Le Morte d’Arthur

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Le Morte d’Arthur Book 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 1 The narrator begins during the reign of king Uther Pendragon in England. Uther sends for the Duke of Cornwall, who has been warring against Uther, and also for the Duke’s wife Igraine. Uther falls in love with Igraine and propositions her, but she refuses him and tells the Duke what Uther has done. They soon depart. Uther then sends for the Duke again. When he doesn’t return, Uther is incredibly angry, and decides to use this an excuse to make war.
From the start, women are treated as prizes and pieces of property, just another element that can lead to tension and war among the men in these stories. Kings are used to getting their way, even when another’s will is involved—but women like Igraine still do all they can to actively resist and maintain some agency of her own.
Themes
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
Once he’s received Uther’s beckon, the Duke of Cornwall furnishes two of his castles, Terrabil and Tintagil. The Duke hides in Terrabil and hides his wife Igraine in Tintagil. Uther and his men besiege Terrabil for many days, and Uther falls sick from anger and lust. A knight named Sir Ulfius offers to seek out the wizard Merlin to help him. Ulfius comes across Merlin, who is disguised as a beggar. Merlin reveals himself, and says that if Uther promises to fulfill Merlin’s desire, he will do the same for Uther.
For the Duke, Uther’s attempt to steal away his wife is an affront to his honor, and can only be met with battle. The appearance of Merlin here (in disguise, as he usually is) is significant, since this is the first of many instances in which he’ll take the side of Uther and his descendants and followers—though usually in a circumstance like this, when one favor begets another.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
Chapter 2 Ulfius returns, with Merlin not far behind him. Merlin asks Uther to swear to fulfill Merlin’s desire, and he does so. Then Merlin says that Igraine will conceive a child the first night Uther sleeps with her, and he wants that child to be delivered to him to raise. Uther agrees. Merlin then tells Uther that he’ll sleep with Igraine that night, as Merlin will make Uther look like the Duke of Cornwall, and will make himself look like the Duke’s knight Sir Jordanus.
Here we learn more about Merlin’s powers, which seem to include foreseeing the future in addition to casting spells and enchantments to twist someone’s will. The price Merlin asks is a high one—Uther must hand over his first-born son—but the power of Igraine over Uther is such that he can only agree.
Themes
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
Merlin knows that Igraine is at Tintagil, so he and Uther travel there. The Duke of Cornwall spies Uther leaving Terrabil, however, so he leaves the castle himself, and is killed. After his death, Uther, disguised as the Duke, sleeps with Igraine. She conceives Arthur (Uther’s son) that night. Only the next day does she learn that the Duke is dead. Igraine mourns, confused about who she slept with the night before. Ulfius approaches Igraine and convinces her that it will suit everyone for Igraine to wed him. She and her advisors accept, and the marriage takes place, along with the weddings of a number of other couples who will go on to give birth to important knights.
This is one of the places where the strangeness of this historical culture is most evident, as Malory merely reports facts instead of exploring characters’ interior emotions and struggles (a convention that is much more modern than this work). At stake is less Igraine’s feelings about her husband’s death than the problem that could arise from her being left without a husband and potential heir—marriage decisions are thus left to a council to decide.
Themes
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
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Chapter 3 As Igraine’s due date approaches, she confesses to Uther that she had slept with an unknown man, thinking it was her husband. Uther reveals that it was him, and Igraine is relieved.
Having a child out of wedlock is such a scandal that Igraine is relieved more than she is upset that Uther had tricked her (in what seems to us to be a despicable way, but is considered valid because he’s a king).
Themes
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
Merlin comes to Uther to remind him of his promise. Merlin says that he knows a good man named Sir Ector, who will be given the son to raise. Ector, on Merlin’s advice, comes to court and Uther gives him gifts. When the child is born, they give it to Merlin, who brings the baby to Ector and names him Arthur.
Merlin’s plan moves into action, as Uther—as an honorable man (when it comes to promises, at least)—agrees to follow up with his end of the bargain, even though Merlin’s desires and motivations remain unclear.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Chapter 4 After two years King Uther falls ill, and his enemies take advantage of this to wage war. Merlin advises Uther to come to the battlefield even if on a stretcher. Uther does so, carried in on a horse-litter, and his men vanquish their enemies. The king returns to London to celebrate victory, but then falls ill again. Merlin says there is no other remedy for him—it will be God’s will. Though Uther has been unable to speak, Merlin asks him if his son Arthur should be the new king of the realm. Uther says, with all around him hearing it, that he wishes that this be so.
The decline in health of a king can often be an occasion for instability and tension in the kingdom—especially, in cases like this, when there is no apparent heir (as many of the kings fighting Uther do not know about Arthur, and therefore believe that the path to the throne is suddenly open). Uther’s declaration makes Arthur’s position as heir official, even though Arthur himself is currently absent.
Themes
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Chapter 5 Despite the king’s last words, many want to be king after Uther’s death. Merlin tells the Archbishop of Canterbury to gather all the lords of the kingdom to London by Christmas, so that Jesus might show by a miracle who should be king. After the lords arrive and attend church, they see in the churchyard a massive stone with a sword stuck into it: letters in gold around the stone say that whoever pulls the sword from the stone is the rightful king.
Clearly, even a declaration assigning an heir cannot fully negate the instability that comes from the death of a kingdom’s leader. Here we also see the importance of the Church, which is directly present in the characters’ lives, which for them are full of signs that have to be read and miracles to be sought out. In the world Malory portrays, Christianity mingles with seemingly pagan magic (like Merlin’s) and on the whole is a very martial religion that seems to have no problem with the constant wars and bloodshed going on.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Some of the lords try, but none can move the sword. The Archbishop says that the man who can is not there. On New Year’s Day the barons and knights gather for a grand tournament. Sir Ector arrives at this festive jousting with Sir Kay, his son, and Arthur. As they’re riding to the jousting area, Kay realizes that he’s left his sword at his father’s lodging. He asks Arthur to go back and get it. Arthur sees the sword in the churchyard stone and thinks he’ll get that instead to give to his brother. No knights are guarding it, since everyone is at the tournament, and Arthur easily pulls the sword out. He brings it to Kay, who immediately recognizes it. Kay declares to his father that he (Kay) should be king of the land.
Tournaments and joustings come up again and again throughout Le Morte d’Arthur, giving characters a chance to practice and prove themselves in faux battles, and giving kings a chance to make a cause for celebration. That Arthur pulls out the sword alone, without great fanfare, when so many others have failed, suggests that pride and glory are best achieved through modesty rather than public vanity—something that Kay, unfortunately, displays in his own reaction.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Sir Ector brings Kay into the church, and makes him swear on the Bible how he got the sword. Kay tells him the truth, and when Ector asks Arthur how he came upon it, Arthur tells him what happened. Ector has Arthur put the sword back in the stone. Ector fails to pull it out, but Arthur does so easily.
Still, Kay is devout enough that he fears lying on the Bible. Sir Ector is cautious when he hears the story, preferring to have direct, eyewitness evidence that Arthur is who he has proved himself to be.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 6 Kay cannot pull the sword out either. Sir Ector then kneels before Arthur, saying that he is not Arthur’s father, and that Arthur is of a higher kinship. Ector then tells him the story of Merlin. Arthur is sorry to learn that Ector is not his true father, and swears to continue to be loyal to him. Ector asks only that Kay be made senecal (steward) of the kingdom, and Arthur agrees. They all go to the Archbishop to tell him what’s taken place, and in front of everyone Arthur again pulls the sword out of the stone.
In this first case of mistaken identity, Arthur is revealed to be not merely a ward of a knight but—as he has proved through his ability to pull the sword from the stone—someone whose lineage is much higher. Only now does Ector realize the identity of his adopted son, who had previously just been a boy Merlin asked him to raise.
Themes
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 7 At the Christian feast of Pentecost, many try to pull the sword out of the stone once again, but only Arthur succeeds. The commoners cry that they want Arthur as their king. At the London cathedral, Arthur is sworn in and crowned as king. Many come to complain about the lawless seizing of lands since Uther’s death. Arthur restores these lands to their proper owners. He appoints Sir Kay senecal (steward) of England and Sir Ulfius chamberlain. The narrator says that within a few years, Arthur will conquer the north of England, Scotland, and much of Wales, together with his knights of the Round Table.
Finally, Arthur’s legitimacy as future king of England is established among everyone, who treat this miracle as properly identifying who should rule them. Malory jumps ahead here and summarizes what the next (very many) chapters will be about—Arthur conquering other rulers and uniting a divided kingdom. Arthur is still very young, but he immediately must settle into his role as chief leader and war commander.
Themes
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Chapter 8 In Wales, shortly after his coronation, Arthur proclaims a great Pentecost feast in celebration. Many other kings attend, but it turns out that these kings are skeptical of a boy ruling the kingdom and want to take it from him. On his advisors’ advice, Arthur brings 500 men to a stronghold, where they defend themselves against many of these kings. After two weeks, Merlin speaks to the kings, telling them about Arthur’s holy birth and lineage from Uther and Igraine, and predicting that Arthur will long be king over England and many other realms. Some laugh scornfully at this prediction, but eventually they accept Merlin’s reasoning. Merlin goes to Arthur to tell him to emerge and speak with the kings, for it is now safe to do so.
Still, Arthur’s identity and legitimacy as proper king is not yet entirely established among the kings outside his own realm, for whom the miracle of the sword in the stone doesn’t seem to mean much (it’s also suggested that the realm had never been truly united even under Uther). Prowess and glory in war seems to mean more to these kings than a religious and miraculous symbol. Merlin’s conversations with them appease many of them, negating the immediate threat to Arthur’s kingdom, but it isn’t certain that this menace has entirely been stamped out.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 9 King Arthur, with the Archbishop, Sir Kay, and other knights, meet the other kings, but when Arthur says that he will subdue them by force, they grow angry again and re-arm themselves. Arthur retreats back to the tower, and Merlin admonishes the kings that they were wrong to be angry, since they will never prevail even though there are many of them. Then Merlin vanishes and returns to Arthur, telling him to make an offense, but not to draw his miraculous sword until the very end. There are many great deeds in this battle, but finally King Lot (one of Arthur’s enemies) breaks through the line and approaches Arthur, killing his horse beneath him. Arthur then draws his sword, “Excalibur,” which gives off great light to his enemies. Arthur kills many people and is able to pursue the kings until they flee.
It doesn’t take long after Merlin’s attempt to dissuade the kings from fighting that they forget his advice, and grow angry at Arthur’s presumptuousness in claiming he’ll defeat them in battle. Again, Merlin seems both able to foretell the future and, to a certain extent, to modify it, telling Arthur exactly what he needs to know in order to establish his proper authority. Excalibur, the sword in the stone, possesses almost magical powers, and will remain one of the signs of Arthur’s legitimacy and ability as a fighter throughout his reign.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 10 When King Arthur returns to London, he gathers his barons and asks Merlin to come advise them. Merlin warns them that the rival kings are recouping and preparing to fight again. He says that two great brother kings across the sea, King Ban of Benwick and King Bors of Gaul (France), are fighting a third, King Claudas. Merlin suggests that the court should propose to help them in their fight against Claudas, if the brothers will in turn help Arthur in his war. Ulfius and another knight Brastias are appointed messengers. They ride to the sea at Benwick, but they are attacked by knights who turn out to be in Claudas’s pay. They fight until Ulfius and Brastias kill these knights, along with two more pairs of knights they encounter along the way.
Here, Merlin’s magic seems to have to do less with telling the future and changing it than with a kind of limited omniscience, knowing much of what is taking place outside the kingdom at any one time. In this sense, he becomes a war strategist for Arthur in his suggestion that one honorable favor—fighting on an ally’s side—will be repaid by another. However, major diplomatic affairs take place at the same time as more minor examples of knightly jousting—but these two kinds of competition often intermingle, as personal vendettas lead to larger conflicts.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Ulfius and Brastias find both King Ban and King Bors in Benwick. The kings welcome them as they deliver Arthur’s letters, and say that they will agree to ally themselves to Arthur. The kings are cheered by the tale of Ulfius and Brastias slaying Claudas’s knights. The two knights return to Arthur to tell him the news. By the holiday of All Hallowmass the two kings arrive with 300 knights. They have a great feast.
Here a pact of solidarity and alliance is made on the occasion of a Christian feast. Such feast days and renewals of vows will often serve as a kind of signature between kings and their knights as they promise to defend each other, especially in an environment of tense and constantly shifting borders and allies.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Chapter 11 There are now 700 knights altogether. Arthur and the two kings put on a tournament for them. Griflet, a French knight, jousts with the English Ladinas, so hard that their shields shatter and people fear they’ve been killed. But they continue, and Sir Kay receives the prize for best knight. Then Arthur decides to send Merlin to King Ban and King Bors’s subjects across the sea to update them on how the kings are faring, and to prepare for war. Through his magic, Merlin brings 10,000 soldiers back to England and hides them in the forest of Bedegraine.
It may seem strange that knights who are allies joust even to the point of death, but this only underlines the importance of honor and competition in the culture—values that the kings believe will serve them well as they fight abroad. Merlin’s powers seem to shift again, now to spiriting thousands of knights from one place to another, again in the service of Arthur.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Chapter 12 The three kings go to Bedegraine. Meanwhile, eleven other kings meet and swear to destroy Arthur, each pledging thousands of men for a total of 50,000. They prepare and then divide, some going to Bedegraine and some to Arthur’s castle.
The narrator sets up the stakes for what will certainly be a significant war, as different sets of alliances prepare to battle against each other with their knights.
Themes
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Chapter 13 One enemy, the King with a Hundred Knights, dreams two nights before the battle that a great wind has blown down all the allies’ castles and towns, followed by a huge flood. All believe this is a sign of a great battle. Merlin warns Arthur’s alliance of the approaching enemies, and they prepare to fight.
Dreams are important in these stories, often foretelling major events, but almost always they are ambiguous and open to interpretation (here it’s not clear, for instance, who will win).
Themes
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Chapter 14 Arthur, King Ban, and King Bors lead the charge, but 10,000 men are killed on the first day. Merlin suggests that Ban and Bors lie in wait with their men the second day, so that the enemies might think there aren’t as many men and become emboldened. That is what happens: Sir Ulfius has his horse slain beneath him, but survives, and though Sir Kay shines in battle, the enemies manage to steal many of the knights’ horses. At that point Arthur enters, kills the Welsh king, and gives his horse to Ulfius. The battle continues to go back and forth.
Merlin now acts as a war strategist, and suggests and recommends rather than foretells (though it’s not entirely clear whether he knows exactly what will happen or not). Arthur seems to mostly watch and observe how his allies are doing, and he only intervenes if help seems needed. As is typical in Malory, though thousands of men might be fighting, he focuses on the exploits of a few chosen knights.
Themes
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Chapter 15 The battle continues to rage, though Arthur is pleased to have “re-horsed” (that is, regained a riding horse for) many of his knights. When Arthur realizes that the battle is at a standstill, he enters again into battle. Some of the enemies withdraw to rest, leaving six kings and their men. At that point King Ban and King Bors enter into battle, and King Lot, one enemy, marvels, realizing Merlin must have spirited them into the country.
Arthur continues to serve as a back-up support to his knights, given that as king he is probably considered too valuable to be constantly in the thick of the fighting. The importance of horses in this kind of fighting is often emphasized, as a knight without a horse is at a huge disadvantage.
Themes
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Chapter 16 King Lot knows that King Ban and King Bors are the most renowned brother knights in the world, and he weeps at the death he knows will ensue, but he and his allies continue fighting. The King of the Hundred Knights fights with Ban and Bors, finally killing Ban’s horse. Arthur rides into battle, though no one recognizes him since there is so much blood on his body and sword from those he killed. He conquers another horse for Ban. As they rest that night Ban and Bors tell Arthur that their enemies are highly skilled, and if they were only to pay allegiance to Arthur they would be excellent allies.
King Lot’s tears point at something more complex behind all these wars—most of these men (and even kings) aren’t necessarily true enemies, and they might easily be allies under different circumstances. However, certain rules of combat and honor decree that at this point, they are obligated to fight and kill each other. Knights riding into battle unknown—whether because they’re wearing different armor or shields, or disguised in some way so as to trick others—will be a common trope throughout Le Morte d’Arthur.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
The eleven kings meet that night, and King Lot suggests that they start to sacrifice any man that loses his horse, rather than wait for him, because that will only weaken them. They swear loyalty to each other.
The precarious status of the kings is made clear by the fact that the eleven kings agree to give up a key element of knightly honor—loyalty—in order to increase their chances at victory.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Chapter 17 Arthur, King Ban, and King Bors meet their knights the next morning and praise them for their chivalry. The battle begins again. Ban and Bors are at one point driven back over a small river. Then Merlin arrives on a black horse and asks if Arthur has not had enough: only 15,000 remain of the 60,000 original fighters. Merlin says it is time to stop, or else the eleven kings will see fortune turn their way. He tells Arthur to withdraw and reward his knights. Merlin says that the eleven kings will have something to distract them, since the Saracens have arrived to their lands and are laying siege to their castles. Merlin departs to see his master Bleise in Northumberland, who records the battle just as Merlin relates it, as Bleise does with all battles of Arthur’s court.
At this moment, when it seems that the two sides are reaching a stalemate, Merlin chooses not to give Arthur a way of conquering his enemies, but rather to declare an end to the fighting on both sides. It seems that he magically foresees that Arthur will lose if they continue, so he can only stop him rather than change his fate. This is the only mention of Bleise in the book, though he does appear elsewhere in legends of Merlin. Here he may simply serve as a reference to the many different versions of these stories in various lands.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Then Merlin disguises himself in sheepskins, boots, and a bow and arrow and goes to see Arthur. He asks Arthur to give him a gift, and Arthur asks why he should. Still disguised, Merlin says that Arthur should give him the gift or else lose great riches, since great treasure is hidden in the earth beneath their feet—Merlin told him so. Arthur is ashamed for being brusque with him.
Merlin’s disguise is meant to portray him as a humble shepherd, rather than the powerful sorcerer Arthur knows him to be. Merlin seems to delight in trickery and disguise for its own sake, and he often appears as someone he is not. Here he may be trying to teach Arthur a lesson about making hasty judgments.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
After the battle a lady named Lionors arrives to give Arthur homage, and he falls in love with her. She gives birth to his child Borre, who will become another knight of the Round Table. Then Arthur hears of a war between King Leodegrance, an ally, and King Rience, and prepares for another battle.
This anecdote, somewhat disjointed from the rest of the narrative, also exemplifies the varied and multiple nature of these tales (which come from many different sources), though the theme of courtly love and lust continues to be present here.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 18 Arthur, King Ban, and King Bors depart for the country of Cameliard where they rescue Leodegrance against King Rience. They celebrate with a feast, which is when Arthur first meets and falls in love with Leodegrance’s daughter Guenever, whom he will later marry. King Claudas is continuing to wage war in Ban and Bors’s lands, but the two brothers tell Arthur to go home, since he has much to do in his own land. They say they’ll call upon him if they ever need. Merlin foretells that the eleven kings shall all die in one day by the hand of two great knights, the brothers Balin le Savage and Balan.
This allied battle seems much more easily accomplished than the prior one. It also shows the intermingling of battlefield honor and courtly love, since knights and kings often meet and marry women who are somehow related to their allies in battle. Now Arthur is secure in knowing that he has at least two certain allies, whom he will be able to call upon if he ever needs to fight against other enemies.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
The eleven kings, meanwhile, learn of the Saracens’ siege against their lands, and regret that they had turned against Arthur, who could have helped them. They return to their countries, leaving a few kings in Britain to keep watch and prepare for revenge.
The kings realize just how arbitrary their decision to fight Arthur was—it was based on illegitimate concerns and jealousy about his proper place on the throne (and also a simple desire for more power).
Themes
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Chapter 19 King Arthur leaves King Ban and King Bors and rides to Carlion, where Queen Margawse, the wife of King Lot, comes to see him with her four sons Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth. Arthur lusts after her and they sleep together, though he doesn’t know that Margawse is his half-sister—Igraine’s daughter. Margawse conceives a son Mordred. King Arthur then dreams that griffins and serpents have come into his land to do great destruction, though finally he slays them.
Incest is both a serious sin and a constant threat in Le Morte d’Arthur: the kingdom is relatively small, especially in the royal and knightly circles, and hidden identities make an attempt to tell the true lineage of possible mates complicated at best. Once again, dreams are highly significant, and can be ominous, but are also difficult to interpret precisely.
Themes
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Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
To put the dream out of his head, Arthur decides to go hunting with his knights. He sees a great hart (stag deer) and decides to chase him, which takes so long that Arthur’s horse finally falls down dead from exhaustion. Arthur falls into thought about this strange event. Then he thinks he hears the noise of many hounds. He suddenly sees a strange-looking animal, who drinks in front of him and then departs. Lost in thought, Arthur falls asleep. When he wakes up, a knight is asking him if he saw a strange beast: the knight has been on a quest to kill it for a year, and asks Arthur for another horse to achieve this quest.
A series of odd, seemingly meaningful events begin to pile up, which are difficult for Arthur to interpret. In these passages, his confusion and disorientation are exemplified not by any kind of interior monologue but rather by the external event of falling asleep as a result of mental disorder and labor. This is also the first example of a knight who is on a quest, meaning he must do nothing else but follow his goal (the “Questing Beast,” which will appear again later) until he achieves it.
Themes
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Chapter 20 Arthur asks the knight, King Pellinore, to entrust the quest to himself for the next year. But Pellinore says that only he or his sons must follow the quest. Arthur sends for a horse. Lost in thought about what he has seen, Arthur sees a 14-year-old child (Merlin disguised) come to him and ask why he is so pensive. Arthur says he’s seen a marvelous sight. The boy says he knows that: he knows everything about Arthur, including that he is the son of Uther and Igraine. Arthur says the boy’s not old enough to know such a thing, and he doesn’t believe him.
Here we learn one aspect of how quests work: they are the property of the knights who have taken them up, and can only be transferred to another knight under certain special circumstances. Merlin again appears in the guise of someone who seems to have less authority, and again Arthur judges this identity and refuses to legitimize Merlin’s comments as a result.
Themes
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Journeys and Quests Theme Icon
Then Merlin returns in the likeness of an 80-year-old man, who seems wise to Arthur. Arthur confides in the man that a child has told him things that he could not have known. But the old man says that the child was right, and would have told him more had Arthur believed him. But God is unhappy with Arthur, he says, because he has slept with his sister and begotten a child that will destroy him and his kingdom’s knights. Arthur asks who the man is: he reveals himself as Merlin, and says that he was the child as well. Merlin says that it is God’s will for Arthur to be punished—but Merlin himself will die a shameful death in the earth, while Arthur will die in glory. The two ride back to Carlion, where Arthur asks Ector about his parents, and confirms his lineage. Arthur asks Merlin to send for his mother Igraine, and she arrives with her beautiful daughter, Morgan le Fay.
Merlin plays on Arthur’s prejudices by returning in the form of an old man who, in the culture, would have been thought to be wise and trustworthy. He thus shows Arthur one more example of Arthur’s moral failings—though, of course, not quite as bad as Arthur’s unwitting incestuous relationship with his sister, which will now lead to a son and to his kingdom’s destruction. Here, Merlin shows that while he can foretell the future and change some aspects of it, he is powerless to change God’s will—he can only warn Arthur of what is to come, and it remains to be seen what Arthur will do with this knowledge. This again shows the interesting mix of Christianity and pagan magic that is present throughout the book.
Themes
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 21 Ulfius arrives and proclaims that Igraine is the greatest traitor in the world, the causer of the great wars, since she never revealed that Arthur was her son, thus leading the other kings to be suspicious and fight against him. Igraine asks that another knight defend her. She tells the story of Ulfius coming to her disguised in Tintagil, and says that Merlin took her son away and she never saw him. Ulfius says that Merlin is thus more to blame. Merlin has Arthur and Igraine meet and embrace, and then they all feast.
For the first time, Arthur gathers together all the characters that relate to his past, which remained shrouded in mystery for so long. Ulfius reveals a common prejudice against women’s wily ways in accusing Igraine of being the one at fault, even though Uther and Ulfius did the actual tricking and deceit. No one accepts ultimate blame, and in fact proof of noble blood seems far more important to everyone than evidence of some kind of treachery.
Themes
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Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
Chapter 22 A young squire named Griflet asks Arthur to make him a knight, and Merlin advises him that Griflet will become a strong fighter, so Arthur does. Griflet goes out and sees a beautiful shield lying next to a tree. He strikes it with his sword, and tells the knight who owns it that he wishes to joust with him. The knight says that Griflet is only a child, but agrees to fight, and strikes down Griflet.
This is an example of the hubris common to knights, especially young knights. Though Arthur has followed Merlin’s advice about Griflet’s potential, at this point Griflet has not yet learned all the elements of the knightly code of chivalry and honor, which is shown by his defeat.
Themes
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Chapter 23 The knight fears that he’s killed Griflet, and he hoists him onto his own horse and brings him to Arthur’s court, where Griflet is tended to and saved. Then twelve knights arrive from the Emperor of Rome asking for truage (a kind of tax) under threat of war. Arthur refuses and pledges to fight. He rides out to find Merlin, and they go to sit by a fountain, where Arthur sees an armed knight in a chair. They agree to joust, and the knight knocks Arthur off his horse. Then Arthur grows angry, and a more serious battle begins. Finally Arthur’s sword is broken in half, and the knight tells Arthur to surrender or he’ll be killed. Arthur leaps upon the knight, who we learn is King Pellinore (the man questing after the strange beast), and Pellinore throws Arthur down.
Briefly, it had seemed that Arthur had settled into a period of calm at court, aware of his lineage and family history, and watching over young knights develop. But now we sense that Arthur’s fights against foreigners seeking to disrupt his authority are far from over. Riding out in search of Merlin, Arthur fights against a purported ally, and strangely—given that Excalibur is supposed to be a magical, enchanted sword—Pellinore comes close to defeating the mighty king. The relative prowess of Malory’s knights always seems to be shifting.
Themes
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
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Chapter 24 Merlin arrives and tells Pellinore not to kill his enemy, revealing that it is Arthur. Merlin casts an enchantment over Pellinore, who falls to the ground asleep. Arthur reproaches Merlin for killing Pellinore, but Merlin says he’s only asleep. He says that Pellinore will have two sons named Percivale and Lamorak, and that Pellinore will tell Arthur the name of his own son—who will destroy his kingdom.
Merlin intervenes in this case in favor of Arthur, mainly because Arthur’s armor hides his true identity from Pellinore, who otherwise would not dream of jousting killing his king. Merlin also shares another important prophecy that will come from Pellinore.
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Chapter 25 Arthur goes to a hermit who cures his wounds, then returns to Merlin. Merlin gives Arthur a new sword. They ride together to a clear lake, in the middle of which is a silk-clothed arm grasping a sword. A lady enters the lake: Merlin calls her the Lady of the Lake, and tells Arthur to speak well to her so that she will give him the sword. The Lady tells Arthur that she will give the sword to him if he gives her a gift when she asks for it. He agrees, so the Lady permits him to row out to the lake and take the sword and scabbard: she’ll ask for her gift when she sees fit.
The Lady of the Lake (who is perhaps also the character Nimue) will appear in multiple ways throughout these tales, and she seems to operate under a similar favor-exchanging logic as Merlin does. This is another popular origin story for Excalibur (along with the sword in the stone), and Malory simply includes both of them in his book without trying to make them fit together—so it can be confusing for a reader looking for a linear narrative. Arthur has already pulled Excalibur from the stone, but here he also receives the sword and its magic scabbard from the Lady of the Lake.
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Arthur decides to return to avenge himself against Pellinore, but Merlin tells him not to, as Pellinore is weary of fighting, and besides, he will do Arthur a good service in time. Arthur tells Merlin that he prefers the new sword to its scabbard. Merlin says he’s wrong, since while he has the Lady of the Lake’s scabbard upon him, he cannot be killed. They pass by Pellinore, whom Merlin enchants so that he doesn’t see Arthur, and they return home.
Revenge is one of the most important values in this culture, and it is crucial for maintaining one’s honor, but Merlin, able to foresee at least some elements of the future, shows Arthur that revenge isn’t always to be sought out. Arthur’s ignorance in this regard is further underlined by the scabbard’s revealed magic.
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Chapter 26 King Rience, a rival king, sends a messenger to Arthur saying that he has overcome eleven kings, and they have each given Rience homage by cutting off their beards and sending them to him. The messenger asks for Arthur’s beard, but Arthur says he owes Rience no homage, and that this request is shameful. The messenger departs.
Rival kings are constantly trying to one-up each other and prove their power through both physical and symbolic shows of authority. The other side of power and authority, of course, is shame and dishonor, as Arthur shows in his response.
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Chapter 27 Merlin tells Arthur that he should destroy all children born on May-Day, as this is the birthday of his son who will destroy the kingdom. Arthur sends for all these children and puts them in a ship, which is shipwrecked. All the children die except for Mordred, who is then raised by a stranger. Many lords are upset with Arthur for this, but they tend to blame Merlin more.
Merlin’s advice may strike us as odd: he has predicted that Arthur’s son will be the empire’s downfall—which seems to be unchangeable fate—and yet he advises an attempt to challenge that fate, in a move of shocking cruelty (echoing the act of King Herod in the Bible) that has the added drawback of angering other kings.
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