Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 4, Ch VI- XXV

I LIVE! The last couple of months have been an absolute whirlwind for me but I’m back, bringing you important Arthurian gossip in these difficult times. This is going to be a mammoth one, bringing together two months worth of Patreon posts. If you would like to hear from me a bit more regularly, you can sign up to my Patreon to get weekly posts!

Trigger warning: references to sexual harassment

Ch VI

A large company of knights ride out into the forest for a hunt and Arthur, Uriens and Accolon of Gaul give chase to an impressive hart. They ride so far and fast that they leave their friends behind, and so incautiously that their poor horses are killed by the relentless pace. They chase the hart on foot to the bank of a ‘great water’, where the hart is killed by hunting hounds and Arthur is distracted by the arrival of a beautiful little ship. He goes to investigate, his companions close behind.

At first glance the ship appeared abandoned but as night falls, torches around the ship burst into flame and twelve young women emerge, kneeling to Arthur and welcoming him as an expected and honoured guest. He does not think to question this. Instead, he eats their lavish feast, and sleeps in a very comfortable bed, and he wakes up in a prison full of similarly unfortunate knights.

Uriens, meanwhile, wakes in his own bed with his wife Morgan’s arms around him. As for Accolon, well, we’ll get to him soon.

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Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 3, Ch IX-Vol 1, Book 4, Ch V

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.

Ch IX

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.

Ch X

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.

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Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 2, Ch XVIII-Book 3, Ch VIII

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?

Ch XVIII

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.

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Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 2, Ch X-XVII

Trigger warning: reference to suicide

Last month King Rience surrendered his dream of cutting of Arthur’s non-existant beard, but his brother Nero – yes, I did say Nero– grabbed that baton and marched on Camelot.

Ch X

The battle takes place in front of the Castle Terrabil, which is historically relevant as the place where Igraine’s first husband died. While Arthur is making ready, Merlin goes to King Lot and delays his entry to the battle with ‘a tale of prophecy’, which is a classic Merlin move. Between Arthur, Kay and Sir Hervis de Revel, the forces of Camelot gain an edge, but it’s Balin and Balan who really win the day. Lot hears, too late, that Nero has been killed and deeply regrets hearing Merlin out. What he doesn’t understand is that Merlin, in acting to protect Arthur, was also acting to protect Lot – while Arthur is definitely his favourite, it doesn’t suit him for either king to die right now.

Lot has a choice to make, to press on or make peace. He chooses battle. Lot is a great leader, commanding his men from the front of the action, but he encounters Pellinore on the battlefield and falls under a terrible blow. A strange thing, that Morgause should lost her husband in the same place she lost her father. After Lot’s death, his forces scatter. Twelve kings die in this battle, on the side of Lot and Nero.

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Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 2, Ch I-IX

Trigger warning: references to child death and suicide

Ch I

Book 2 begins with a quick recap about how Uther died and Arthur had to wade through a lot of blood to get to the throne. I will add a recap of my own about how some of that blood on Arthur’s hands belonged to the small children of his lords and ladies, in a COMPLETELY pointless effort to murder his infant son Mordred and thereby avert Merlin’s visions of doom.

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Year of the King – Vol 1, Book 1, Ch XVIII – lXXVII

Trigger warning: references to rape, incest and child death

Ch XVIII

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.”

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Year of the King: Vol 1, Book 1, Chapters I-XVII

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.

Ch I:

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.

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Of Quests and Kings

Twelve months ago, I thought 2020 was getting its worst out of the way in January, because my country was on fire. This did not feel like optimism at the time. It’s been a long game of Apocalypse Bingo, everyone, how are you all doing? I truly hope that December has been kinder to you and that 2021 brings much less awful surprises for all of us.

In 2020 I committed to researching and writing twelve posts about different Arthurian legends and planned out work on a range of fiction projects. As it turns out, I picked the wrong year both for time-sensitive creative endeavours AND for getting sick every few weeks. I have to admit, this is making me a little anxious about making plans for 2021!

There were times it was very hard to keep up with Year of the Quest, but it was also one of the things that held the year together for me and made sense of months when linear time seemed to stop existing. It kept me writing, racking up just over 39 000 words, and allowed me to explore some of the more obscure stories of Arthurian legend, as well as rediscover the more famous ones. To recap the full list:

As I have said before, I am not an academic – I’m a storyteller, and one of the things that interested me was figuring out how these stories could fit together. They come from wildly disparate times, authors, countries and cultural contexts, which makes it all the more surprising and delightful to find continuity and consistent, if complex, characters. Gawain is a good example. The noble, self-sacrificing knight from The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle is very clearly the same man from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the same is true of the Gawain from Lancelot, who is widely trusted, admired and beloved. He is courtly and protective of women, quick to defend his uncle and friends, but capable of blunt speech where necessary. He is a more playful, flirtatious figure from Yvain and Perceval, but shows the same loyalty and sense of chivalry. Gawain has a temper and is capable of hot-headed decisions that he will later very much regret, but this is also the man who fought on behalf of a hurt, angry child to give her justice, the man who married for no other reason than to save his uncle’s life and then gave his cursed stranger of a wife control over her own life for the first time in a long time. He is a wonderful character.

Guinevere’s personality and motivations vary much more widely across these stories, which is hardly surprising. The goal posts for heroism in mythic women are changeable indeed. Still, setting aside the interpretation of Guinevere in Sir Launfal, where she was clearly positioned as the villain, there are certain traits that crop up in different versions. The queen is the standard of beauty for Arthur’s court, and it seems agreed that hers is a high standard, because whenever a story feels the need to emphasise for us how pretty a girl is, we’re told she outshines Guinevere. The queen herself, though, rarely seems to feel the need to compete with other women. In Geraint son of Erbin, she affectionately welcomes Enid to court and treats her like a little sister. When Gawain marries Ragnelle, Guinevere’s first concern is for her nephew, for whom she generally seems to have an uncomplicated familial love. Once his happiness is assured she is quick to publicly offer Ragnelle her praise and promises her lifelong friendship.

Guinevere is good friends with Gawain and Geraint/ Erec, but her relationships with other men tend to be pricklier. In Lancelot, she is loving towards Lancelot but also exacting and quite unforgiving, and little more than dutiful towards Arthur. There is a more united front with the king in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle, but Guinevere is very much a background character in both. I wonder what she would have said women desire most? In King Arthur and King Cornwall, she mocks Arthur and cheats on him with another king. She is bitingly sarcastic towards Kay in Yvain, refusing to tolerate his bullying behaviour, and Geraint son of Erbin, The Boy and the Mantle and Perceval all show her fury when she is insulted.

Guinevere’s infidelity is one continuity; her big heart and hot temper are another. She is an amazing, complicated woman.

And what about Arthur himself? He’s set up a powerful warrior king in How Culhwch Won Olwen, but not a particularly honourable one. He is an affectionate, somewhat homoerotic friend to the protagonist of The Lay of the Were-Wolf and is shown to miss the company of his knights in Perceval, but he’s prone to falling into danger and being dug out of trouble by other people (by Gawain, usually, sometimes Lancelot). He allows Guinevere to be carried off in Lancelot and does not seem to take the insult to her seriously in Geraint son of Erbin. Wine is thrown over her in Perceval and he appears to have done…nothing about it. In The Boy and the Mantle, nearly all the women of the court are humiliated by the boy and his magical, infidelity-detector cloak (which, notably, none of the men are asked to wear!) and Arthur is just fine with this. In most of these stories he is very much the king of a chess game, the most vital piece on the board in that the stories would have no focal point without him, but incredibly limited in his capacity for action.

There is a very well-known version of Arthurian legend I did not explore this year. Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was what renewed my interest in Arthurian legend when I read it several years ago, but it is very long and would take a long time to work through.

So that’s what I’m doing next year! For Year of the King, I will be posting weekly instalments for Patreon subscribers and monthly roundups for my main blog. Patreon subscribers will be getting extra content as I continue the Dreamline book club and record readings of Andrew Lang fairy tales. I have always sort of put Andrew Lang in the mental box of ‘Not Ruth Manning-Sanders’, as they wrote retellings of quite a few of the same stories, but that’s not a particularly fair way to look at it so in 2021 I’ll be giving more of his work a go.

Best wishes for a safer, healthier, happier 2021 for all of us.