Trigger warning: references to rape
Last month we followed the disaster that is Balin le Savage, as he tries to save people and watches them die instead, tries to make friends and makes enemies instead, and learns from exactly none of his mistakes. He was pressed into taking part in a strange custom, fighting the knight of a nearby island. He knows this is a bad idea. He just appears resigned to everything in life being a bad idea and at this point, who can blame him?
Balin’s opponent comes out all in red. Balin does not recognise him but this is Balan, his brother – who does briefly recognise Balin, by the two swords he carries, but dismisses the idea when he sees that Balin carries a different shield. And so they fight, for nothing but custom.
It is a brutal fight. The brothers are pretty evenly matched and neither will back down, and they fight until the field is wet with their blood. At the end, it is Balan who finally draws back, to collapse upon the ground. Balin finally asks his name, and is so grieved by the answer that he too crumples to the ground. Balan crawls over to remove his helm. Balin’s face is so covered in wounds from the fight that he is unrecognisable and it is only when he comes to that Balan realises who he is. The brothers share their rage against the castle and its custom, that has brought about both their slow deaths. Balan was forced to fight and when he defeated the knight of the island, was obliged to remain. Balin was persuaded to give up the shield that would have identified him and prevented this battle. The lady of the castle makes very questionable amends by vowing to have the brothers buried together in one tomb. She then sends for a priest, and that is the end of the brothers Savage.
And Merlin shows up. As usual, too late to prevent any bloodshed, but he puts letters of gold on the tomb spelling out a brief summary of Balin’s grim adventures. Merlin then makes a bed that nobody can sleep on, until Lancelot will later come along, and changes the pommels on Balin’s sword. He offers the sword to a nearby knight, who tries but cannot handle it. Merlin, always such a delight, laughs at the man and tells him that only the best knight of the world will be able to handle the sword. This knight will be Lancelot and with the sword he will kill Gawain, his best friend in the world. Merlin makes sure that this is all jotted down in the pommel of the sword. I think it would be better to BREAK a sword that is clearly CURSED but this is Merlin we are talking about so he doesn’t do that.
What he does next is have a bridge made over to the island. Only a knight without treachery or villainy can cross it. Having left the scabbard of Balin’s sword on the island as a kind of treasure hunt object for Sir Galahad, who will not be born for some time, Merlin sticks Balin’s sword in a marble stone. Galahad will have the sword someday, when it is washed down to Camelot.
I wonder if Merlin can see the people around him at all, or if they are ghosts compared to the future that only exists inside his own head.
He goes to Arthur and tells him how Balin struck Pellam and later died alongside Balan. Arthur is saddened by the loss of two such knights, and with his sorrow Book II is ended.
This chapter opens with Arthur, accustomed by now to taking all his problems to Merlin, complaining that his barons are being terribly pushy about Arthur getting himself a wife. Arthur wants Merlin’s two cents on the subject. Given that Arthur was conceived by Merlin disguising Arthur’s father as somebody ELSE’S husband, I personally set my expectations very low when it comes to relationship advice, but Merlin is surprisingly not terrible for once – he agrees that Arthur, in his position, should marry soon and asks if he has his eye on a particular lady. Arthur does. He’s fallen for Guenever, daughter of Leodegrance. I will NOT be using that spelling. Arthur feels it is necessary to mention that Leodegrance possesses a grand round table that he was given by King Uther. Is it possible he already has his eye on a wedding gift?
He does seem to genuinely like Guinevere, though. He describes her as ‘the most valiant and fairest lady that I know living, or yet that ever I could find’. I find his choice of praise fascinating. Guinevere is not just beautiful, she is valiant.
Merlin acknowledges that Guinevere would make a very decorative queen. He wishes aloud that he could persuade Arthur to take another bride and warns him that Guinevere is not ‘wholesome’ – in fact what he does is lay out the future with incredible devastating honesty, giving the whole story about how Lancelot will love Guinevere and she’ll love him and there will be a quest for the Sangreal/ Grail. None of this puts off Arthur, it would seem, as he sends men to Leodegrance to inquire after Guinevere. Merlin takes a part in the proposal and does not even try to sabotage it.
Leodegrance is thrilled. He doesn’t even have to give Arthur any lands as a wedding gift because Arthur has so much land already! Instead, he gives the Table Round, which can seat a hundred and fifty knights, and he sends a hundred knights with it. So both bride and gift are placed in Merlin’s care, and are brought safely to London, where Arthur is holding court.
Now it’s Arthur’s turn to be thrilled – he gets the girl and his dream furniture in a two for one deal! He hurries to arrange the wedding and a coronation for Guinevere. While he’s managing that, he sends Merlin to track down fifty more knights, like he’s trying to get a full set of flatware for his ridiculous giant table. Merlin can only get hold of twenty eight. He does his usual trick of producing gold writing, with each knight’s seat at the table emblazoned with their name, and names are waiting on the empty seats as well.
Gawaine, son of Morgause, approaches Arthur and asks for a favour. I will not be spelling his name like that either, sorry Malory. Arthur agrees without knowing what this favour might be and is fortunate that Gawain has good motives. “Sir, I ask that ye will make me knight that same day ye will wed fair Guenever,” Gawain says and Arthur, who is doing his best to bond with his biological family, is more than happy to agree.
A poor man comes into Arthur’s court, bringing with him a boy of eighteen. He has heard that Arthur is celebrating his wedding by giving people their desires (within reason) and he wants his son to be made a knight. Arthur is a little more cautious than he was with Gawain. He talks to the man, trying to learn a bit more about him. The man is Aries and he’s a cowherd with thirteen sons. All his other children are useful at home but this one is always shooting darts and running off to watch battles and so Aries, from the sound of things, just wants him out of the house.
The boy’s name is Tor. He’s a good-looking boy, but nothing like his father and brothers. Arthur sizes him up, and knights him. Then he asks Merlin what kind of knight Sir Tor will be. Merlin, with all the tact of a BULLDOZER, replies that Tor ought to be good because his real father is King Pellinore. Aries is of course indignant. His wife is sent for to explain the situation, and she reveals that before her marriage, when she was a young girl, she met with a knight while out doing the milking. ‘Half by force he had my maidenhead’ – which is to say he raped her. He even stole her dog, claiming to keep it as a token of love.
Aries quietly acknowledges that Tor is nothing like him. Tor sharply tells Merlin to stop humiliating his mother, and Merlin responds by telling him that this is good news, that Tor’s father is a good man and a king. Well, no, Merlin. Nobody but you would perceive this as good news.
In the morning Pellinore arrives at court and meets Tor. He’s very pleased with him. It’s unclear how Tor feels about him. Tor’s mother is, hopefully, far away from court by this point.
Tor and Gawain, the new knights, can take their places at the Round Table but there is one seat, the Siege Perilous, that nobody but the greatest of knights may take. Symbolic of his respect, Arthur seats Pellinore as close to the Siege Perilous as he can. Honour is a joke in this place.
Arthur seems to have forgotten that Pellinore killed his brother-in-law Lot – but Lot’s sons Gawain and Gaheris have not forgotten, and they are deeply resentful. Gawain is determined to kill Pellinore. Gaheris tells him to wait until he too is made a knight, so they can avenge their father together. Gawain agrees to delay the revenge – but they will have it in the end.
Arthur at last marries Guinevere, in the church of Saint Stephen’s, a momentous event followed by celebration. As the knights seat themselves at the Round Table, Merlin warns them to keep very still and watch for a strange sight. Sure enough, a white hart and a white dog run through the hall and behind them, a pack of black hounds giving chase. The white dog catches the hart and bites the poor beast, following which the hart leaps over the table, knocking down an unlucky knight. The knight rises, takes the white dog and leaves. Immediately afterward a lady rides in on a white palfrey claiming that the knight has stolen her dog, and while Arthur’s being useless about it, another knight rides in and STRAIGHT UP ABDUCTS HER. In front of the assembled knights, who do nothing. I’ll quote the next bit, which makes me want to scream: ‘When she was gone the king was glad, for she made such a noise’. HONOUR. CHIVALRY. WHAT DO THESE WORDS MEAN, ARTHUR?
Merlin, of all people, is the one to step in and remind the court that this wasn’t an entertaining sideshow, that maybe somebody ought to do something. Arthur leaves it all in Merlin’s hands, so Gawain is sent after the white hart, Tor after the knight with the dog, and Pellinore after the abducted lady. This seems incredibly badly planned as Pellinore once sexually assaulted a maid and stole her dog, making this situation a rather eerie echo.
But Merlin has spoken and so the knights depart on their various ventures.
We begin with Gawain. He is accompanied by Gaheris, the brother whom he appears to be closest to at this point in time. As they ride in pursuit of the white hart, they see two knights passionately duking it out and go over to ask what the cause of this battle might be. The strange knights are brothers, and when they saw the white hart passing on its way to Arthur’s court the elder brother intended to follow, smelling a quest and potential glory in the air; but the younger brother declared himself the better knight and intended to take the quest himself, so the pair of them started fighting and went on no quest at all. Gawain advises they go to Arthur with their issues, and if they won’t go willingly, he’ll make them go by force. They don’t want to fight Gawain, so Sorlouse of the Forest and Brian of the Forest make their way to Arthur’s court and Gawain returns to questing.
You know what, if more knights rode around the country threatening angry men into going to family counselling, it might solve a few of this kingdom’s problems. I feel it’s worth trying.
Gawain is not so much following the hart as the sound of the hounds in the distance. When he does come in sight of the hart, it’s swimming across a river, and when Gawain goes to follow, a knight blocks his way and demands to joust. Gawain beats him by the lance; the knight, who is called Allardin of the Isles, demands that they draw swords. Gawain’s blow is so hard that it goes straight through Allardin’s helm and kills him. Gaheris admires his brother’s strength.
Gawain and Gaheris are now close on the hart’s heels. They set their own hounds on it and chase it into a castle, where they kill the poor animal. A knight inside the castle kills two of Gawain’s dogs and chases out the rest. The knight is distressed at the hart’s death, as it was a gift from his lady. Gawain is distressed at the death of his dogs. “Lever I had ye had wroken your anger upon me than upon a dumb beast,” he says. The knight decides he can do both. The two men go at each other until Gawain gets the upper hand and the knight begs for mercy. Gawain is still enraged at the death of his dogs and is not inclined to be merciful. As he lifts his sword to strike, a lady appears unexpectedly and Gawain accidentally kills her.
Gaheris is appalled, both at the death of the lady and Gawain’s refusal to show mercy. The knight, named Ablamar of the Marsh, now actively wants to die since his lady is gone, but Gawain sends him to Arthur instead.
Gawain, in his exhaustion, prepares to rest for the night inside the castle. “What will ye do,” Gaheris demands, the voice of reason, “will ye unarm you in this country? Ye may think ye have many enemies here.” He’s barely finished speaking before four knights attack. They know all about the duel and Gawain’s refusal to show mercy, and think he is no knight because of it. Gawain is wounded in the arm, leaving the brothers in a dangerous situation.
Four ladies enter the scene, commanding mercy for Gawain and Gaheris – prisoners instead of corpses. Gawain is thrown into a deep despair, forseeing a dark vision of the future. The lady who comes to speak to him is not at all sympathetic, pointing out he brought his problems on himself, but on finding out who he is, releases him for love of Arthur. He is even given the hart’s head, to complete his quest, which is very gracious under the circumstances.
But it comes with a caveat. Gawain is obliged to carry the head of the dead woman around his neck as he rides back to Camelot, a gruesome parody of a trophy. Arthur and Guinevere do not like his story at all. Gawain thereafter swears to fight in service of all ladies, to take on their battles, and to never again refuse mercy to those who ask for it.
I wish I could say it is the last time that an Orkney brother will kill a woman by mistake, and spend the rest of his life regretting it, but it is not. I wish I could say that Gawain will remember his promise to show mercy in the future – but I can’t. Guinevere has no idea yet what she’s getting into with this family.