Le Morte d’Arthur

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Le Morte d’Arthur Book 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 1 We return to Galahad, who, after many adventures, passes by a castle where a tournament is taking place. Galahad does many great deeds there. Gawaine and Ector de Maris are also present, and they recognize Galahad’s shield. Galahad strikes Gawaine down, and his horse’s shoulder is cleaved in two. Gawaine says to Ector that he’s never received such a beating: now his quest is done.
We return from the sobering story of betrayal and violence regarding Bors and Lionel to the exploits of Galahad, who as we know is faring far more successfully on the quest than many others among the Round Table knights. Even Gawaine is awed rather than angry and jealous (which is unusual for him).
Themes
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Galahad rides on to the Castle of Carboneck, where he stays in a hermitage. A damsel knocks on his chamber and asks him to accompany her to the greatest adventure he’s ever seen.
Once again a lady introduces a knight to an adventure awaiting him, though we know to be wary of these ladies.
Themes
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Chapter 2 Galahad rides with the damsel to the sea and a castle called Collibe, where the damsel’s lady lives. This lady takes Galahad to the seaside, where they find the ship holding Sir Bors and Percivale. They all recognize each other and embrace, sharing their adventures. The ship goes from Logris (England) to a place between two great rocks, but it’s too dangerous to land. Another ship is nearby, so they approach, but it’s empty. Letters at the end of the ship, however, declare that the ship is Faith, and anyone who enters without belief will fail. Then the lady declares that she is Percivale’s sister, and she warns Percivale not to enter if he lacks faith, since she loves him more than anyone.
The particular powers associated with women seem to extend here to orchestrating the knights’ adventures throughout their Sangreal quests, either forcing them to approach adventures alone or reuniting them to face such adventures together. This particular aspect of the quest seems to be symbolic more than anything, as the physical temptation of entering the ship is equated with the challenge of having enough faith—a challenge that it isn’t clear all the knights of the Round Table can handle. The three worthiest knights are now united in one place.
Themes
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Chapter 3 Galahad, the lady, Sir Bors, and Percivale enter the ship. They find a bed with a crown of silk and a beautiful sword on it. Percivale tries to grip the sword, but both he and Bors fail. Letters like blood on the sword say that whoever draws this sword will never fall to shame or be wounded to death. Galahad is too prudent to try. During this time, there was war between King Labor and the Saracen Hurlame, who later became a Christian. Hurlame struck Labor down with this sword, an event that created great drought and misery for both realms. Hurlame had put the sword back into its sheath on his ship and then fell down dead: since then no one has drawn the sword without being wounded or killed.
The status of the narrator/Malory in this passage is interesting. Often he gives us helpful information from outside sources, such as sentences written on the sword like this one, but the narrator also intrudes here to share the story of King Labor and Hurlame. The story is useful for us readers insofar as it allows us to understand just how significant the possession of this sword is, and just how much it depends on the faith and honor of the one who bears it.
Themes
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Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
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Chapter 4 Written on the sword’s scabbard is that the wearer will never be shamed while wearing the girdle (belt for the sword): the only person who can get rid of the sword is a king’s daughter, a virgin, who will die a horrible death if she ever loses her virginity. It also reads that whoever praises the sword most will find most to blame in it. Percivale’s sister shares that Nacien, brother-in-law to King Mordrains, had found this ship 40 years after Christ’s death. He failed to draw the sword, but when a great giant came to kill him, he ran to the sword, praised it, and was able to draw it—but then the sword broke in the middle of the battle. Nacien then jumped out of the ship to fight and he killed the giant. He later came to Mordrains’ ship and told him how the sword failed him at his time of greatest need. Mordrains said he must have some sin for this to happen, and then they heard a voice telling them to leave this ship for the other. As they did so, Nacien felt himself slashed by a sword in the right foot, and a voice told him this was his punishment for drawing that sword unworthily.
The sword and scabbard in this ship open the story up to much broader temporal and geographical contexts. At first, the notion that whoever praises the sword most will find the most to blame in it is enigmatic, of course, but makes sense when we learn the history behind the sword—as well as the extent to which the greatness of the sword is closely tied to the greatness and honor of the individual who bears the sword. Material objects in this book are often more than just things, and more, even, than symbols of certain values—instead, they actively participate in the construction of human character, which is proven through the manipulation of these objects, and also forged by the objects themselves. The magical sword is also, of course, another echo of Excalibur and other swords reserved only for the worthy.
Themes
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Chapter 5 The lady (Percivale’s sister) says that King Pelles also came upon this ship and drew the sword, and was instantly wounded through the thigh. The knights then behold two white spindles (rods used for spinning wool), and one red spindle, and one green. The lady says that the colors stand for the Genesis story of the Bible: Eve plucked the apple (red), turning its tree from white to green when she sinned with Adam. This tree endured until the time of King Solomon, who had an evil wife, but who heard a voice saying that a man, the last of his blood, would come bring him joy as a virtuous knight.
Percivale’s sister gives yet another example of a knight (a knight, additionally, who is otherwise presented as holy and just, and descended from Christ himself) who was proud but ultimately humbled by the sword’s discrimination between the truly honorable and the lowly. Other objects in the ship are also an occasion for Percivale’s sister to share a significant historical narrative with the knights, one that joins Biblical tradition to their own quests.
Themes
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Chapter 6 Solomon’s wife made him a ship and told him to take it to the temple and to take King David’s sword. When the ship was ready to sail, the wife made a marvelous bed and put the sword at its foot. She ordered a carpenter to carve spindles for the sword out of Adam and Eve’s tree, which he did after protesting. Drops of blood came out of it as he did so, and then the wife fastened the spindles onto the bed.
The ship where the knights now find themselves is folded into a history much larger than themselves, one that is closely tied to the Biblical tales of the Old Testament. In some ways, the knights are reliving the Biblical mysteries and story of the Christian faith through their quest.
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Chapter 7 That night a group of angels visited Solomon and baptized the ship with holy water. Then Solomon heard a voice saying that only those with the highest faith and belief should occupy the ship, including the last knight of Solomon’s lineage. Solomon himself was abashed, and left the ship.
Solomon is an important king in the Jewish and Christian traditions, a ruler known particularly for his wisdom, so it is notable that he understands even himself to be ultimately unworthy of occupying the ship.
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Percivale’s sister says she will make a new girdle for the sword, and she takes from a box a golden girdle made partly out of her own hair. She sets it on the sword. Then they all tell Galahad that the sword belongs to him. He grasps the sword, and tells the lady that he’ll pledge allegiance to her forever. They then leave the ship and come to Scotland. The lady says that if the inhabitants learn that the knights are from Arthur’s court, they’ll fight them. Galahad says that God shall deliver them from their enemies.
We realize now that Percivale’s sister has been relating this entire story in order to equip Galahad with knowledge about his lineage and proper place, apparently as the last of Solomon’s line—another example of how Galahad is fated to succeed in the quest of the Sangreal. His faith in God is shown to be more unshakeable than that of others.
Themes
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Chapter 8 A squire comes and, learning who the knights are, blows a great horn. Armed knights arrive and order them to yield. Instead, they drive against the knights and fight, killing many, though they then are sorry to have killed so many. A priest comes and, as the three take communion, tells them that this castle used to belong to Lord Earl Hernox, whose daughter was loved by three knights. One day they raped her and then imprisoned her father and killed many priests, burning down many chapels. God, therefore, is pleased at Arthur’s knights, he says.
The spiritual status of killing others in battle is uncertain—the book seems to suggest that it is honorable and justifiable for knights to defend themselves, but preferable not to kill others gratuitously, or if they do so to seek penance for it afterwards. Still, the fact that the knights killed by the Round Table fellows were evil and dishonorable does, in the priest’s eyes, justify their actions.
Themes
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Chapter 9 They take the earl out of prison. Then they all hear a voice telling Galahad that he has performed well, and now must go to the Maimed King to heal him. The three knights depart with Percivale’s sister. They follow a white hart and four lions who lead them to a hermitage. In the chapel the hart becomes a man, and the four lions become a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox. A voice says that thus entered the Son of God into Mary’s womb. Astonished, the knights go to the priest and ask him what this means. He says that the hart is Jesus, who is transformed from death to life as both man and God. The four with him are the four evangelists of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The knights rest there and depart the next day.
Here it is animals rather than damsels who lead the knights to a specific place—in both cases, those who are not knights seem to possess a special form of knowledge to which knights don’t have access. Here, the animals serve both as guides for the knights and also as spiritual symbols. However, as usual, a priest—someone that traditionally has privileged access to God’s will—is needed in order to interpret the mysterious images of these encounters.
Themes
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Chapter 10 The three knights then meet a man who grasps the lady’s bridle and says she won’t escape until she has performed the castle’s custom. Percivale orders the man to release his sister, but ten armed knights come out of a nearby castle with a dish of silver, saying they require blood from the lady’s right arm. Percivale, Sir Bors, and Galahad race towards the knights and kill them all. Then 60 knights emerge and tell them they will not be harmed as long as they grant the custom. Galahad fights with them and kills many, and then a good knight comes and offers to tell them of the reason for the custom.
Once again a “custom” of a certain castle and its knights is used as an excuse for seemingly unjustified behavior. We may be meant to link this castle to one that came up in an earlier story, in which there was a similar custom requiring blood from a virgin, but this similarity may also be a function of the varied nature of these stories, which were compiled by Malory into a single edition from many sources.
Themes
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Chapter 11 The knight says that the lady who owns the castle fell sick long ago. Finally an old man said she must have the dish of a worthy virgin’s blood in order to heal. Percivale’s sister says it will be of great glory for her to help the lady, even if she dies as a result. In the morning they bleed Percivale’s sister, who cries that she will die to make the lady whole. She asks Percivale to put her coffin in a boat, which will lead her to the City of Sarras, to be buried in a holy place. Percivale agrees, weeping. The lady is healed, and Percivale’s sister dies. Percivale puts her in a barge, and a great storm rocks the castle all night. Then they see from afar a wounded knight who asks for help. Sir Bors takes his horse and rides after him.
Suddenly the knights’ attitude shifts, thanks to the intervention of the “good” knight, through whom they learn of the tragedy of the lady’s inability to heal without a virgin’s blood. The actions of Percivale’s sister may not be exactly following the code of knightly honor, which is inaccessible to women, but they are meant to show just how honorable and impressive women’s own form of heroism can be—sacrificing oneself for the good of another person, the ultimate selflessness. This also further associates Percivale himself with the idea of holiness and sacrifice.
Themes
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Chapter 12 Galahad and Percivale remain in the castle all night. After the storm they emerge and see that many have died, and they hear a voice saying that this is God’s vengeance for the bloodshed of maidens. They find a churchyard with a chapel full of the bodies of maidens who had bled to death for the old lady’s sake: twelve of them are kings’ daughters.
It appears that Percivale’s sister’s death, rather than the battling of knights, put an end to what is revealed to us as a truly shameful custom, the “bloodshed of maidens.” God’s wrath here is meant to remind us of similar Old Testament stories, and be yet another affirmation that any kind of tragedy or suffering is probably a punishment for sin.
Themes
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Chapter 13 Percivale and Galahad leave each other. Meanwhile, Launcelot has heard in a dream to seek out a ship. He does so, and when he enters it he feels great sweetness and joy. In the ship is the body of a lady: Percivale’s sister. In her hand is a document, in Percivale’s hand, which tells what has happened. Launcelot remains on the ship for a month. One night he stops at a port, and Galahad comes to meet him. They embrace and tell each other of their adventures. Launcelot marvels at Galahad’s sword (the sword from the ship). They perform many adventures on and off the ship for six months.
Guided by what we are meant to consider as holy direction, Launcelot is brought into the element of the Sangreal quest begun by Percivale’s sister, and ended with her death. Perhaps the last part of the quest she orchestrated was in reuniting Launcelot with his son Galahad, who, as we have seen, has begun to supersede even his father in knightly ability, in addition to spiritual purity. This is a pleasant interlude in which we finally get to see father and son—two of the greatest knights in the world—doing normal “knightly” things, like pursuing adventures that don’t have to do with the Grail.
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Chapter 14 One Monday Galahad and Launcelot find a knight in white armor, who asks Galahad to leave his adventures with his father and return to the quest of the Sangreal. Galahad kisses his father and departs. Launcelot sails on the ship for a month and prays to see the Sangreal. He then arrives at a castle, which is guarded by two lions. He draws his sword, but a dwarf arrives and knocks the sword out of his hand. A voice says that Launcelot has had poor belief for failing to trust in God’s will. Launcelot repents, and goes up to the lions again without trying to kill them. They let him pass, and he enters the castle. He comes up to a locked chamber inside.
The time spent by Galahad and Launcelot is a pause during which both knights can rest and restore themselves before continuing on their proper quests. It is telling that they are not permitted to continue the Sangreal quest together—clearly because Launcelot, as no one ever fails to remind him, is not as worthy as his son. Launcelot’s wariness regarding the lion is just another example meant to chastise him for failing to be faithful enough to God.
Themes
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Chapter 15 Launcelot hears a sweet song from inside, and he realizes the Sangreal must be there. Finally the door opens. The chamber is lit up, but a voice tells Launcelot not to enter. He sees the Grail on a silver table with angels around it, with a priest next to it saying Mass. Suddenly it seems that the priest is about to swoon, so Launcelot, asking God’s forgiveness, decides to enter and help. But as he goes in, he feels a breath of fire and falls to the ground. Then he feels many hands lead him out of the chamber, and he loses consciousness. In the morning the residents of the castle find Launcelot and take him to a bedchamber where he remains unconscious for 24 days.
Launcelot is brought tantalizingly close to the Sangreal, though we do not learn (until later) exactly where it is that Launcelot has stumbled upon it. As usual, Launcelot’s first reaction to any sign of weakness among others is an attempt to help them. Usually, this is held up as evidence of his worthiness as a noble, honorable knight. Here, however, we learn that mere earthly honor is not enough to attain something as spiritually lofty as the Holy Grail.
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Chapter 16 On the 25th day Launcelot’s eyes open, and he tells those gathered around him that he has seen great marvels, but he also realizes he’s been punished by God. They tell him that he will never see more of the Sangreal than that, since he is not worthy enough. As he recovers, he is recognized as Launcelot, and King Pelles joyfully meets him (Launcelot realizes that he is in the castle of Carbonek in Corbin). The Sangreal is brought to the castle hall and it gives all a great feast. Then a knight comes and knocks on the door, ordering them to open it. The king says he may not enter while the Sangreal is here. The knight says he is Ector de Maris, and Pelles says his brother Launcelot is here. Ector both dreads and loves Launcelot, and he cries that his sorrow and shame is great. He leaves in haste.
The more impressionistic tone of the earlier scenes yields to greater clarity as we are given context regarding where Launcelot is—unsurprisingly, it is where the Sangreal has been all along. Indeed, the fact that each of the knights has had to depart in search of the Sangreal, only to find it where they always knew it to be located, suggests the symbolic significance of the quest: it is not necessarily as important to go off and find something (the Sangreal or anything else) in a distant place, but rather to learn through the journey whether or not one is worthy enough.
Themes
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Chapter 17 Launcelot then departs for England. He comes to a white abbey and sees an altar with a tomb, on which is written that here lies Bagdemagus, killed by Gawaine. Launcelot mourns this death. In the morning he arrives to Camelot, where he learns that over half the knights of the Round Table have been killed. Launcelot tells Arthur that out of Galahad, Percivale, and Sir Bors, he will only see one again.
For Launcelot, the quest for the Sangreal has ended: he has come as close as he ever will to achieving this elusive knightly prize. Arthur’s fears about the danger of sending his knights out to the Sangreal quest seem to have been justified, given how many have been killed.
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Chapter 18 Meanwhile Galahad rides to the abbey where King Mordrains is held. Mordrains asks Galahad, as a pure virgin, to embrace him, and cries that he is now ready to meet God. Mordrains dies, and Galahad buries him. Galahad goes into the land of Gore and sees the tomb of Bagdemagus. Then he sees a great, flaming tomb, and the caretakers say that only the greatest knight of the Round Table might achieve this adventure. Galahad approaches the tomb and hears a voice—the speaker says that he is of Galahad’s kindred, and has dwelled in fire for 354 years to pay penance for his sin against Joseph of Arimathea. Then the fire goes out, and Galahad takes the body to the minister to be buried properly.
Galahad is one of the only knights of the Round Table left who is both alive and still permitted to continue seeking the Holy Grail. Before fulfilling the commandment regarding the Maimed King, Galahad does the important work of mourning the dead, from Mordrains to Bagdemagus to this unknown relative of Galahad. Although this man has sinned, a proper burial is considered an essential endpoint to a Christian life for all but the worst of sinners.
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Chapter 19 Galahad rides on to the Maimed King. He meets Percivale and Sir Bors, and they ride together to the castle of Carbonek, where King Pelles greets them happily. Pelles’ son, offers them the broken sword that had pierced Joseph through the thigh, but neither can lift it. Galahad is able to lift the sword, which seems suddenly like new, and then he gives it to Bors, since that adventure has been achieved. Then many of the knights depart, since the Sangreal vessel is about to feed the castle residents, but the pure knights are welcomed in. A sick knight in a crown of gold then enters the hall, and he greets Galahad and says only Galahad can cure him.
The book is, as we have seen, full of stories in which a sword is imbued with mystical powers, including powers of discerning the character of knights that attempt to handle it. Swords, of course, are central to the culture and the values of this culture, so it does make sense that they are given such significance. The Sangreal is another spiritual and mystical object that seems able to discern which knights are worthy to even be in the same room as it.
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Chapter 20 King Pelles and his son then leave the hall, as they are not on the Sangreal quest. Then a man comes as if from heaven, clothed like a bishop, and on his clothing is writing saying that this is Joseph, the first bishop of Christendom. The knights marvel, since he had died 300 years before. Angels enter the room and place candles on the table, then a bloody spear, and then the Sangreal, covering it with a vessel. The bishop performs Mass, and then kisses Galahad, telling him that all will be fed with great food and drink. A man that looks like Jesus Christ emerges from the Holy Vessel, telling those present that they will see a part of his secrets. He brings the vessel to Galahad, who kneels down and receives communion, as do the other knights. Christ tells Galahad that the vessel is the dish from which he had eaten at the Last Supper. Galahad, Christ says, will see this vessel more openly in the spiritual city of Sarras, so he must depart with it. It will never again be in England, since its inhabitants do not worship it. He tells Galahad that the spear will cure the Maimed King. Percivale and Sir Bors will accompany him: two will die in his service, and one will survive to bear tidings. Jesus gives a blessing and then vanishes.
This event introduces the climactic scenes that will end with the achievement of the Sangreal. Joseph of Arimathea is now not only a mythical figure, but a present character in the Sangreal quest and in this book—showing just how much history, faith, and the knightly quest are intertwined in Le Morte d’Arthur. Each element in this scene possesses great spiritual significance, from the Sangreal to the bloody spear. Even Christ, the son of God, appears in the scene in order to guide Galahad in the last steps before he officially “achieves” the quest. Christ’s words are also meant to have broader significance beyond Galahad’s individual spiritual worthiness. As we’ve seen, the quest has made most knights act in dishonorable, shameful ways, underlining what Christ says about the wickedness of the English in general, and their unworthiness to keep the Sangreal safe. This final condemnation of England as losing its faith is perhaps meant to explain how Malory’s present society (which he seems to be criticizing) could have stemmed from the “glory days” of Arthur.
Themes
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Chapter 21 Galahad touches the spear’s blood and then anoints the Maimed King, making him whole. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors then depart. They reach a ship, where they find the Sangreal covered with red silk. They pray, and Galahad asks to be delivered to heaven when he asks. A voice tells him that this shall be granted. They sleep, and when they awaken they see the city of Sarras, and then the ship holding the body of Percivale’s sister. They go into the city, where they see a crippled man. Galahad asks him to help bear the heavy vessel, and he does, and is cured. The knights take the tomb of Percivale’s sister and bury it richly. But then the King Estorause asks them why they’ve come, and, learning of the Sangreal, he imprisons them in a deep hole.
As his quest nears an end, Galahad seems to become endowed with some of the same spiritual powers to the Holy Grail itself—not to mention the power to choose one’s own time of death. The Sangreal in its physical form has accompanied these knights throughout their quest, though this does not necessarily mean that they have “achieved” the Holy Grail, which usually means seeing the spiritual mysteries within (though this word is sometimes applied as a simple measure of holiness, as with Percivale and Bors, who have in one sense been successful in their quest).
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Chapter 22 Though the knights are imprisoned, the Sangreal feeds them and keeps them safe. After awhile King Estorause falls ill and calls for the three knights, asking them for forgiveness. When he dies, the whole city council decides to ask Galahad to be king. He makes a table of silver on which to place the Sangreal. All the knights pray before it every day.
The Sangreal continues to accompany the knights, here ensuring that they will not come to too much harm as prisoners of the king—who is portrayed as less evil than some we’ve seen, since he ultimately repents before dying.
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One day they see a man clothed like a bishop praying before the vessel, and then beginning to say Mass. The holy man tells Galahad to come forth and see spiritual things as no man has before, which he does, trembling. He thanks God for this miracle. The man reveals himself as Joseph of Arimathea: he tells Galahad that he (like Joseph himself) has been blessed to remain a virgin, and also to have seen the marvels of the Sangreal. Galahad goes to Percivale and Bors and kisses them, asking them to send his blessings to Launcelot. Galahad kneels down and prays to God, and then a great number of angels bear his soul to heaven, along with the vessel and the bloody spear.
The ability of Galahad to see these spiritual things—described only vaguely, since we are told that no human has been permitted to see them—is what is usually meant by “achieving” the Holy Grail. Percivale and Bors come quite close to this, since they have accompanied Galahad through to the end of his quest, but they are barred from this last, greatest element of the Sangreal quest, before Galahad ascends to heaven (reminiscent of Jesus’s own ascension, according to Christian tradition).
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Chapter 23 Percivale and Sir Bors weep over Galahad’s death, and they bury his body. Percivale then becomes a holy man and lives in a hermitage for a year and two months, until he dies as well. Bors then leaves Sarras and rides to Camelot, where everyone rejoices over his return. Bors tells of the Sangreal adventures: the stories are written down into books and placed in the Salisbury libraries. Bors gives Launcelot blessings from Galahad, and Launcelot thanks him, swearing to be loyal to him forever.
It had been predicted that Arthur would only see one of these three knights back at court, a prophecy that holds true (as they always do). Once again, it is considered essential that these stories are related, written down, and preserved for future generations—suggesting that the book we are reading comes directly from Bors’s own telling.
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