Trigger warning: reference to suicide, references to attempted sexual coercion
Last month, Gawain experienced the intense trauma of completing his first quest. We now switch focus to Sir Tor and his first quest, which is all part of the same triple quest that completely hijacked Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding.
As Tor is riding after the knight who took the dog, he is accosted by a dwarf who strikes his horse hard on the head with a staff. This unnecessary aggression is purely to alert Tor to the pair of knights set up nearby who require passing warriors to joust with them. Tor doesn’t have time for this nonsense and for that I salute him, but the knights attack him anyway. Tor is obliged to fight both of them, and wins both encounters. Sir Felot of Langduk and Sir Petipase of Winchelsea are sent as prisoners to Arthur and the dwarf who was in their service switches sides, expressing disapproval of his former employers and requesting to join Tor instead. Tor accepts. This turns out to be a good move because the dwarf knows where to find the knight with the dog.
They ride through a forest and come to a priory. Set up outside are two pavilions, one hung with a white shield and the other hung with a red shield.
Three girls are asleep inside the white pavilion. A lady is asleep in the red pavilion, with the white dog standing guard. It rouses all the women, who emerge from their pavilions. Tor scoops the dog and goes to leave. The lady wants to know what Tor is doing with her dog and warns that Tor will come to no good if he takes her. But Tor was sent for the dog, and so he takes the dog.
On the way back to Camelot Tor and his companion stop for the night at a hermitage. The morning after, a knight catches up, representing the lady and demanding the return of the dog. The two knights obviously then fight, because this is what knights do. It is a violent fight and when Tor gets the better of his opponent, he urges him to yield. Sir Abelleus, which is apparently his name, flatly refuses to any arrangement that loses him the dog.
At this point a girl rides up demanding Aballeus’s head, claiming the man to be a murderer and the ‘most outrageous knight that liveth’. Tor is uncomfortable with beheading a random man – it’s one thing to fight to the death! Another thing to kill him in cold blood! That’s morality, baby – but the girl barrels on furiously. Aballeus, she insists, killed her brother in front of her despite her pleading for his life, and she will not be satisfied until Aballeus is dead.
Aballeus picks this moment to yield.
Tor decides it’s too late and hacks off the man’s head. The girl and her husband host Tor for the night and promise their friendship should he come back this way. Tor returns to Arthur’s court with the dog and with a story that covers him in glory – which seems to me a little bit disgusting, given how Gawain’s beheading incident went? Arthur bestows an earldom upon Tor and Merlin announces that this is merely a beginning and he has a great career ahead of him.
Last week Tor successfully completed his quest to retrieve the white dog, which involved robbing a camp of sleeping women and beheading a knight who had yielded to him. This is apparently all fine. We now move on to Pellinore, who was sent after a kidnapped woman.
Pellinore passes through a forest and encounters a woman by a well, holding an injured knight. She calls Pellinore by name, pleading for help, but he is fixated on the quest and will not stop to help her. She prays that he will end up as badly in need as herself, and that’s pretty damn bad, because her knight dies in her arms and she is so overcome by grief that she kills herself with his sword.
Pellinore rides into a valley and is told that a miserable lady was led this way. In fact, there are pavilions set up in the valley with two men fighting over which of them has a better right to this poor woman. To be exact, ‘the one said he would have her by force, the other said he would have the rule of her, by cause he was her kinsman, and would lead her to her kin’ and the lady just has to sit with the squires until somebody wins her bodily autonomy. Don’t you just want to go feral?
Well, the pavilions are easy enough to find. Pellinore passes the fighters and goes straight to the lady, telling her to come with him to King Arthur. The squires tell him to direct his request to the two knights, which again, makes me feel like unleashing a banshee shriek, so I can only imagine how this lady is feeling! Pellinore does go to talk to the knights. One explains that the lady is his aunt’s daughter and he heard her protests against his opponent, so he’s trying to help her. The other man is Hontzlake of Wentland and when he pretends to have claimed the lady by feat of arms at Arthur’s court, Pellinore shuts him right down, having witnessed the whole thing himself. He tells the two knights to stop fighting each other and fight him instead if they want to take the lady anywhere. Hontzlake accepts that challenge and kills Pellinore’s horse so he’s forced to fight on foot like Hontzlake himself. It’s a low blow and Pellinore responds by killing him on the spot.
The other knight hastily yields, but wants reassurance as to Pellinore’s motivations. As well he might, given Pellinore’s history with women. Pellinore promises to behave respectfully to the lady and her cousin hosts them cheerfully at his home nearby.
Now we get to the interesting bit. The knight’s name is Meliot of Logurs and the lady is named Nimue. Yes, that Nimue.
Pellinore and Nimue set off for Camelot but as they pass through a stony valley, Nimue is thrown from her horse and injures her arm, forcing them to stop for the night as she recovers. During the night they hear a horse approaching
As Pellinore stands listening in the dark, he overhears two knights talking about Arthur’s court. One speaks of the strength of the fellowship there, and the other has a plan to deal with that: a powerful poison and an agent in Arthur’s court who will make sure it reaches its intended target. The first knight is not confident about this plan. Merlin ‘knoweth all things by the devil’s craft’ after all.
Pellinore does PRECISELY NOTHING ABOUT ANY OF THIS.
In the morning, Pellinore and Nimue continue onward to Camelot. They pass the corpses of the unfortunate lovers Pellinore did not stop to help, now ravaged by the beasts of the wilderness, and Pellinore is struck by regret. Nimue advises him to have the lovers buried at a hermitage nearby, but has Pellinore bear the lady’s head to Arthur’s court. She must be very convincing because Pellinore does it
Guinevere is very disappointed in Pellinore for failing to help the dead woman, but she’s got nothing on Merlin, who reveals that the woman was in fact Pellinore’s own daughter Eleine and the knight was Miles of the Launds, the man she meant to marry. He was killed by Loraine le Savage. Because of Eleine’s vengeful prayer, Pellinore will be failed by his dearest friend when he needs help most.
The threefold quest now completed, Arthur grants all his knights lands and lays down his rules: ‘never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh for mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels and gentlewomen succor, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, nor for no world’s goods’.
Sounds great. Let’s see if any of these guys will live up to it.
Book 4, Ch I
Nimue is described as ‘one of the damosels of the lake’. Merlin quickly becomes obsessed with her, pursuing her wherever she goes – attentions which Nimue tolerates so that he will teach her his secrets. Remember how Merlin was super judgemental about Guinevere? Well, turns out when he fancies a girl all his wisdom gets thrown DIRECTLY out the nearest window, because he knows that teaching Nimue is a bad idea for him personally, to the point where he starts preparing for his early demise. He warns Arthur to keep his sword and scabbard close at all times as both will be stolen by a woman he trusts. Arthur, bewildered, suggests that he should ‘put away by your crafts that misadventure’, but Merlin simply says that cannot be done and goes back to Nimue.
When Nimue leaves court, Merlin goes wherever she does. She makes him swear never to place her under enchantment – which was absolutely something he was thinking about doing – and they travel together to King Ban’s kingdom of Benwick, where the war against King Claudas (remember him?) is ongoing. Ban’s wife Elaine is deeply worried for her husband and her lands, and for her young son Lancelot. “Take none heaviness,” Merlin tells her, “for this same child within this twenty year shall revenge you on King Claudas, that all Christendom shall speak of it; and this same child shall be the most man of worship of the world, and his first name is Galahad, that know I well, and syne ye have confirmed him Launcelot.”
“O Merlin,” Elaine asks, probably not reassured to know it will take twenty years for Claudas to be defeated, “shall I live to see my son such a man of prowess?” Merlin says she will.
Merlin takes Nimue on the scenic, mystical route to Cornwall, pestering her the whole way to get her into bed. Nimue is thoroughly sick of him but afraid too, knowing him to be the son of a devil. Among the wonders Merlin shows Nimue is an enchanted stone and she charms him into going beneath it, to better show her its power. Then she uses her own magic to make sure he never comes out again.
Arthur does not notice.
He holds a feast at Camelot, then goes on to Cardoile, where he receives word that the kings of Denmark and Ireland, who are brothers, and the kings of the Vale, Soleise and the Isle of Longtains have all banded together to march on Arthur’s lands.
Arthur is exhausted by the constant war that has been his life since he came to the throne. As well he might be – he’s already fought a host of angry kings, and now here’s five more! He writes to Pellinore and his barons, and takes off without waiting on any of them. Unexpectedly, Arthur decides to bring Guinevere with him, as he will miss her too much if she remains behind and her presence will give him strength. They set off with what knights they can muster at such short notice, but word of their route quickly reaches their enemies, who plan to attack with all possible speed before Arthur’s numbers grow.
And now there is no Merlin to come to the rescue.
The enemy strikes Arthur’s camp in the night. It’s a desperate scramble for weapons and Arthur is told to take Guinevere and get out while he can. Gawain, Griflet and Kay ride with them. They must cross the river Humber, but the water is dangerously rough. “It were me lever to die in the water,” Guinevere says, “than to fall in your enemies’ hands and there be slain.” There’s the valiant woman Arthur fell for – she can handle a battlefield.
Before a decision can be reached, the five kings are upon them. Gawain speaks for caution, given they are outnumbered, but Kay announces he’ll take on two to make up the difference and promptly kills one of the kings, so the other men join the fight. It’s a swift one – the kings fall like dominoes. Guinevere, who is full of warm and affectionate praise for Kay’s courage, is placed safely in a boat to cross the river.
With the five kings struck down, winning the war becomes almost ridiculously easy even with Arthur’s reduced forces. Arthur thanks God then sends for his queen to return and celebrate their victory.
Pellinore arrives late to the party with an embarrassingly large and unnecessary army. Arthur establishes an abbey on the site of the battle, the Abbey of La Beale Adventure, and returns to Camelot. His first priority is to replace the eight knights who died during the fighting, and he asks Pellinore’s advice. Pellinore tells him to pick half young men, and half older ones. He suggests Morgan le Fay’s husband Uriens, who once fought against Arthur himself, the King of the Lake, Sir Hervise de Revel and Sir Galagars as the four older knights, with Gawain, Griflet and Kay for the younger members. Arthur agrees.
The fourth young knight is a toss up between Pellinore’s son Tor and a knight called Sir Bagdemagus. Pellinore starts off by trying to be neutral and completely fails at that. Arthur doesn’t might a bit of nepotism, the court runs on that, and besides Tor has developed a good reputation for himself. So Tor is chosen as the last candidate and the new knights of the Round Table are announced.
Bagdemagus does not take the disappointment well. He departs with his squire, riding into a forest. When they see a cross, they stop to pray, and the squire finds writing on the cross declaring that Bagdemagus will not return to court until he wins a knight’s body of the Round Table. Which doesn’t sound promising, does it! The squire is anxious and thinks they should return to court but Bagdemagus presses on, on the way finding a herb that is evidence of the Grail – which is sort of irrelevant in the moment except as testament to Bagdemagus’ character and his punchy narrative impact, because he goes on to find Merlin too. He tries to rescue him, but the rock cannot be lifted. Only Nimue can let him out.
Bagdemagus has many adventures, and we are told that he does eventually return and join the Round Table. If bodies are involved, well, that’s a story for another day.