Chapter 1 King Arthur rests after many long wars. Then, during a feast, twelve old men come as messengers from the Emperor Lucius at Rome, commanding Arthur to send tribute. If he refuses, Lucius will make a great war against Arthur’s land. Arthur respects the Romans, so he treats the messengers well, and draws his council together. Arthur says he’ll never pay tribute to Rome.
Once again, Arthur is given little chance to rest between wars before he once more finds himself needing to defend his honor. This is a touchy subject, since at this time England is still ruled by the Catholic Church, but religious and royal sovereignty are already seen to be clashing.
Chapter 2 King Anguish of Scotland says that when the Romans reigned over his lands they extorted the people unfairly. He says he’ll pledge 20,000 soldiers to Arthur to fight against Rome. The other kings and knights at the feast agree and pledge thousands of men themselves. Arthur returns to the messengers and tells them he won’t pay tribute, since he has sovereignty over his own empire: he will take his army to Rome to fight. Emperor Lucius is furious when he hears, but one of his senators says that he is worried they have provoked Arthur’s wrath: Arthur is the noblest king of all and is likely to conquer the world. Lucius decides to send for all the subjects and allies of Rome to fight with him, as well as 50 giants.
Already it seems that other realms near England have started to feel repressed by the far-away forces of Rome. Emperor Lucius (and this entire following sequence) is entirely mythical (there is no historical evidence for it), though Lucius is certainly based upon other Roman emperors of the time, who saw all the lands outside of Rome as belonging to “barbarians.” This huge impending war essentially boils down to a matter of honor, as Lucius cannot turn back now that Arthur has insulted him.
Chapter 3 Arthur gathers his army together, and ordains two governors, including Sir Constantine, to govern the kingdom while he’s gone, along with his Queen Guenever, who faints away in sorrow when Arthur leaves. Before departing, Arthur names Sir Constantine as his heir.
Guenever and Arthur both know that, while Arthur has vowed to defend his kingdom’s honor, this might be at the cost of his life, in which case he would want to leave the kingdom more stable than it was when he inherited it. Constantine doesn’t appear again until the end of the book, when he does indeed become king after Arthur’s death.
Chapter 4 In his ship, Arthur dreams of a dragon that kills many of his people and bathes the land and waters in flame. Then a black boar seems to rise from the east, a hideous beast, and fights against the dragon until both are bloody. Then the dragon strikes the boar on a ridge, exploding it into nothing more than a powder that spreads over the sea. Arthur sends for a philosopher, who tells him that the dragon is himself, with the colors of his wings the kingdoms he’s won, and his tail the knights of the Round Table. The boar is a tyrant whom Arthur will have to fight against.
Arthur often seems to have powerful and enigmatic dreams like this, dreams that are used as mysterious symbols for what may follow. A philosopher can be an interpreter of dreams in this society, able to define what the strange elements of the dream might mean. The philosopher parses out much of the dream, but still cannot foretell Arthur’s ultimate destiny in the war.
Chapter 5 A man comes to Arthur and tells him that a giant has been killing people in the country of Constantine for seven years, and now has kidnapped the Duchess of Brittany, the wife of Arthur’s cousin Sir Howell. He points to two great fires in the distance and says he’ll find the giant there. Arthur calls for Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, and tells them to prepare themselves. Armed, they ride fast to Saint Michael’s mount, where Arthur finds a sorrowful widow. She says there is a devil nearby whom no one can conquer. Arthur says he comes from King Arthur’s court, and she says the giant lusts after Guenever.
Although Arthur has been preparing to fight the armies of Rome, he is quickly sidetracked by another adventure—a quest that he feels himself obligated to fulfill, especially because of his family ties. They move to France (Mont Saint-Michel is the present-day name of the mountain), and are further instructed by a woman in mourning, a common motif throughout these stories as Arthur’s knights must intervene to avenge women’s lost lovers.
Arthur continues onto a hill where he sees the giant gnawing at a man’s limb, and baking damsels and young children on a skewer. Arthur yells out insults at him, and the giant rises up and strikes at the king with a club. Arthur carves out the giant’s belly, but then the giant catches Arthur in his arms and crushes him. Writhing, Arthur strikes him with a dagger, killing him. Kay and Bedivere cut off the giant’s head and bear it on a platter to Sir Howell, who thanks God and the knights. Arthur tells Howell to build a church on the same hill. As he is resting, two messengers say that the Roman emperor Lucius has entered France, and is destroying many people and towns.
This is the first scene since the early books when King Arthur, rather than remaining at court in his throne and watching over his knights, actually participates in an adventure and a quest of his own—proving that he is still the worthy king of England who pulled the sword from the stone as a young boy. The church to be built is a typical way for Arthur to commemorate his prowess, balancing both his royal might with his sense of holiness as a Christian.
Chapter 6 Arthur sends Sir Gawaine, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Lionel, and Sir Bedivere to Lucius to tell him to stop, or else to prepare to battle Arthur’s own men. Lucius tells them to tell Arthur that he will subdue all of Arthur’s men. Gawaine angrily says that all of France should fight against Lucius. A Roman knight mocks him, saying that Britons are proud and boastful: this angers Gawaine even more, and he cuts off his head. Gawaine and the others race off with the Romans chasing after them.
After the interlude with the giant, Arthur is aware that Lucius is beginning to gain momentum and hubris and must be stopped. But once again, Gawaine’s hot temper gets the better of him, as he proves unable to be a coolly diplomatic player and instead embraces revenge—which now only puts the group into greater danger. Gawaine’s stubbornness and temper will ultimately contribute to the downfall of the kingdom, and he seems like a “dishonorable” knight in many ways, but he is still Arthur’s nephew and so one of the more important knights in the book.
The Romans gather their army and capture Sir Bors de Ganis, but Gawaine and another knight rescue them. Gawaine sends for Arthur for help. Before Arthur arrives, Gawaine and the others manage to make the Romans flee, though Gawaine himself is wounded. Over 10,000 of Romans are slain, so the Britons rejoice. They send many prisoners to Paris.
As a result of Gawaine’s heady actions, the battles between the Britons and Romans begin more abruptly than was expected. Despite lacking their king (and despite Gawaine being wounded) the English manage to hold off Lucius.
Chapter 7 Lucius learns of the route the Roman prisoners are taking, so he sends 60,000 men to rescue them. Sir Launcelot and Sir Cador, in charge of the prisoners, send a knight to scout the woods, and he sees the massive Roman camp. Launcelot and Cador have only 10,000 men, but they kill many Romans. Arthur praises them for their courage in fighting despite being overmatched, and Launcelot says that it would be shameful not to fight.
Although Launcelot and Cador are outmatched six to one (a situation in which, for Arthur’s knights, the most honorable thing would be to wait until they were evenly matched), it is just as honorable for them, in opposite circumstances, to embrace this unequal match as an opportunity to prove themselves. This is the first time Launcelot appears in person in the book, and he is already an important knight.
Chapter 8 Meanwhile, one of the Roman soldiers had escaped to tell Lucius that it would be better to withdraw, but Lucius says this would be cowardly. He tries to restore confidence in his men before another massive battle, and meanwhile Arthur does the same. The battle lasts a long time, with bloodshed on both sides, until Arthur catches sight of Lucius and rides to him, cutting off his head with Excalibur. The Romans begin to flee, but the Britons chase them down and kill them all: over 100,000 men. Then Arthur buries Lucius—as well as the senators of Rome, the Sudan of Syria, and the Kings of Egypt and Ethiopia—with extravagant funerals. Arthur asks three surviving senators to carry the bodies to Rome, and to report that this is his tribute and he will pay no other, not now or ever. The senators go to Rome and advise the Potestate (military tribunal) and Senate not to wage war against Arthur any more.
Lucius now finds himself in a difficult position: he most likely recognizes that he should have listened to the senator who warned him against fighting Arthur, but now that he’s in the thick of battle he retains too great a sense of pride and honor to withdraw and ask for mercy. Instead, he rides into battle and gives Arthur a chance to kill him. The numbers at stake here are staggering, and rather than a purely realistic account are meant more to underline just how remarkable Arthur’s (mythical) victory was, and to what extent he has spread his might over lands far beyond the British Isles. In this section, particularly, Arthur becomes a larger-than-life figure, defeating even the most powerful empire on earth at the time.
Chapter 19 Arthur and his men ride through Lorraine, Flanders, and into Tuscany, which they besiege since the inhabitants refuse to obey Arthur. Arthur sends several knights, led by Gawaine, to find food in the forest. Gawaine, seeking adventure, steals away and comes across an armed man with a gold and silver shield. In response to Gawaine’s demand, he says he is from Tuscany, and boasts that he can easily take Gawaine prisoner. Gawaine prepares to fight him.
Now buoyed by their great victory against Rome and the Romans’ allies, Arthur and his knights seem entirely unafraid of facing more challenges, especially when the conquered populations refuse to yield to the new conquerors, who are, to them, still no more than foreign invaders.
Chapter 10 The two men run at each other with their spears, and Gawaine deeply wounds the knight, who nevertheless manages to wound Gawaine as well. The knight cries that anyone wounded with his blade will never be able to stop bleeding. He says that if Gawaine helps him and christens him, he will tell Gawaine how he can be healed. His name is Priamus, descended from Alexander the Great, and he has never believed anyone could fight better than he could. Gawaine shares where he comes from, and Priamus, impressed, warns him that the Dukes of Lorraine and Lombardy and the Saracens of Southland, 60,000 in all, are close by preparing for battle, so they should slip away.
This scene shows yet another possible outcome of a battle between two unknown knights. Priamus only reveals his identity once both he and Gawaine are wounded, but it is this identity that gives both knights a possibility of surviving. Sharing their lineages, both Gawaine and Priamus respect each other even more, since they know they each come from noble blood. Gawaine’s new ally also shares that Arthur’s men are hardly out of danger already.
Priamus and Gawaine ride to a distant meadow, where Priamus takes out a vial full of waters from Paradise (the Garden of Eden). He washes all their wounds with the water, healing them. They then return to Gawaine’s companions, and Gawaine suggests they prepare to fight against the Saracens.
Christian symbolism and magic are again closely tied: here, the Garden of Eden serves as a material, historical, and symbolic site with such a holy and magical status that it retains the power to heal deadly wounds.
Chapter 11 Gawaine goes with an earl, his knights and Priamus’s knights to join the forces against the Saracens. A giant kills many Britons, but they kill many more, finally conquering: they return to Arthur with prisoners and treasure.
Though the gathering enemy troops had sounded ominous, with Gawaine’s new allies they are relatively easily subdued, helping to cement Arthur’s hold over the region.
Chapter 12 Gawaine introduces Priamus to Arthur and tells him of their adventure. Arthur makes him a knight of the Round Table. Then they lay siege to a city until a duchess with other ladies come kneel before Arthur and ask for mercy. Arthur calls for a halt, and the son of the city’s duke brings Arthur the castle keys. Arthur seizes control of the town and sends the duke to Dover to be a prisoner there. Then, he appoints lords to rule over that land and continues on to Rome.
Arthur and his knights are not yet finished with laying siege to any castles they can—they consider it their right as conquerors—but the book also takes care to show how to the inhabitants of the conquered castles these actions are seen as unjust. Yet “might is right” is essentially the rule in Arthur’s world.
On the way they lay siege to the city of Urbino, though Arthur orders his men not to do harm to any women. When the people of Milan hear about Arthur and his conquering armies, those inhabitants send Arthur money and promise to be his subjects. Arthur and his men also gain many towns and castles in Tuscany. Finally the cardinals and senators in Rome ride out to meet Arthur and ask for peace, agreeing to crown him emperor. Arthur is crowned emperor by the pope in Rome and establishes his kingdom from Rome into France. He appoints dukes and earls, then gathers all of them and says that the conquest is achieved and it is time to return home. They must not rob or do harm along the way. They return via Sandwich, where Guenever greets Arthur joyfully.
Little by little, Arthur seems to recall the code of chivalry that he had instilled in all his knights, but which seemed to fall by the wayside somewhat when what really mattered was to conquer the Romans and others at all cost. But it is by slowly taking over various Italian towns that Arthur manages to make the Roman leaders realize that they must come to some kind of peace with Arthur, especially now that they no longer have Emperor Lucius. With this peace treaty the present “book” comes to a close.