arthur be king after your days?” Uther’s last words confirm it.
Of course, Arthur is currently a toddler, and literally no one except Merlin has any idea who or where he is. It’s unclear if the barons even knew Uther had a son at all. But he was a king, and now he’s a dead king, and so he doesn’t have to deal with any of the consequences of his actions.
This is a great villain origin story. Good thing we have Morgan waiting in the wings, huh?
The kingdom is now without a king and it is entirely unclear to me who is running the show. All the barons who backed Uther while he was on the throne are now jockeying for the top job. Fast forward some years and Merlin is ready to act. He dumps his plans on the Archbishop of Canterbury, who then has to invite all the lords and ‘gentlemen of arms’ to London by Christmas. A crowd duly descends on the most important church in London and as they emerge from mass, it is to see an enormous stone with a steel anvil at its heart, and a sword thrust through it. Written in gold on the blade is the open challenge “whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England”. The Archbishop refuses to be distracted from his job, ordering that nobody may touch that sword until all masses are done. This man must radiate authority, because he is surrounded by power-hungry would-be royalty, but is still obeyed.
Of course, everyone wants a go at the sword, but there is no man present who can pull it from the stone. Word of the sword is sent out to draw in all other hopefuls. On New Year’s Day, a tournament is held to keep all the antsy barons entertained while the Archbishop (and presumably Merlin, somewhere around) wait for the rightwise king to show up.
Among those who come for the tournament are Sir Ector, his son Sir Kay, and Kay’s adopted brother, Arthur. Kay has only been a knight for a few months and he’s still a bit of a mess. He forgot his sword at their lodgings so Arthur rides back to get it, but everybody is out to watch the jousting and I gather that he therefore cannot get inside. Nothing daunted, Arthur rides for the churchyard, determined to get the sword there and give it to his brother. For once there are no other knights around, everyone being at the tournament. Arthur grasps the hilt and the sword slides from the stone easily as you please.
He gives the sword to Kay, who puts two and two together and comes up with three. He tells his father he must be king, because he is holding the sword. When he admits that it was Arthur who gave it to him, Ector puts this to the test by having Arthur put the sword back into the stone. He tries to pull it out himself, and fails. Kay tries, and fails. Arthur whisks it out like a warm knife from butter.
Ector drops to his knees. It’s here, in an empty churchyard, holding a magic sword, that Arthur learns that Ector is not his biological father. It is the first fracture line in Arthur’s perception of his world, and will not be the last. “Ye are the man in the world that I am most beholden to, and my good lady and mother your wife, that as well as her own hath fostered me and kept,” Arthur tells Ector. “And if ever it be God’s will that I be king as ye say, ye shall desire of me what I may do, and I shall not fail you, God forbid I should fail you.” What an opening, and even an honourable man like Sir Ector cannot resist it. He asks Arthur to take Kay as seneschal of his lands and Arthur swears that nobody else shall have that position as long as Kay lives.
If you wonder, later on, why people have to put up with Kay, this moment here would be why.
The trio go to the Archbishop and Arthur pulls the sword free from the stone again in front of all the barons, who do not like this situation at all. Guards are placed upon the sword and more lords come to the city, to try their luck again at Candlemas, then again at Easter, then again at Pentecost. The barons fume that this boy of no importance could possibly be king. The Archbishop prudently arranges a guard for Arthur, surrounding him with Uther’s most trusted knights: Sir Baudwin, Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias. Kay is among this company.
At Pentecost, Arthur draws the sword again in front of a crowd and the commoners of the city declare him their king. This sentiment spreads. As one, the crowd of onlookers go to their knees, asking Arthur’s forgiveness for the delays, and he is made a knight before them all by the Archbishop, wielding the sword from the stone. ‘And there was he sworn unto his lords and the commons for to be a true king, to stand with true justice from thenceforth the day of this life’. Which is a cue for everyone to bury their new young king in grievances. The list has been building since Uther died and the kingdom has been in turmoil. Arthur does his best to make things right and establishes his own household: Kay as seneschal, Baudwin as constable, Ulfius as chamberlain and Brastias as warden of the north, where Arthur’s enemies press the hardest.
Within a few years, Arthur lays claim over Scotland and Wales. The north is his.
Arthur takes his court to Wales and holds his coronation in Carlion. To celebrate, he declares a feast at Pentecost. Among the guests are his brothers-in-law King Lot, King Nentres and King Uriens, with large companies of knights. Not that any of them are, as yet, aware of the family connection. The young king of Scotland is also in attendance and a man titled ‘the king with the hundred knights’. Arthur greets his guests with gifts as an overture of friendship. They respond that they ‘had no joy to receive no gifts of a beardless boy that was come of low blood’ and that they ‘were come to give him gifts with hard swords betwixt the neck and the shoulders’.
Having failed to Make Friends and Influence People, Arthur prepares for a siege and for fifteen days, he manages to hold out against the combined forces of the enemy kings. On the fifteenth day, Merlin arrives, fashionably late. All the kings are eager to find out what the hell he was thinking, arranging for Arthur to be made king. “Sires,” Merlin says, “I shall tell you the cause, for he is King Uther Pendragon’s son, born in wedlock, gotten on Igraine, the duke’s wife of Tintagil.” He slaps down declarations that Arthur must therefore be a bastard, casually side-stepping the impact of his machinations on Igraine.
King Lot laughs at him, and he’s not the only one. There are suspicious accusations of witchcraft, which makes me wonder what they think of Merlin’s powers? How did the shape-shifting and magical swords not give it all away? But Merlin’s persuasion has its effect. The kings agree to hear Arthur speak, and Merlin bids him emerge from the siege, his own allegiance made very clear.
With Arthur come the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Baudwin, Sir Kay and Sir Brastias. There is no negotiation. Arthur says that he will bring the kings to bow, and the kings are – unsurprisingly – enraged. Lot, in particular, has no time for Merlin. “Be we well advised to be afeard of a dreamreader?” he demands, and Merlin promptly vanishes, reappearing in Arthur’s company to act as military advisor. He warns Arthur not to use the sword he drew from the stone until his need is great. Arthur wins admiration with his prowess on the battlefield. When Arthur’s horse is killed, his knights manage to get him a new mount and he draws Excalibur, plunging back into the fray. The commoners of Carlion rise to fight alongside him with whatever makeshift weapons they can lay hands on. The kings retreat, and Merlin advises Arthur not to pursue them. The first victory may go to the boy king, but there is a war ahead of them.
Last week we left Arthur at war with a coalition of six kings, including his three brothers-in-law, who are aware at this point that Arthur is Uther’s son. Arthur, meanwhile, does not appear to have been informed. If you think that’s a bit messed up, please contact Merlin at Unscrupulous Sorcerers R Us.
Arthur calls his barons together to prepare for the war, and by prepare, I mean ask Merlin what to do next. Merlin, when he arrives, has more bad news for Arthur – four more kings have joined the enemy side. He advises Arthur to appeal to potential allies across the sea, the brothers King Ban of Benwick and King Bors of Gaul. They have problems of their own, facing off with King Claudas, but Merlin suggests that Arthur offer a trade – they come to help fight Arthur’s enemies, and Arthur will help them bring down Claudas. Ulfius and Brastias are sent to make the proposal. They run into a party of Claudas’ knights straight off the bat and have to fight their way to Benwick. Once there, they meet with Sir Lionses of Payarne and Sir Phariance, and are promptly made welcome. Ban and Bors are completely on board with Merlin’s idea and swear to come to Arthur before All Hallowmass. Arthur is so happy about this news that he arranges for a feast and jousting to welcome his new friends.
I just want to insert here that, although Malory has not mentioned them, Ban’s wife is named Elaine and Bors’ wife is Evaine, and that the two queens are sisters, and I want to know so much more about these women who have been left behind in threatened kingdoms while their husbands go to fight another man’s war.
Now, jousting is a risky sport. Is it necessarily wise to jeopardise the health of your warriors right before going into war? Well, Ban, Bors and Arthur are going to do it anyway. Malory gets really excited describing jousts, and goes into detail about who makes a good show of arms and who gets the worst of it. Kay in particular does well, and is clearly popular at this point, with friends rushing to back him up when another knight manages to knock him from his horse. After presenting Kay with his prize, the three kings bring Ban and Bors’ brother Gwenbaum, Ulfius, Brastias and Merlin into a war meeting that cuts off only so that the men can sleep and recommences the next day.
Sir Gracian and Sir Placidus, who were introduced a page ago in the tournament scene, are sent with Ban’s ring to help run things over in Benwick and Gaul, and to send across their troops. Merlin organises their provisions and passage which, like all things Merlin does, seems suspicious to me. To be fair to Merlin, he is much more hands on now (…since Arthur has proven he’s willing to do what he’s told). It’s Merlin who leads the foreign army through the forest of Bedegraine, through into a valley where he sets up a secret camp. He then goes to Arthur with all speed, which is quite remarkably speedy. By Merlin’s word, no armed man can pass through the country without a token from King Arthur, to prevent enemies from entering the kingdom.
Team Arthur sets up a base at the castle of Bedegraine, where they bond. Meanwhile, the leaders of Team Nope are now the Duke of Cambenet, King Brandegoris of Stranggore, King Clariance of Northumberland, the king with the hundred knights (who actually commands four thousand knights), King Lot, King Urience/Uriens, King Idres, King Cradelmas, King Agwisance of Ireland, King Nentres and King Carados – plus the sixty thousand soldiers they can muster between them. That is…a lot of opposition. Frankly, they do have a point. Just because a boy can pull a sword from a stone does not make him good king material, and being Uther’s son is not necessarily a recommendation either, depending on how you feel about his rule. The coalition of kings ride on Bedegraine.
Merlin advises Arthur to send scouts through the country, so they hear of the host riding from the north. Arthur takes up Ban and Bors’ idea to devastate the country that their enemies will pass through. Two nights before battle, the king with the hundred knights dreams of a wind that beats castles and towns, and a flood which follows to wash the ruins away. It is a disturbing omen of the battle to come. Acting on Merlin’s advice again, Arthur and his allies descend on their enemies by night, while they are asleep in their lodgings.
And so the fighting really begins.
The battle is ugly, as battles always are. Ten thousand men die before morning. As the night draws to its bloody end, Merlin advises that Bors and Ban draw back to the woods with their soldiers, to trick the opposing side into believing Arthur’s numbers are much lower than they actually are. Of course, temporarily, Arthur’s numbers are that low. Ulfius and Brastias show why they are within their king’s inner circle, hacking down the enemy with ferocious energy. Duke Eustace of Cambenet and King Clariance descend on Ulfius. Brastias lunges to the rescue, managing to bring down the duke, but when Brastias and Clariance crash together, it is a dizzying, bone-cracking draw. Kay, meanwhile, is a veritable whirlwind, knocking Nentres from his horse then doing the same to Lot. The king with the hundred knights then unhorses Kay and delivers the horse to Lot. What goes around, comes around…and the amount of horse-swapping going on is just impossible to keep up with.
To be without a horse on the battlefield is to be in very dire straits. When Arthur sees Ulfius and Brastias both unhorsed, surrounded by enemies, he strikes down Cradlemas and gives the horse to Ulfius. The king with the hundred knights takes Sir Ector’s horse for Cradlemas, which absolutely enrages Arthur, and he lands a blow on Cradlemas that splits the other king’s helm. Kay gets his father back on a horse, and Ector does the same for Brastias, and this is like a really homicidal game of musical chairs, isn’t it?
Arthur is whirling his sword about like a wild thing, managing to wound Lot on the shoulder, who rages about it to the king with the hundred knights. Lot has a new plan; he takes the king with the hundred knights, Agwisance, Idres, and Duke Eustace, along with fifteen thousand men, to separate from the main part of their forces. This is when Bors breaks from the wood. For the first time, Lot seems genuinely worried. He speaks of Bors as ‘one of the most worshipfullest men and one of the best knights of the world’. Carados charges forward anyway – well, somebody has to, unless they plan on surrendering that minute – and that goes badly for Carados, but luckily for him the king with the hundred knights has committed to rescuing all his friends.
At this point King Ban bursts onto the battlefield. Lot’s confidence takes another bad hit as he realises that Arthur has a much stronger position than he believed, and he ‘wept for pity and dole that he saw so many good knights take their end’. The tide has certainly turned in Arthur’s favour. Lot, however, is a strong leader, banding up alongside the king with the hundred knights and a man called Morganore (who was a seneschal earlier on and is now being titled a king, I have no idea what’s going on with him). The three of them manage to hold the line against Arthur’s renewed forces.
The king with the hundred knights targets Ban. The fighting between them is savage, and ends with both the king with the hundred knights and Morganore struck to the ground. His horse lying dead, Ban creates a circle of carnage as far as his sword can reach. Arthur, covered in blood and gore himself, kills a knight to get his ally back on horseback.
Yet still, after all that death, there is no victor. There is only a temporary withdrawal, as each side takes desperately needed rest. Ban and Bors have deep admiration for their opposition; Arthur points out that the coalition of kings do want to destroy him. Lot, meanwhile, is strategising. He decides to send the soldiers who are on foot into the woods, where they have a chance of survival, and focus the riders on the battle instead of rescuing their comrades. Lot binds his allies that any king who breaks from the battle should be killed as a coward.
When the battle recommences, the two sides find themselves once again evenly matched in force and will. As the fighting reaches a little river, Merlin appears on a black horse, telling Arthur it is time to withdraw, that this alliance of kings cannot at this time be overthrown. It is time for Arthur to reward his followers with silver and gold, and to wait out his enemies, because Merlin knows they are about to be called to a different battlefield: a Saracen army has arrived in their lands. Merlin predicts that it will be three years before the kings can turn toward Arthur again.
The spoils of battle are given to Bors and Ban as thanks for their aid. Merlin then departs for Northumberland, where his master Bleise resides. Bleise, it turns out, is the archivist of all Arthur’s battles, as described by Merlin. When the battles have been transcribed, Merlin returns to the castle of Bedegraine, which happens to be located in none other than Sherwood Forest. I am not quite sure what to do with that information.
Merlin, being Merlin, comes disguised as a commoner in black sheepskins, asking if Arthur will give him a gift. Arthur is lofty and dismissive. Ulfius and Brastias catch on quicker, smiling as they recognise their sorcerer. Arthur is embarrassed but fascinated, as are Ban and Bors.
An earl named Sanam comes to ‘do homage’ to Arthur and brings his daughter Lionors. Arthur sleeps with her, and she gives birth to a child, Borre, who in due time becomes a knight and joins the Round Table. We are just going to put an asterisk on this moment for later reference, as evidence of where Arthur stands on sleeping with girls he has no intention of marrying.
And how do we know he doesn’t marry Lionors? Well, shortly after his son’s birth, Arthur hears that King Rience of North Wales is making war on King Leodegrance of Cameliard. Arthur is friends with Leodegrance and enemy to Rience, so immediately Arthur, Ban and Bors set out to join the battle.
Leodegrance just so happens to have a daughter named Guenever.