Chapter 1 Some time after the quest of the Sangreal, Launcelot forgets his promise and begins to sleep with Guenever again. Many in the court gossip about this, but many other ladies ask Launcelot to be their champion too, and Guenever grows angry with him, saying he seems to have no time for her. Launcelot protests that he’s only been away from her when he had to, for his quest. He tells her he’s worried about Agravaine and Mordred, who know of their affair and could dishonor them: he tries to spend time with many damsels to suggest that he simply loves women.
The quest of the Sangreal had forced Launcelot to come to terms with his own sinfulness and lack of honor in spiritual, rather than earthly, affairs. But we now are meant to understand just how difficult it is for Launcelot to remain committed to his earlier promises. The book now brings Guenever and Launcelot’s affair to the fore, as the primary cause of the titular “death of Arthur” and the collapse of the kingdom. After the Grail quest, the only major event remaining is this tragic finale.
Chapter 2 Then Guenever weeps and calls Launcelot false. She sends him out of the court, saying she never wants to see him again. Grieving, he goes to Sir Bors, Ector de Maris, and Lionel. But Bors says Launcelot shouldn’t leave, since he’s needed here: besides, women often make hasty decisions and then repent. He tells him to go to a nearby hermitage and stay with a knight until Bors sends word of what’s happened.
Guenever is growing increasingly jealous and protective of her lover. Bors’s loyalties are to Arthur and his fellow Round Table knights—it’s difficult for him to sympathize with Launcelot’s reliance on a woman, though his loyalty to Launcelot makes him agree to help.
Chapter 2 The queen holds a private dinner with 24 knights. One, Pinel, poisons some apples in the hopes of killing Gawaine, who often eats them. But instead a knight named Patrise takes an apple and falls down dead. All the knights suspect Guenever, though Gawaine says he’s known to love fruit, so he must have been the target. Guenever weeps and swoons.
The equilibrium and trust at Arthur’s court further unravels, as infighting between the knights continues—here with Pinel’s desire to kill his fellow knight Gawaine (it’s unclear why, but Gawaine has certainly committed enough sins to make some enemies). The knights even begin to suspect their own queen of treason and fraud.
Chapter 3 Patrise’s cousin Mador goes to Arthur to accuse the queen of treason. Arthur says he will allow her to choose a knight to battle against Mador for her honor—but the other knights suspect her too. Arthur says that Mador will fight this knight in 15 days, and if none steps forward, she’ll be burnt at the stake. Arthur thinks Launcelot would do it, but they don’t know where he is. Arthur tells Guenever to ask Sir Bors.
The knightly code of honor, which includes a clause about the justification of revenge, is now used in a perverted way against the knights’ queen herself. Arthur in many ways has his hands tied, as to deny Mador the right of battling for Guenever’s life would be hypocritical.
Chapter 4 The queen sends for Sir Bors, who says he cannot fight: he too was at the dinner, so the others might suspect him. The queen kneels before Bors and begs him. Arthur enters and cries for Bors to have mercy on her, for Launcelot’s sake. Bors promises to do so for his sake, unless another comes forward. Bors then departs secretly for the hermitage, where he tells Launcelot everything. Launcelot tells him to draw out the battle until he can arrive. Upon his return, Bors tells the other knights that they shouldn’t let their queen be shamed. They say they honor their king, but the queen is a destroyer of knights. Bors says she has only ever been honorable. He says she must be innocent, but only some of the knights agree.
Initially, even the loyal and holy Bors is wary of helping Guenever, since he realizes just how dangerous it would be to have all the knights at court turn against him. But Guenever’s desperation and Bors’s ultimate loyalty to Arthur win out against his worries about his own safety. Meanwhile, Launcelot prepares to battle. For Bors, Guenever’s potential innocence is what justifies fighting for her, but for Launcelot her innocence matters less than the fact that he will always remain loyal to her.
Chapter 6 The day of the battle arrives, and the queen is put in the Constable’s ward, with a fire and stake prepared. Sir Mador arrives and makes an oath of the queen’s guilt, while Sir Bors swears to her innocence. They begin to battle: then an armed knight on a white horse races onto the field and asks Bors to withdraw.
In cases like these, a jousting between knights is meant not only to prove one knight’s honor over another, but actually to serve as a proxy for justice, determining the innocence or guilt of someone not directly involved in the battle.
Chapter 7 The strange knight asks permission to fight for the Guenever’s honor, but only if he may leave afterwards. The two knights fight, and Mador’s horse tumbles to the ground. They fight eagerly on foot for an hour, and Mador proves nimble. But finally the strange knight strikes Mador to the ground, and wounds him in the thighs. Mador asks for mercy and yields to him, releasing the queen from his accusation. Arthur and Guenever thank the knight, and ask him to take off his helmet and take a sip of wine. When he does, all see that it’s Launcelot, who says it’s to his honor to prevent shame on his king and queen. The queen weeps out of sorrow that he’s repaid her unkindness with such goodness.
As usual, the curiosity and intrigue caused by the entrance of an unknown knight is enough for the other knights (and for Arthur) to accept a change in plans. Of course, Launcelot has never yet been fully defeated in battle, so it is not too much of a surprise when he strikes Mador down and, in his generally honorable tradition, agrees to grant him mercy. Now Guenever realizes how jealous and petty she has been in ordering Launcelot out of court despite his loyalty to her.
Chapter 8 The damsel of the lake, Nimue (Pelleas’ wife) comes to court, and reveals that it was Sir Pinel who caused the death of Patrise. Pinel flees the country, and the story of the treason and Guenever’s accusation is written on Patrise’s tomb. For the feast of Assumption, a great tournament is prepared, and many kings come from other countries. The queen says she is sick and cannot go, which many assume is because Launcelot is still wounded and won’t attend.
Nimue, as we’ll recall, had achieved some magical powers thanks to the teaching of Merlin, powers that she uses here to set things straight regarding who was actually guilty (though her intervention comes a little late, as it could have prevented the battle between Launcelot and Mador).
Chapter 9 Launcelot, after Guenever tells him of these rumors, says he’ll go to the tournament himself, but will fight against Arthur and his group. Launcelot departs to Astolat, where he stays at Sir Bernard’s manor. Arthur catches sight of him entering, and, smiling, tells the other knights that he’s seen one knight who will surely do marvels at the tournament.
Launcelot has barely had time to rest and recover from his wounds when he finds himself once again needing to defend his honor, given that the rumors about the relationship between himself and Guenever will not let up. This reluctant division between Launcelot and Arthur (neither of whom considers the other an enemy, and who are in fact still friends) foreshadows the more tragic division to come.
Launcelot asks the baron to lend him a shield, so that he might not be known, and Sir Bernard gives him his son’s shield. His daughter, Elaine le Blank, falls in love with him, and asks him to wear her token at the jousts. Launcelot agrees to wear her red sleeve, thinking this will prevent his recognition.
Launcelot often has to consider whether or not agreeing to a lady’s wish would constitute a betrayal of his love and loyalty to Guenever. Here, he decides that the possibility of people recognizing him is too risky.
Chapter 10 In the morning all ride to Winchester (another name for Camelot). Launcelot lodges secretly with Sir Lavaine. Many different battles begin, and the knights of the Round Table largely succeed against the foreigners.
Launcelot is preparing to fight against the knights of the Round Table, which as we’ll see will probably lead to significant battle scenes and conflicts of interest.
Chapter 11 Launcelot asks Lavaine to help him chase the Round Table knights back. They strike down many of these knights, forcing them to withdraw. Gawaine marvels at the prowess of the knight, and thinks it must be Launcelot, but then he sees the red token and assumes it isn’t him. Launcelot’s brothers and cousins race towards him, but he strikes them down again, until Sir Bors punctures Launcelot’s side with his spear, and Launcelot falls. Lavaine pulls Launcelot onto his own horse, and they strike down many more, though Launcelot is wounded.
Gawaine often seems to possess better powers of discernment and recognition than other knights, but like the others he too relies on external indicators of identity in order to determine who knights are under their armor. Launcelot appears to pay the price for fighting against his own kinsmen once he is seriously wounded by Sir Bors, whose Sangreal quest has perhaps strengthened his prowess.
Chapter 12 The king blows the day-end’s horn, and the foreign kings ask Launcelot to receive the prize for them. He begs them to allow him to leave, since he is wounded, rather than steal any of their honor. He goes to the forest, where Lavaine pulls out the spear, and Launcelot lies on the ground as if dead. When he awakens, Launcelot asks Lavaine to take him to a nearby hermit, a surgeon, and they ride there.
Having fought on the side of the foreign kings rather than Arthur, Launcelot still does not feel any loyalty to them, even though these knights are impressed enough with their temporary ally to want to grant him the prize even without learning his identity.
Chapter 13 The hermit doesn’t recognize Launcelot initially, but then realizes who he is. The hermit staunches his blood and forces him to drink good wine. Meanwhile, the foreign knights tell Arthur that the unknown knight has left, wounded. Arthur asks Gawaine to find him and help him heal. Gawaine rides and lodges at Astolat, where he tells Bernard and Elaine le Blank about the unknown knight with the red sleeve. Elaine says she loves this man, though she doesn’t know his name.
Hermits are, in addition to being holy men, often recognized to be medically adept: they remain secondary characters in the story, but they are often vital ones, ensuring that the quests, adventures, and battles of the knights that make up the core of the book can continue. Meanwhile, Gawaine comes quite close to discovering Launcelot.
Chapter 14 Elaine le Blank tells Gawaine how they met, and how the unknown knight asked for a new shield so as not to be recognized by his. When she shows Gawaine this shield, he recognizes it as Launcelot’s, and he marvels because Launcelot has never worn a lady’s token. Now he worries that he may never see Launcelot alive again, and exclaims that the man who most loved him in the world wounded him. In the morning, Gawaine rides to Arthur and tells him what he found out, then shares to all at court that it was Launcelot.
Elaine le Blank is, of course, unaware both of Launcelot’s true identity and of the high stakes in revealing who he is to Gawaine. Gawaine is now faced with incontrovertible proof that the knight of great prowess at the tournament—not to mention the knight who wounded Gawaine, his friend—is Launcelot himself. Gawaine has promised to find the knight and relate all he learns to Arthur, so he does.
Chapter 15 Sir Bors grows sorrowful when he hears this, and Guenever is furious when she learns of Elaine le Blank and the red sleeve. She sends for Bors and says Launcelot is a traitor, and refuses to listen when Bors says Launcelot must have worn the sleeve so as not to be recognized. Bors just says he’ll hurry to find Launcelot. Meanwhile Elaine rides in search of Launcelot, and encounters Lavaine, who brings her to a hermitage. She swoons when she sees Launcelot wounded. When she comes to, Launcelot kisses her and tells her he’ll soon be cured. He hears that his name has been discovered, and realizes that many will soon be angry.
Launcelot’s grand plan of participating anonymously in the tournament begins to unravel (as such plans usually do in this book). Although Guenever has just recently repented for her jealousy towards Launcelot, she does not seem to remember this now, and instead grows almost wild with jealous anger. Meanwhile, Launcelot pities Elaine’s love for him even while he does not reciprocate it. Elaine shares a plight similar to many women, who always seem to be falling for the unavailable Launcelot.
Chapter 16 Sir Bors rides out until he finds Lavaine, who brings him to the hermitage. Bors is distraught at seeing Launcelot pale and weak in bed, and he begs Launcelot for forgiveness for wounding the noblest knight in the world. Launcelot says that he too was overly proud, since he came close to killing his friends and kin, so he can easily forgive Bors. Bors tells Launcelot about Guenever’s wrath, and Launcelot is sorry about it, saying that he cannot rid himself of Elaine—though Bors says he would do better to love Elaine than Guenever.
Sir Bors, of course, had no idea that the knight he wounded was Launcelot: for him, wounding Launcelot causes great shame, since Bors properly should admire and venerate Launcelot’s greatness. Launcelot, though, understands that he was probably in the wrong as well. Bors recognizes the tragic irony of Launcelot’s love for Guenever rather than Elaine, whom he could love freely.
Chapter 17 Once Launcelot is recovered, Sir Bors tells him of a great tournament that is taking place between Arthur and the King of Northgalis. They remain at the hermitage a month longer, with Elaine le Blank caring tenderly for Launcelot. One day Launcelot sends her to gather herbs for his bath, and meanwhile arms himself and prepares to leave. But as he is straining to get on his horse, his wound bursts and he begins to bleed, falling to earth. Bors and Lavaine hurry to him, as does Elaine, who cries that they were traitors to allow Launcelot to leave her. The hermit comes to see Launcelot, and angrily orders the knights to bring him inside. The hermit begins to tend to him, and when he awakens asks why he risked his life. The hermit tells Bors to leave for the tournament alone, and allow him to care for Launcelot himself.
To make up for what he considered to be his own shameful actions in wounding Launcelot, Sir Bors remains with him and Elaine le Blank—a month-long stay that underlines for him just how much better it would be for Launcelot (not to mention for the entire court) if Launcelot loved Elaine rather than Guenever. Nonetheless, Bors recognizes that this is not the case, although their attempt to sneak away without telling Elaine soon backfires. Launcelot, as usual, is far too eager to get back to the battlefield rather than remain with a woman who loves him unrequitedly.
Chapter 18 Bors leaves for Arthur’s court and shares news of Launcelot, telling the queen that Launcelot was in such a hurry and risked his life for love of her, to see her. All the foreign knights arrive, and the battle begins: Gawaine and Bors win the first day’s prize, though Gareth and Palomides also do well.
Sir Bors tries to pacify Guenever’s jealousy by sharing with her just how eager Launcelot has been to see her again (even though that now means that Launcelot won’t see her for a longer period of time).
Then Bors departs again and meets Launcelot, who is much improved. Bors tells him news of the jousting, and then they leave with Elaine le Blank for Astolat.
Finally, Launcelot is ready to reunite with Guenever, though he stays with Elaine just a bit longer.
Chapter 19 When Elaine le Blank realizes Launcelot is leaving her at Astolat, she asks him to have mercy on her and to marry her rather than letting die out of love. He refuses, even when she asks him only to be her lover. Launcelot says he’s sworn not to marry, but that once she chooses a husband, he will give a thousand pounds every year to her and her heirs while she lives. She refuses this, and then falls down in a faint. Bernard comes to Launcelot and says that Elaine may die for his sake. Launcelot says he wishes she didn’t love him so, but can’t do anything about it. He leaves with Lavaine for Camelot, where all rejoice at their return except Agravaine, Mordred, and Guenever, who refuses to speak with Launcelot.
Elaine’s love for Launcelot grows increasingly desperate as she realizes that she is on the verge of losing him—even to the extent that she offers to be his lover (rather than his wife). This is a shameful proposition for Launcelot, but ironically so, since of course that is the status of his relationship with Guenever. Launcelot is shockingly callous about Elaine’s feelings—of course he did not force them, but he also did not refrain from kissing her, for instance, when she asked him.
Meanwhile Elaine le Blank falls into a deep depression and refuses to eat or drink. 10 days later, before dying, she says she only loved Launcelot: loving him too much was her only sin. She dictates a letter to her father, asking it to be put in her hand, and her body laid in a barge to sail down the Thames.
Bernard’s warning to Launcelot was true, as Elaine le Blank becomes another of the several women in this story to be ultimately destroyed because of relationships with men that they cannot control.
Chapter 20 One day Arthur and Guenever are at a window, when they see a black barge riding down the Thames. The king orders a few knights to find what’s there. They see a beautiful corpse lying in the bed, and return to alert the king, who leads Guenever by the hand to the barge. The king takes the letter in the corpse’s hand and, among many knights, reads it aloud: it identifies the lady as Elaine le Blank and asks for a mass and burial, as well as for Launcelot to pray for her soul. Launcelot grows sorrowful when he learns of the lady’s death. The queen rebukes him for not showing Elaine more goodness, and he protests that he could not be her husband or paramour, and could not be forced into love. They bury her the next day, and then Guenever sends for Launcelot and says she was wrong to be angry with him. He says that this isn’t the first time she was angry with him for no cause, but he must endure whatever she throws at him.
Arthur and Guenever, as per Elaine le Blank’s wish before her death, are the ones to find her body. We are not told initially how Guenever feels about this discovery—it could easily increase her jealousy upon realizing the extent of Elaine’s feelings for Launcelot, or it could simply allow her to recognize that whatever took place between Elaine and Launcelot is now irrevocably finished. In either case, Guenever does realize that Elaine’s death was a tragedy that Launcelot was in many ways responsible for—but then she repents of rebuking Launcelot. Their relationship is, we can tell, growing increasingly tumultuous.
Chapter 21 Many jousts take place during that Christmas: Launcelot jousts rarely, but Lavaine always joins in and does better than almost all. Arthur decides to anoint him knight at the next feast of Pentecost, and prepares a great tournament. Guenever orders Launcelot never to disguise himself at a joust, and to always wear her sleeve of gold.
No longer is Launcelot constantly eager to prove himself in battles, given that he has other things to worry about, but the feast of Pentecost is the most important of the year (the time when the knights of the Round Table gather to renew their vows).
Launcelot and Lavaine decide to travel to a hermit to rest before the tournament. Every day Launcelot goes to a nearby well to sleep. In this forest a great lady hunter often goes hunting with her bow and female servants. One day she and her ladies chase a hind (female deer) through the forest: finally she shoots at it from afar, but accidentally shoots Launcelot, who is asleep, in the buttocks. He awakens, shouting.
Sometimes the tonal register of the stories shifts rapidly, as here the tone is more one of a farce than of an epic. This anecdote is also a reminder that, while women rarely can triumph over men in battle, they have plenty of other ways of asserting their power (even if accidentally, as here). The powerful female hunter seems reminiscent of Classical Greek figures like Artemis.
Chapter 22 The lady hunter protests that her hand swerved, and she leaves Launcelot, who limps to the hermitage. The hermit gets the arrow out, and Launcelot, though still wounded, swears he’ll still participate in the joust. Many foreign kings arrive, as well as many in Arthur’s party.
After having failed to participate in many other jousts and tournaments, Launcelot is now forced to deal with an entirely unnecessary wound, which may well compromise his performance.
Chapter 23 The horn blows and the kings of Ireland, Scotland, Northumberland, and Northgalis all joust. Arthur strikes down many other kings and knights, and the knights of the Round Table begin to triumph over those of Launcelot’s kin. Then Launcelot comes and strikes down Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Palomides. Arthur is angry, and calls together knights to fight back. Gareth disguises himself and performs well: Launcelot marvels, not recognizing him.
Here, Arthur’s knights of the Round Table are not united with but rather fight against the knights of Launcelot’s relation—since this is a friendly tournament, the sides and alliances can easily shift, although Arthur does take the events of the tournament quite seriously, seeking to avenge any loss. Yet again this “friendly” division between Launcelot’s allies and Arthur’s knights foreshadows a more serious division to come.
Chapter 24 The tournament lasts until night. Gawaine tells Arthur that he assumes Launcelot is the knight with a gold sleeve, and the knights next to him must be Lavaine and Gareth. After the horn is blown, the king rides after Launcelot, and tells him how well he’s done. There is a great feast, and Arthur tells Gareth that although he’s sorry that Gareth fought against, he’s seen how much glory Gareth has achieved.
Gawaine, once again, shows himself to be marginally more successful at identifying his fellow knights than other people are. His ability seemingly relies on the fact that identity is so closely tied to prowess in battle. Arthur, meanwhile, has his usual good sportsmanship despite his loss.
Chapter 25 The court is at peace until after Easter into May, the month of love. The narrator notes how unstable love can be in many people, yielding easily to betrayal and weakness. Guenever is one among few in history to remain steadfast and loyal in love.
In one of the rare narrative intrusions, the narrator/Malory muses on broader themes that arise from the characters’ actions, especially the affair between Launcelot and Guenever.