Chapter 1 One May morning Guenever orders the knights to prepare to ride into the woods with her ladies. Sir Meliagrance is in love with the queen, but fears to approach her when Launcelot is there. Now Launcelot is absent, so he thinks he’ll try his luck.
Although everyone at court is well aware of Launcelot and Guenever’s affair, until recently they have been wary of doing anything to provoke Launcelot or upset the peace of the court. Meliagrance’s love for Guenever, which in a previous section was only briefly mentioned (and was part of a semi-comic scene), now has dangerous repercussions for the kingdom.
Chapter 2 Meliagrance, with over a hundred armed men, sneaks up to Guenever and orders her 10 unarmed knights to fight for her. Guenever calls him a shameful traitor, but he cries that he’s loved her for many years and now he has a chance to take her. Guenever’s knights draw their swords and they fight. Many of the Round Table knights are wounded, so finally Guenever offers to go with Meliagrance if he stops fighting.
In another perversion of the code of knightly conduct, Meliagrance believes that if he can manage to triumph over Guenever’s knights, then the queen will be rightfully his. Since she cares so much about her knights’ wellbeing, Guenever chooses to sacrifice herself instead.
Chapter 3 As the knights recover from battle, Guenever whispers to a child of her chamber to take her ring to Launcelot and tell him what’s happened. Meliagrance takes Guenever to his castle. Meanwhile the child finds Launcelot in Westminster, and Launcelot cries that he must rescue his lady.
Launcelot’s absence once again leads to an opportunity for him to prove his loyalty to Guenever by rescuing her (an opportunity that she does not, tellingly, offer to her husband Arthur).
Chapter 4 Launcelot rides as quickly as he can. He reaches the place of battle, and then follows the track to a wood. There 30 archers lie in wait, left by Meliagrance to watch for Launcelot. They strike his horse from under him. Launcelot tries to fight them on foot, but they flee into the brambles, and he gets caught on them. Suddenly a chariot goes by with two men in it fetching wood from the forest, and one of the two refuses to give Launcelot a ride. Launcelot leaps to him and strikes him down dead, so the other driver offers to bring him wherever he’d like, his wounded horse following behind.
Meliagrance has planned in advance for Launcelot’s pursuit of him and Guenever by setting the archers to lie in wait behind him, but as usual, even large numbers of men are no match for Launcelot when he is angry. Launcelot’s flaws and weaknesses have been made increasingly apparent, but his vigor in defending Guenever is undiminished.
Guenever spies an armed knight approaching in a chariot. She realizes it’s Launcelot, who races to the castle gates, calling for the treacherous Meliagrance, and killing the porter as he enters.
It doesn’t take long after Guenever’s secret cry for help for her lover to arrive to avenge her kidnapping.
Chapter 5 Meliagrance hears that Launcelot is approaching, and quickly falls to his knees before Guenever to ask for mercy. He offers to host Launcelot in peace, and to allow them all to return to Westminster together. Guenever agrees, thinking peace is better than war. She tells the agreement to Launcelot, who says Meliagrance is still a coward, and if he’d know she would so soon make amends with him he wouldn’t have rushed to her. Guenever takes Launcelot to his wounded comrades, and together they seethe over Meliagrance: they would like to enact revenge if it weren’t for the queen’s will.
Although Meliagrance had drawn inspiration from the code of knightly conduct to then pervert it in the service of his own desires, he now shows himself to be entirely uninterested in following the code of honor, instead shamefully begging for mercy in order to save himself. While this act is considered shameful from the victim’s side, Launcelot knows that a victor must also take the honorable tack of granting such mercy.
Chapter 6 That night, Launcelot takes his sword and sneaks into the garden, where he can speak to Guenever from her window. The queen wishes he could come to her. Launcelot says he’ll prove his love with strength, and he pulls out the iron bars over her window. He hurts his hand doing this, but still leaps into the room, and they spend the night together. In the morning Sir Lavaine tends to the wound, but when Meliagrance enters Guenever’s room in the morning, he sees the blood Marks from Launcelot’s wounded hand, and cries that he has proof of her betrayal to Arthur. When her ten knights hear his words, they cry together that Meliagrance is wrong, and any of them will avenge that accusation. But Meliagrance points to the blood, convinced that it is from one of the wounded knights. They are ashamed.
Launcelot and Guenever have failed to be chastened even by Guenever’s attempted kidnapping, not to mention the fact that everyone at court knows about their affair—instead, Launcelot applies his usual loyalty and fearlessness to his relationship with the queen. Meliagrance, in fact, is still at court and seething from Launcelot’s rescue of Guenever, so he’ll take any chance he can get to avenge his defeat and dishonor (though at this point he does not know for certain that it was Launcelot bleeding on the bed, just that it was a wounded knight).
Chapter 7 Launcelot comes in as Meliagrance is triumphantly making his point, and says that it was shameful for Meliagrance to touch a queen’s bed while its curtains were. Meliagrance still insists that one of the ten wounded knights had to have slept with the queen, and he’ll prove it in battle. Launcelot agrees to fight in eight days. In the meantime, Meliagrance will let them depart. First, though, Launcelot agrees to have Meliagrance show him the castle. But as he goes through the house he steps on a trapdoor, and Launcelot falls ten fathoms into a cave of straw. Meliagrance puts away Launcelot’s horse, so everyone thinks that Launcelot has left suddenly. They return to Camelot and tell Arthur of Launcelot’s agreement to defend the queen of treason.
The ten knights had been wounded in the course of the battle between Launcelot and Meliagrance, so Meliagrance immediately assumes that it was one of them who slept with Guenever (not realizing that Launcelot immediately would have resumed his relationship with the queen). Meliagrance has not grown any more honorable since Launcelot granted him mercy, and he does not worry about the moral implications of tricking Launcelot and imprisoning him. Without Launcelot, the danger is that no one will again defend the queen’s honor.
Chapter 8 Launcelot lies in the cave in pain, and every day a lady brings him food or drink and tries to sleep with him, saying that only she can help him escape: but he always refuses. Finally she asks him to kiss her, and she’ll deliver him to freedom. Launcelot decides he won’t lose honor by doing so, so he kisses her. She brings him to a stable to choose a horse.
Launcelot’s encounter with this lady is another test of his loyalty to Guenever, a test that he largely passes—although it involves careful consideration of what romantic “loyalty” actually means, and if it does not include, for instance, a kiss.
Chapter 9 Meanwhile, Guenever is brought to a fire to be burnt, since Launcelot has not appeared at his battle with Meliagrance. Lavaine asks Arthur’s permission to fight instead, since Launcelot must either be dead or trapped in prison. But as he prepares to fight, Launcelot rides in, and tells the king and queen what had happened. Launcelot and Meliagrance fight and strike each other many times. Finally Launcelot strikes him down, and Meliagrance begs him to have mercy as a knight of the Round Table. Launcelot wants to kill Meliagrance but is conflicted. He looks up at Guenever, who seems to nod as if to say, kill him. Launcelot tells Meliagrance to rise and battle to the death. Launcelot offers to unarm his head and parts of his body, and then Meliagrance agrees. They fight again, and finally Launcelot strikes him on the helmet and splits his head in two.
Lavaine here takes the place of Sir Bors, who had previously been the one to fight instead of Launcelot at an earlier test against Guenever. Now it is Meliagrance who desires the queen to be burnt, since if he cannot possess her he only wants her to die. Once again Launcelot has to weigh his desire for enacting revenge against Meliagrance, his knowledge of the knight’s code of honor, and the wishes of his mistress Guenever. In this case, Guenever’s wishes win out, as Launcelot’s battle becomes a matter not only of avenging a wrong but also of fulfilling a lady’s wishes, another element of honor.
Chapter 10 A knight in Hungary, Sir Urre, has recently fought a Spanish earl’s son, Alphegus, and killed him, but is recovering from wounds. Alphegus’ mother is a witch and has cursed him such that he will never be cured until the best knight of the world looks after his wounds. Urre’s mother takes him to many lands and finally to Arthur’s court. Arthur welcomes him, encouraging his knights to try to heal Urre.
Apart from Merlin, the people in the book who possess the art of witchcraft are uniformly women, reminding us of the book’s simultaneous appreciation and suspicion of women’s power. Here, though, Urre’s wounds are another chance for Arthur’s knights to prove themselves.
Chapter 11 Arthur and other kings try but fail to heal the wounds, as well as many knights of the Round Table: the narrator lists over a hundred. They all fail.
This catalogue suggests that Arthur’s many knights, once among the world’s worthiest, now may no longer be.
Chapter 12 Arthur asks himself where Launcelot is. Finally Launcelot arrives to make his attempt, but he’s afraid of the shame if he fails. Still, when Urre himself asks, Launcelot prays to God to give him the ability to cure Urre. As Launcelot touches the wounds, they miraculously heal. The knights all kneel to thank God. Launcelot weeps like a child.
Having gone through the quest of the Holy Grail, when he was constantly told that he was not worthy enough, Launcelot is wary of this test—but to his great relief, it seems that he still is to be considered as the world’s best knight (especially now that Galahad has ascended to heaven).
Chapter 13 Arthur prepares two parties, each of 100 knights, for a joust. Lavaine and Urre joust the best that day: Arthur gives them each a barony. Urre and Lavaine swear to defend Launcelot forever. There is a time of peace at court, though Agravaine continues to wait to dishonor Guenever and Launcelot.
The end of each section of the book tends to be a time of rest and celebration between adventures—though here we are given some foreshadowing about the conflicts that will arise, and Arthur’s eminent downfall.