Trigger warning: references to rape, incest and child death
Arthur, Ban, Bors and twenty thousand of their combined forces take six days to reach Cameliard, where they quickly overpower King Rience’s army. Leodegrance makes much of his rescuers and it is in the midst of this giddy rush of victory that Arthur meets Leodegrance’s daughter, Guenever of Cameliard. Malory tells us that ‘ever after he loved her’.
Ban and Bors are called back to their own lands by the attacks of King Claudas and when Arthur offers to accompany them, they tell him to stay behind and defend his kingdom while they use the spoils of his war to fund theirs. It is a fond farewell, with Ban and Bors swearing to send for Arthur if they need him and telling him to send for them if he falls into similar straits.
Merlin ruins the moment with prophecy. “It shall not need that these two kings come again in the way of war, but I know well King Arthur may not be long from you, for within a year or two ye shall have great need,” Merlin warns, “and then shall he revenge you on your enemies, as ye have done on his. For these eleven kings shall die all in a day, but the great might and prowess of two valiant knights.”
How are the other kings doing? We go to Uriens’ city Sorhaute, where the coalition of kings have retreated to grieve their losses and receive medical care. While they are there, a messenger brings news of an advancing Saracen army, as Merlin predicted. The kings uneasily reflect on how, had they been on good terms with Arthur, they could have called on his support to deal with the threat. They have heard how Arthur rode to Leodegrance’s rescue and that kind of backup plan would be very nice right now. As they blew any chance of that thousands of graves ago, they must make do, and spread out to protect as much land as possible.
When Arthur returns to Carlion, he receives an unexpected guest: the beautiful Queen Morgause of Orkney, wife to King Lot, accompanied by her four sons Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravine and Gareth, and a rich retinue. Morgause is there to spy on Arthur, and presumably make some kind of inroad towards peace, being the wife of an enemy. Arthur seems open to her friendship – in fact, he develops a crush on her, unaware that she is his half-sister. There is no reason, as far as I can see in the text, to believe Morgause was aware of their relationship either. What both sides are very much aware of, and are presumably okay with, is that Morgause is married. When they sleep together, Morgause conceives a fifth son, Mordred. After Morgause departs, Arthur has terrible nightmares about an invasion of griffins and serpents.
To banish the lingering dread of these dreams, Arthur goes hunting, accompanied by many knights. He sees a fine hart and chases after it, so intent on his pursuit that his poor horse falls dead beneath him. The hart is then ‘embushed’, which I presume means it dies too.
As Arthur sits resting by a fountain, he sees an extraordinary beast approaching. It makes a sound like thirty hounds and with this cacophony, comes to the water and drinks. Soon after it departs the fountain, a knight rides up and brusquely asks Arthur if he saw a beast come this way. He tells the king that he has been following the beast for a year and has been in close pursuit for so long, his horse has died underneath him. This seems to be a theme and I hate it.
Arthur is quite fired up by this peculiar quest and wants to take it over himself, which sounds an awful lot like an attempt to abandon all royal responsibilities and go haring off into the wilderness after a creature he does not understand in the least. The knight, whose name is Pellinore, assures Arthur that ‘it shall never be achieved but by me, or my next kin’. He steals Arthur’s replacement horse and takes off.
While Arthur is brooding, Merlin arrives. He looks like a fourteen-year-old today. He goes to Arthur and asks what has put him in such a thoughtful mood, and when Arthur explains, Merlin tells him that he is a fool. “Also I know what thou art,” Merlin continues, “and who was thy father, and of whom thou wert begotten; King Uther Pendragon was thy father, and begat thee on Igraine.” Arthur is shocked, disbelieving and angry. Merlin leaves and returns appearing as an old man, to confirm his earlier self’s words. The man is INFURIATING. He scolds Arthur for sleeping with Morgause, despite neither party having any way to know their affair was incestuous (because Merlin made the choice NOT TO TELL THEM) and warns him that the child Mordred will bring destruction on Arthur and his knights.
“Ah, ye are a marvellous man,” says Arthur, bewildered, “but I marvel much of thy words that I must die in battle.” Who would not marvel and maybe totally freak out at this news! Merlin has no sympathy. “Marvel not,” he retorts, “for it is God’s will your body to be punished for your foul deeds; but I may well be sorry, for I shall die a shameful death to be put in the earth quick, and ye shall die a worshipful death.” I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware this was the Prophesied Death Olympics.
When Arthur is brought his third horse of the day, he goes straight to find Ector and Ulfius to ask about the truth of his parentage, and they confirm Merlin’s story. Arthur is deeply shaken. He sends for Igraine, wanting to hear her version of events. “If she say so herself, then will I believe it,” Arthur says. Igraine comes, and brings her daughter Morgan with her. Arthur welcomes them with all courtesy.
It’s hard not to feel for Arthur here. He deserved to hear the truth a long time ago. And Igraine, oh Igraine, what is going through her mind, as she comes face to face with her only son for the first time since his birth?
The very first thing Ulfius does when Igraine arrives is to launch into public accusations. “Ye are the falsest lady of the world, and the most traitress unto the king’s person,” he declares. Arthur warns him to be careful of his words, but Ulfius throws down a glove to show he is willing to fight to defend his statement. “This Queen Igraine is causer of your great damage,” he insists, “and of your great war. For, an she would have uttered it in the life of King Uther Pendragon, of the birth of you, and how ye were begotten, ye had never had the mortal wars that ye have had.”
Well, Ulfius, if you don’t approve of deceit, I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU. And SO DOES IGRAINE. “I am a woman,” she says, with cool dignity, “and I may not fight, but rather than I should be dishonoured, there would be some good man take my quarrel. More, Merlin knoweth well, and ye Sir Ulfius, how King Uther came to me in the Castle of Tintagel in the likeness of my lord, that was dead three hours tofore, and thereby gat a child that night upon me.”
I wonder if Morgan knew anything of this story before this moment, listening to her mother relive a moment of deep, private trauma in front of the entire court. Is this when Morgan decided that Arthur was her enemy?
Igraine is not done talking yet. “And after the thirteenth day King Uther wedded me, and by his commandment when the child was born it was delivered unto Merlin and nourished by him, and so I saw the child never after, nor wot not what is his name, for I knew him never yet.”
Oh, Igraine. You deserved so, so much better.
Ulfius graciously acknowledges that of the two, Merlin is more to blame. I could bite him. “Well I wot,” Igraine says, “I bare a child by my lord King Uther, but I wot not where he is become.” NO ONE HAS TOLD HER YET. Merlin takes his king’s hand and says, as if it’s Arthur who needs to hear it, “This is your mother.” Ector steps up to explain how he raised Arthur from infancy.
Arthur embraces Igraine and the two of them weep in each other’s arms. The court celebrates this family reunion with eight days of feasting. Merlin and Ulfius get away scot free. If this really is Morgan’s villain origin story, I personally feel she has a whole list of solid points.
The celebrations are disrupted when a squire rides into court, leading a mortally wounded knight. He speaks of an attack by a well in the forest and asks that his knight, Sir Miles, be buried and avenged. Sir Griflet, a young man the same age as Arthur and only a squire himself, asks Arthur to be made a knight so that he can take on this mission.
Arthur is dubious and Merlin is outright disapproving, pointing out Griflet’s youth and informing the court that this knight by the well is one of the best in the world. Thanks for sharing, Merlin, would you also be able to tell us what his name is and why he is killing people? No? Arthur makes Griflet a knight anyway, but conditionally: when Griflet has jousted with the knight by the well, he must return to Arthur without further fighting. Griflet promises to do so.
Riding to the well, Griflet sees a pavilion set up by the water and a shield hung upon a nearby tree. Griflet smacks the shield to the ground with his spear, which draws the attention of his opponent. The knight looks at Griflet, who radiates brand spanking new knight, and is reluctant to fight him, but Griflet insists and so the two of them prepare for the bout. At the first charge, the knight strikes through Griflet’s shield and runs his spear into Griflet’s side.
Merlin, it appears, was right again.
The knight by the fountain sets the seriously injured Griflet on his horse and sends him off to return home as best he might. This, it appears, is him being nice. Fortunately Arthur has a good medical team and Griflet recovers.
While the court is busy worrying about him, twelve elderly knights arrive from the Emperor of Rome to demand tribute, with the immediate threat of destroying Arthur if he says no. “Well,” Arthur responds, “ye are messengers, therefore ye may say what ye will, other-else ye should die.” This is only the beginning of an emphatic no. The only tribute he’s willing to offer is a sword stroke on the battlefield. The messengers depart. By now really worked up, Arthur takes off for a while.
During the first day of his truancy, Arthur sees three ruffians in pursuit of an individual he recognises as Merlin. Arthur comes to the rescue and cannot resist noting that Merlin, for all his arts, would have been dead without him. “Thou art more near thy death than I am,” Merlin replies. I do not know if that is more condescending or alarming. As they travel they pass the spot where Griflet’s opponent is still encamped. Arthur stops to enquire why the knight is challenging knights in this place and orders him to leave off doing it. The knight’s response is: make me.
They joust. Arthur only has the one spear, and when that shatters he reaches for his sword. The knight urges him to joust again, and a third time, loaning him the spears to do it. The third time they joust, Arthur is knocked from his sword and wants to fight on foot, but the knight refuses to get off his horse. Arthur makes for him anyway and to preserve his honour, the knight is forced to dismount. The battle that ensues is brutal and very evenly matched, and from my 21st century perspective, absolutely pointless in every way. They, of course, are dreadfully committed. Eventually, Arthur’s sword breaks. The knight tells him to yield and Arthur baldly states he’d rather die. He then HURLS HIMSELF at the knight, wrestles him to the ground and yanks off his helm. The knight goes to strike off his head.
Merlin intervenes. He warns the knight that by killing Arthur, he will put the entire country in danger, and reveals that Arthur is the king. This does not help the situation! The knight panics about the vengeance Arthur might enact on him and goes to kill him. Merlin sends him to sleep with a spell and steals his horse. Arthur is concerned that Merlin might have killed him, having been won over by the knight’s martial skills. Merlin snaps that he will wake up within three hours. “I told you what a knight he was,” Merlin continues, “here had ye been slain had I not been.” Which sounds like a sarcastic little callback to Arthur’s own comment earlier. Fair enough.
The knight’s name is Pellinore. Merlin assures Arthur that Pellinore will someday serve him and, Once and Future Who’s Who encyclopaedia that he is, notes that Pellinore will have two sons who’ll serve Arthur too. “Save one they shall have no fellow of prowess and of good living, and their names shall be Percivale of Wales and Lamerake of Wales,” Merlin says, “and he shall tell you the name of your own son begotten of your sister that shall be the destruction of all this realm.”
Merlin’s just such great company, isn’t he? I don’t know what’s worse, the moral high-horsing from the man who started all these problems IN THE FIRST PLACE, or the casual defeatism. No one is saving the realm with that attitude.
Leaving Pellinore in his enchanted sleep, Arthur goes to a conveniently nearby hermit with convenient medical training, and after three days is well enough to continue on his way. He comments to Merlin that he has no sword, having left his in fragments at Pellinore’s camp. “Hereby is a sword that shall be yours, an I may,” Merlin says, and leads him to a lake. An arm dressed in white rises from the water, bearing a sword.
A young woman comes across the water. She is the Lady of the Lake, and a separate person from the disembodied arm, but the sword is hers. Arthur politely asks for possession of it. “If ye give me a gift when I ask it you, ye shall have it,” the Lady says. Arthur agrees to this without settling what exactly the gift might end up being, an echo of Uther’s choices before him. The Lady directs them to a boat and Arthur and Merlin go out upon the lake. Arthur takes sword and scabbard both, and the hand vanishes beneath the water.
Returning to land, they ride off and circle back to Pellinore’s camp. The knight is absent, having chased Sir Egglame, one of Arthur’s knights, down the highway. Pellinore is out here making ALL the friends. Arthur eagerly anticipates another battle with Pellinore but Merlin slaps down the notion, reminding him that Pellinore must be weary with battle so it would not be honourable to challenge him now. Merlin also tosses out the spoiler that ‘ye shall see that day in short space, you shall be right glad to give him your sister to wed’. I do not know what that’s supposed to mean because Pellinore definitely doesn’t marry any of Arthur’s sisters! It may be another dig at Arthur having slept with Morgause. Who knows, when it comes to Merlin.
Merlin asks which Arthur likes better, sword or scabbard, to which Arthur predictably replies the sword. This is the wrong answer. The scabbard is a magical object and the wearer will never lose blood while they have it.
The pair of them pass Pellinore on the way back to Carlion but Merlin, stage-managing Arthur’s life as always, prevents Pellinore from seeing them. Upon Arthur’s return home, his knights are full of mixed anxiety and admiration for their wild, adventurous young king.
The admiration is not universal. Remember King Rience? Arthur defeated him a while back to defend Leodegrance, Guenever’s father. We WILL hear more from Guenever soon, I swear. Anyway, we have to deal with Rience first, or rather Arthur does, because Rience has a strange fetish for trimming his mantle with the beards of kings he has overcome. He has eleven beards already and wants Arthur’s to be the twelfth. Arthur drily remarks that he hasn’t much of a beard yet, but makes it clear he will be giving Rience nothing but his passionate disgust. “Tell him, I will have his head without he do me homage,” Arthur declares.
He then asks around his court to see if anyone knows much about Rience. Sir Naram knows Rience to be a strong and proud man who will definitely make good on his threats of invasion. Arthur is undaunted.
Now we come to a part of this story that is both shocking in its cruelty and bizarrely separate from the rest of the narrative. Following Merlin’s instructions, Arthur sends for all the babies born to lords and ladies on May Day. Mordred is among them. All the babies are set adrift on a ship. The youngest are less than four weeks old. The ship is wrecked and most of the babies die but Mordred survives, found by a man who takes him in until the age of fourteen. When Mordred is fourteen, he is sent to court.
This attempt to counteract prophesied doom, and its TOTAL failure, in some ways parallels the Greek myth of Perseus, who was set adrift with his mother because it had been foretold he would kill his grandfather. There is an even greater similarity to the Biblical story of King Herod, who ordered a massacre of infant boys in an attempt to kill Jesus Christ. For a story so intensely steeped in Christian morality, it is surprising to have the hero figure of Arthur cast in the mould of so recognisable a villain. Indiscriminate slaughter of small children is….not the kind of thing you come back from, and yet, through the rest of Le Morte d’Arthur, we seem to be expected to sort of forget about the whole thing. From memory, even Mordred never directly refers to it! The May Day Massacre is also completely illogical. Arthur knows perfectly well which sister he slept with, why is he alienating every other lord and lady in the land when he knows exactly where to find the one baby he’s worried about? Has this man ever heard about strategy?
The death of these children is a horrifying stain upon Arthur’s leadership, raising the ire of his lords and barons. They are inclined to blame Merlin more, recognising his hand at work by now. They fear the two of them enough not to actively rise against their king, but the resentment is planted in fertile ground.
Oh, Camelot is built on shaky ground indeed.