Le Morte d’Arthur

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Le Morte d’Arthur Book 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 1 Meanwhile Gawaine rides along without finding any adventure. Then he meets Ector de Maris, who is also bored. They ride together and come across an old chapel, where they pray. They fall asleep. Gawaine dreams he comes to a meadow full of flowers, where a rack of black bulls—except for three white, one of which has a black spot—are tied. Some black ones go to seek better pasture, but many grow so thin that they cannot keep upright.
Moving from Launcelot to Gawaine and Ector de Maris, we now go from a series of adventures to a pair of knights that does not seem to have much to do. However, the mysterious, symbolic visions and dreams that have been occurring to the other knights recently finally do reach Gawaine and Ector as well.
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Chapter 2 Ector de Maris, meanwhile, dreams that he and his brother Launcelot are riding, and a man beats Launcelot and drags him to a well. Launcelot stops to drink, but the water sinks from him. He and Ector then go to a rich man’s house, where they are told there is no space for them. When the two knights wake up, they tell each other of their dreams and marvel. As they’re talking, they see a hand covered with red silk holding a great candle: it enters the chapel and then vanishes. They hear a voice saying that they are of poor faith, and have failed, so they will not be able to achieve the Sangreal.
The dream of Ector de Maris is more realistic and perhaps less enigmatic than that of Gawaine, in that we can understand some of the implications of being turned away from a rich man’s house, for instance. This may or may not be the same chapel as the one where Launcelot stopped and could not enter, but in either case it serves a similar purpose, warning the knights of their lack of worthiness to achieve the Sangreal.
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They depart to a valley, where a squire tells them they can find Nacien the hermit, a holy man, on a nearby mountain. They meet with an armed knight who offers to joust with Gawaine, and Gawaine strikes him down and orders him to yield. The knight says he will die anyway from his wounds, so he asks Gawaine to take him to an abbey. He says he is Uwaine les Avoutres, son of Uriens, and he was questing after the Sangreal. Gawaine realizes this is his brother.
Nacien will come up again in the story: like old men in general, hermits or holy men are considered trustworthy, good, and prophetic. The constant theme of mistaken identity takes another tragic turn here, as it turns out that Gawaine has unknowingly wounded his own brother, who is on the same quest as Gawaine.
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Chapter 3 Gawaine cries out in sorrow. Uwaine asks him to recommend himself to Arthur and the court. Gawaine and Ector de Maris begin to weep as Uwaine dies. They bury him, and then depart, their hearts heavy. They come to Nacien, and say they must confess their dreams. The hermit tells Gawaine that the meadow is the Round Table, founded for humility and patience. But most of the knights are blackened by sin and wickedness: only Galahad and Percivale, as virgins, are white, and Sir Bors de Ganis only broke his chastity once.
Uwaine is the first casualty among the knights of the Round Table in the quest of the Sangreal, not even in fighting honorably against an enemy, but in mistakenly jousting with his own brother. However, this the kind of death that the book’s ethics will not necessarily blame Gawaine for, as it is an inevitable part of being a knight: his sexual sins are considered greater.
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Chapter 4 Then Nacien tells Ector de Maris that he and Launcelot both go in search of what they will never find. Launcelot falling off his horse means that he has left pride for humility. The well signifies the high grace of God, which Launcelot still cannot fully receive. Nacien also says that the hand with the candle signifies the Holy Ghost, whose clearness and sight shows the right way of Jesus Christ. The voice meant that the two knights cannot achieve the Sangreal.
Over and over again, the knights are told that their quest is useless and that they will never achieve the Holy Grail. The fact that they continue nonetheless may simply be a sign of pride and stubbornness, but there is also a sense in which there is honor to be found in pursuing a goal, even if one knows it to be impossible.
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Chapter 5 Gawaine asks why they have not met with many adventures: Nacien says that they have been too great of sinners. Launcelot, he says, will die a holy man, since he has not murdered anyone since repenting. Gawaine and Ector de Maris depart, and ride without meeting adventure.
Nacien sets up a kind of hierarchy of sin and goodness: Launcelot may have erred and thus will not achieve the Holy Grail, but his repentance makes him more likely to meet interesting adventures.
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Chapter 6 Bors de Ganis, meanwhile, has met with a religious man since departing from Camelot. They ride to a hermitage. Bors confesses and they eat. The man tells him to eat none other than bread or water until sitting at the table where the Sangreal will be, and Bors agrees. The man gives him a scarlet coat to wear until fulfilling the quest of the Sangreal. Bors departs and sees a great bird on an old, dry tree, with young chicks dying for hunger below. Bors kills the bird, which bleeds, giving life to the young birds.
Sir Bors de Ganis, to whom we now turn, seems to have had a relatively quieter time of questing since he left Camelot, compared to the other knights. But he too is now faced with strange visions and events, in which the behavior of animals often seems to act as a clear symbol that is directly relevant to knights and their quest.
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Chapter 7 Sir Bors goes to a high tower where a lovely young lady tries to feed him richly, but Bors eats only bread. Then a squire arrives and says that the lady must find a champion, for her sister will take her castle unless she finds a knight to fight against Pridam le Noire the next day. The lady tells Bors that a king Aniause used to live here, and he loved a woman who had evil customs, putting to death many of his relatives. He later chased her out of the castle and married herself (the lady telling the story), but now the first lady is fighting to have it back. Bors offers to fight for the lady.
Bors de Ganis remains obedient to the holy man, refusing to eat anything other than bread. He then faces another chance to prove himself in the classical way, by defending a lady that has had some wrong done to her. This is also, however, a story about rivalry between women—the kind of rivalry that, as we’ve seen, can be as fierce as rivalries between men.
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Chapter 8 When Sir Bors falls asleep, he sees a vision of two swans, one white and one black. The white bird asks him for meat and says that if he serves her she’ll give him all the riches of the world. The black bird tells him to serve her instead, for blackness suits him better. In another vision, Bors goes to a chapel and sees a worm-eaten tree on his left, and on the right two flowers. He hears a man say that these flowers should not perish to save a rotten tree.
Once again, the colors white and black appear in dreams: by now we can guess that each color will have a certain ethical status associated with it. In the second vision, the typically Christian imagery of trees, buds, and flowers is employed in a slightly more enigmatic way.
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Sir Bors wakes up and greets the lady. A company of knights arrives to lead Bors to battle. Bors meets the rival knight Pridam, and they fight, each wounding the other. Then they fall to earth and fight on foot. Finally Bors strikes Pridam’s helmet off and cries that he must yield, or he’ll kill him. Pridam asks for mercy, and the enemy lady flees with her knights.
Pridam and Bors are relatively equally matched, since they fight both on horseback and on foot, and both wound each other. However, Bors manages to make Pridam yield to him, granting him mercy as Arthur’s code requires of him.
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Chapter 9 Sir Bors reinstates peace in the land, and the lady thanks Bors greatly, but he refuses all her riches. He departs and rides to a forest, where at a crossroads he sees two knights leading his brother Lionel, naked and bound to a horse. Bors prepares to save him, but then sees a knight leading a fair lady into the thicket, and she cries for him to defend her honor. Bors is torn, and asks God to forgive him for choosing the lady over his brother.
Bors barely has time to take a breath before another quest quickly appears to take the place of the earlier one. Choosing between saving his brother and a lady, Bors is strung between two important and competing values of a knight: kinship and protection of ladies. We have seen this dilemma before, and it’s not clear what the right decision is.
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Chapter 10 Sir Bors fights the knight and strikes him to the earth, where he faints. The knight is her cousin, the lady says, and took her from her father. Twelve knights arrive and she tells them how Bors has saved her. They praise him and invite him to their castle, but Bors has to ride after Lionel. He comes across a religious man, and asks him if he’s seen a wounded, bound man. The man says that he is dead, pointing to a slain body in a bush, who indeed looks like Lionel. Bors falls down in grief and takes the body into his arms. He carries it to a chapel with a tomb.
It appears that for the lady’s cousin, the importance of honor in kinship gave way to lustful desire, something looked down upon. Bors once again has to refuse any kind of celebration or hospitality, since yet another quest awaits him—though this time it seems that it might be too late, and that in exchange for saving the damsel Sir Bors has lost his brother.
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Chapter 11 At the chapel Sir Bors tells the priest about his dream. The priest says that the white swan signifies a lady who loves Bors, and if he doesn’t return her love she’ll soon die. But if he goes to her then his cousin, Launcelot, will die. He must choose one or the other. The priest leads Bors into a high tower, where ladies and knights give him a fur mantle and celebrate with him so much that he forgets Lionel and Launcelot. A fair lady comes to him and they all say she loves Bors more than anyone in the world. They sit down and speak of many things, but Bors is troubled, and refuses to break his chastity.
Once again, Sir Bors must face a difficult, some might say impossible choice—and again it is between saving a lady’s honor (and, here, her life) or acquiescing to the requirements not only of the fellowship of the Round Table but of family bonds as well. Bors finally seems to slip somewhat in his dogged honor and commitment to his quests, but soon he retrieves this sense of honor by refusing to sleep with the lady.
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Chapter 12 Sir Bors refuses to sleep with the lady, who is in great grief. She says she will die for his love. She goes up to a high battlement, and one of the ladies cries that the lady and all her maidens must jump off the tower and die if he doesn’t change his mind. Bors, distraught, makes the sign of the cross. Suddenly he hears a great noise and cry, and the tower and ladies all disappear. He holds up his hands to heaven and thanks God for his escape.
This final decision is perhaps the most difficult one of all for Bors, since it is thrown into sharp relief through the lady’s despair—either he sins with her or he lets her die. That the sign of the cross saves him (as it did Percivale) suggests that only by putting his faith in God can Bors hope to emerge from a challenge of faith.
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Sir Bors goes to an abbey, where he is led to the abbot in a chapel. Bors tells him of his adventure, and the abbot says he’ll counsel him the next day.
Bors is left with much to think about after this accumulation of fantastical adventures.
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Chapter 13 In the morning, the abbot says that Jesus gave Sir Bors a sign of himself in King Aniause and the lady he fought for. Bors battled for good and against evil in the form of the jealous lady. What seemed to be a holy man (the priest who pointed at Lionel’s body) was actually a fiend, who lied in saying that Lionel was killed, so that Bors might lose faith. Referring to an earlier dream, the abbot says that the two flowers signify two virgins, one the wounded knight and one the lady Bors rescued: the wounded knight would have “deflowered” the lady.
In this book abbots, priests, and hermits often possess the powers of dream interpretation that we usually don’t think of as particularly belonging to the Christian tradition. But part of the interest and intrigue at play in the importance of quests for these knights is the sense that there is something more symbolic and meaningful at stake in their adventures, a plan which can only be revealed slowly.
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Chapter 14 Sir Bors leaves the abbot and rides to a castle in a valley, where he meets a farmer who tells him there will be a great joust here. Bors goes to a hermitage, and there finds his brother Lionel, and is thrilled to see him. Lionel is furious, though, saying that Bors left him to die. Bors asks for mercy, but Lionel says he will kill him for being such a traitor—he refuses to have mercy. He strikes Bors off his horse, and, possessed by the devil, is about to strike off his head, when an old hermit runs forward and puts himself in the way.
Having learned what his dreams and his adventures mean, Bors is relieved to know that he did not end up sacrificing his brother’s life in exchange for saving the lady in distress. Lionel, however, seems to be in the midst of his own spiritual challenge as part of his quest for the Sangreal—his question is whether or not he will let revenge get the better of him.
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Chapter 15 The hermit asks Lionel to have mercy on his brother. Lionel warns him to get back, but the hermit refuses, and Lionel kills the hermit. Again he’s about to kill Sir Bors when a knight of the Round Table, Colgrevance, arrives and grabs Lionel by the shoulders, begging him to stop. When he won’t, they begin to fight. Bors, wounded, watches them in horror, and once he regains his strength, he arises.
Lionel’s wrath exceeds even the greatest scenes of jealousy and revenge that we have seen thus far—but as is fitting for this section of the book, his action are blamed on “the devil,” who has suddenly possessed him (perhaps as another test for Bors himself).
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Chapter 16 Colgrevance cries to Sir Bors that he only wants to die for the sake of a worthy man. Lionel knocks off Colgrevance’s helmet, and Colgrevance begins to pray to God. Lionel strikes him down dead, then races after his brother. Weeping, Bors draws his sword, saying that Lionel is evil to have killed two good men in trying to kill his own brother. Bors asks for God’s mercy, and lifts his sword.
Having killed an ally of the Round Table, it seems that Lionel could easily continue on his rampage and kill even his brother Bors. Bors, meanwhile, is horrified, and begins to realize that the only way of stopping this murderous rampage is to kill his brother himself.
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Chapter 17 Sir Bors then hears a voice telling him to flee rather than kill Lionel. A marvelous light appears, and the two brothers fall to the ground in a swoon. Then Bors hears a voice telling him to go to the sea to meet Percivale. Bors asks his brother to forgive him, and Lionel does. Bors departs and rests at an abbey. A voice in the night tells him to go to the sea: there he finds a ship, enters it, and it races across the water. He falls asleep, and when he awakens he sees Percivale on the ship deck. They embrace, and Bors tells him all that’s happened.
It is not entirely apparent what allows Lionel to escape from his enchantment by the devil, though the white light suggests that God’s power seems to be at work here. In any case, we are not given any space or time to contemplate what Bors and Lionel just went through, but instead immediately continue to follow Bors as he is led by authoritative voices to complete his quest. Those who have been found worthy of the Sangreal (thus far, only these two) are now being reunited.
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