For those of you who have never read Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or have not read it since you were in secondary school, I intend to keep this simple (or as simple as a 545 years old story can be). First, Malory complete the story about 1470, and William Caxton printed it for the first time in 1485. Malory’s tale is a compilation of stories of Arthur and his knights being drawn from both English and French sources. The cycle stories had developed gradually, but it was Malory that wove them together into a consecutive and unified order. Le Morte d’Arthur serves as the standard for later versions of tales of King Arthur.
The tale is divided into 21 books. Several predominate themes appear in the tales, including identity, loyalty, betrayal, vengeance, traditions and customs, rules of order, strength and skill, and love.
Book 1 – Uther Pendragon, King of England, falls in love with the Duke of Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne. Cornwall recognizes Uther’s intention of a seduction, and so he removes his wife to the fortress at Tintagel, while Cornwall holds up at Terrabyl. Uther attacks both castles. Uther grows sick during the siege, supposedly from anger with Cornwall and a desire for Igrayne. Sir Ulfius suggests that Uther seek the assistance of the wizard Merlin for a cure. Uther makes a bargain with Merlin to give Uther the duke’s wife. Merlin asks for the child Uther will sire as payment for the “gift.” Uther manages to kill Cornwall in a battle, and then he enters Tintagel in the form of the duke, where he seduces Igrayne. Arthur’s barons insist he marry Igrayne, and so he does. Igrayne’s sisters also make good marriages, with Morgause marrying King Lot of Orkney, and Elayne ending up with King Nentres of Garlot. Another sister, Morgan le Fay, is sent to school in a nunnery where she becomes a great sorceress. Afterward, she marries Uriens of Gore.
On the night of the seduction, Uther begets Arthur. Arthur is born and given by Merlin to Sir Ector to foster. A brief battle takes place between Uther and his enemies, but shortly after the victory, Uther takes ill. Upon his death bed, Uther names Arthur as his heir. Even so, the kingdom is in disarray, with much in-fighting among the lords for power. Merlin suggests to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Christ-child will complete a miracle at Christmas, and the powerful lords of the kingdom should stand witness. The lords come to London and, as they’re busy praying in the cathedral, a sword appears in the churchyard, stuck in a stone bearing the inscription “Whoso pulleth oute this swerd of this stone and anvyl is rightwys kynge borne of all Englond.” No one is capable of removing the sword, although many try.
Sir Ector and his son Sir Kay, along with Arthur, mean to participate in a joust on New Years’ Day, but Sir Kay forgets his sword and sends Arthur back to retrieve it. Unable to get into the locked house, Arthur does the next best thing: He extracts the sword from the stone. When Kay and Ector see it, they recognize it and understand that Arthur must be the king. Ector swears his loyalty to Arthur and asks him to make Kay his seneschal, to which Arthur agrees. As none of the other lords could withdraw the sword, they are faced with the possibility of being ruled by an unknown, and they object strongly. They go about delaying the decision by first suggesting a wait of one month and then until Pentecost. At length, the common people accept Arthur as king, and the lords must bend to their wishes.
Arthur is to celebrate his coronation at the next Pentecost with a feast in Carlyon. Six kings oppose him, and Arthur’s army manages to send them packing for a time, but fearing their return, Merlin suggests that Arthur seek the assistance of Ban and Bors of Gual, who make an alliance with Arthur. “Meanwhile, the force opposing Arthur has grown by five kings and includes fifty-thousand mounted knights and ten thousand footmen. They besiege the castle of Bedgrayne, then withdraw, leaving only a few men there to continue the siege. Arthur’s forces set upon their encampment and a long battle begins. Both sides fight bravely and it looks like the battle could last for a long time. Arthur’s forces set upon their encampment and a long battle begins. Both sides fight bravely and it looks like the battle could last for a long time. Arthur withdraws, rewarding his knights and Ban and Bors richly with the spoils of battle. Meanwhile, an earl named Saman shows up with his daughter, Lyonors, to pay homage to Arthur. Arthur promptly sleeps with Lyonors and conceives a son named Borce with her. Then, Arthur, Ban, and Bors help King Lodegreaunce of Camylard defend his Kingdom against King Ryons of Wales. While there, Arthur meets a girl named Gwenyvere for the first time. Ah, so this is the famous Gwenyvere.” (Shmoop)
“Arthur returns to Carlyon, where King Lot’s wife, Morgause, soon arrives. Apparently, she’s there to deliver a message, but in reality, she just wants to spy on Arthur’s court. Arthur sleeps with her, too, and conceives a son, Mordred. After this, Arthur dreams that griffins and serpents come into his lands and fight with him, but he kills them in the end. Gee, we wonder what inspired that dream… To get his dream out of his mind, Arthur goes hunting. He chases a hart (a deer) but it gets away. Then Arthur sits down by a fountain to think. The questing beast, an animal whose belly makes a great noise like the sound of thirty baying hounds, passes by, followed by a man named King Pellynore in hot pursuit. Pellynore argues with Arthur about which one of them should pursue the beast further, then steals Arthur’s horse, the jerk.
“Later, Merlin, in the guise of a young child, tells Arthur that his father was Uther and his mother was Igrayne. Then, in the guise of an old man, he tells Arthur that he has conceived a child with his sister, and that child will destroy his kingdom. Arthur wants to know if this is true, so he asks Ector, who backs up Merlin. Then Arthur sends for Igrayne and has a joyful reunion with his mother. Meanwhile, a squire brings the body of his master to Arthur’s court and tells how a knight in the forest killed him. He asks for a good burial and revenge. A very young guy named Gryfflet asks to be made a knight so he can undertake the challenge. But when he fights with the knight in the woods, he’s defeated. He returns to Arthur’s court, badly wounded, and good doctors heal him.
“Twelve knights arrive from the Emperor of Rome, demanding homage, or a show of respect. He offers instead to give them homage with a sharp sword or spear. Arthur rides out to avenge Sir Gryfflet and engages the mysterious knight, who turns out to be Sir Pellynore. Just as Sir Pellynore is about to kill Arthur, Merlin appears and enchants him into a deep sleep. Merlin takes Arthur to a lake. As creepy as it sounds, they see an arm clothed in white samite, rising out of the water, holding a sword. A woman boating on the lake tells Arthur that the sword is hers, but that he can have it if he promises to give her whatever she asks – a favor to be claimed later. Arthur and Merlin ride out on a barge to the middle of the lake and take the sword from the woman. After that, Arthur returns to court, passing an enchanted Sir Pellynore, who fails to recognize him, on the way.
“King Royns of North Wales sends a message to Arthur, saying he has defeated and taken the beards of the alliance of eleven knights, and wants Arthur’s beard, too. Arthur refuses to pay him homage. At Merlin’s advice, Arthur acts on the mother of all bad ideas and has all the babies in the land who were born on May Day put out to sea in the hope of destroying Mordred, who, you’ll remember, was predicted to destroy Arthur’s kingdom. All the babies die in a shipwreck except for Mordred, who is fostered by a good man until he is fourteen. King Royns receives Arthur’s message and gets crazy angry.” (Shmoop)
Book 2 – “The Tale of Balyn and Balan: While Arthur’s in London, a knight arrives and tells him that King Ryons has amassed a large force and is burning and pillaging the lands of Arthur’s vassals. Arthur calls a council of all his men. During the council, a woman arrives saying she comes as a messenger from Lady Lyle of Avillion. When the lady raises her mantle, everyone sees that she’s wearing a sword. When Arthur inquires why she wears the sword, she tells everyone that she must wear it until a knight without treachery and treason draws it from the scabbard. All the knights at the council try to remove it, but none can.
“As the lady is leaving, a poorly-attired Northumbrian knight named Balyn asks to be allowed to attempt to pull the sword despite his poor appearance and succeeds. The lady asks for her sword back, but Balyn refuses. Then the lady tells him that it is for his own good that she asks for the sword back because if he keeps it, he will kill the person most dear to him with it. Then the Lady of the Lake arrives in court and demands the favor Arthur promised her in exchange for Excalibur (the sword he got from the lake): she wants the head (i.e. death) of Balyn or the sword-lady, claiming that Balyn killed her brother and the sword-lady killed her father.
“When Balyn finds out the Lady of the Lake demanded his head, he kills her, disgracing Arthur and getting himself exiled from court. So an Irish knight named Sir Launceor asks permission to be allowed to pursue and fight with Balyn to avenge Arthur’s disgrace, and Arthur grants it. Launceor and Balyn fight, and Balyn kills Launceor. A lady riding in pursuit of Launceor comes upon the scene and declares herself Launceor’s love, then falls upon his sword, killing herself.
“Balyn’s brother Balan rides onto the scene, and the two agree to head off together in pursuit of King Ryons so that Balyn can get back into Arthur’s good graces, Meanwhile, King Mark of Cornwall arrives and erects a rich tomb for the two lovers, Sir Launceor and Lady Columbe. While he is doing this, Merlin arrives and prophesies that Launcelot du Lake and Trystram will fight a battle in this place. Merlin tells Balyn that because of the death of Lady Columbe, he will strike a “stroke most dolorous,” through which three kingdoms will be destroyed.
“When Mark asks Balyn’s name, Balan tells him to call him “the Knight with the two Swords,” because he carries two: his own, and the one he refused to give back to the sword-lady. Balyn and Balan ride off in pursuit of King Ryons. Along the way they meet Merlin, who offers to help them catch the king. The three take shelter in a grove along the roadside. When Ryons passes by on his way to a rendezvous with a lover, Balyn and Balan leap out and strike down forty of his men, then capture him. They send Ryons to Arthur as a gift from the Knight with the Two Swords and his brother, whom Merlin explains to Arthur are Balyn and Balan.
“Soon, Ryons’ seriously angry brother, Nero, attacks Arthur at Castle Terrable. Luckily, Balyn and Balan are around to fight bravely in the battle. When Lot (Morgause’s husband) finds out that Arthur has just fought with and killed Nero, he takes advantage of the fact that Arthur’s forces are tired and mounts an attack. But King Pellynore kills King Lot during the fight, and the rest of his alliance flee and are later killed too. Unfortunately, this does not exactly sit well with Lot’s son, Gawain, who vows to take revenge on Pellynore for his father’s death.
“Merlin warns Arthur never to part with the scabbard of Excalibur, for as long as he wears it, he cannot lose a drop of blood. But Arthur makes the mistake of giving it to his sister Morgan le Fay, who substitutes a fake one in its place. Merlin prophesies that Arthur will fight a great battle near Salisbury with his own son, Mordred. This rather upsetting news causes Arthur to become ill, and he pitches some tents in a meadow where he tries to rest. A sorrowful knight passes by on a horse and Arthur asks him to stop, but he refuses. When Balyn passes by a few minutes later, Arthur asks him to bring the knight to him.
“Balyn finds the knight with a lady and promises him safety if the knight come with him. On the way back to Arthur, however, an invisible knight kills the sorrowful one with a spear. Balyn promises to continue this knight’s quest and avenge his death, whom the dying knight informs Balyn is named Garlonde. Balyn and the lady continue into a forest, where they meet with another knight, Peryne de Mounte Belyarde, who joins their party. Unfortunately, Garlonde kills him, too.
“Balyn constructs a tomb for Peryne. The next morning, he and the lady find the following written on it, in gold lettering: ‘Sir Gawain shall revenge his father’s death on King Pellynore.’ Balyn and the lady ride into a castle where the custom is to bleed young women in the hope that the blood of a maiden will heal the lady of the castle. The lady agrees to be bled, but her blood doesn’t work. Then the lady and Balyn lodge with a gentleman whose son has been badly wounded by Sir Garlonde and cannot be healed except with some of Sir Garlonde’s blood. The gentleman tells Balyn he can find Sir Garlonde at a feast held by King Pellam of Lystenoyse, so they immediately take off in that direction.
“Once there, Balyn sees Garlonde, who slaps him for staring. So Balyn kills Garlonde. The knights of the castle and King Pellam set upon Balyn for killing Garlonde, who turns out to be King Pellam’s brother. After a stroke from King Pellam causes Balyn’s own sword to break, he runs through the castle until he comes to a richly decorated chamber in which someone lies in a bed. From the bedside table, Balyn grabs a strange spear. He uses it to kill King Pellam, which prompts the whole castle to crumble, killing or trapping everyone inside.
“Luckily, Merlin is there to rescue Balyn from the castle. Merlin tells Balyn that he has struck the “Dolorous Stroke,” for which vengeance will fall upon him. Next, Balyn meets with a knight weeping by a tree and finds out that the man, Sir Garnyssh, is sad because his lady has failed to meet him as promised. The two of them ride to the castle where she lives. When Balyn goes inside, he finds the woman in the arms of another man. He brings Garnyssh there to see. Garnyssh promptly kills the two lovers, then kills himself.
“Balyn rides away quickly to avoid blame for the deaths. He decides to ride into another castle, despite being warned away from it by a sign that says, “It is not for no knight alone to ride toward this castle,” as well as an old man telling him to turn away. Once he reaches the castle, the chief lady tells him that the custom is that all entering knights must joust with a knight who refuses to let anyone on his island. Fearless, hot-headed Balyn agrees. Before leaving for the island, he trades shields with another knight who thinks Balyn’s is too small. The Knight of the Island is actually Balan, who fails to recognize his brother because he’s now carrying the wrong shield. The two knights fight a fierce battle, disarming one another completely and wounding one another fatally.
“After both knights have fallen, Balyn asks the other knight his name and learns that it is Balan. The lady of the nearby tower arrives on the scene and agrees to Balan’s entreaty to bury the two brothers together. Then she wrangles a priest who gives them their last rites, and they die within a day of one another.The lady erects a tomb for the brothers. Merlin arrives and inscribes it. He places Balyn’s sword in a marble stone that’s floating above the water. He leaves the scabbard on the shore near the island. Merlin prophesies that the man who is able to handle Balyn’s sword next will be the best knight in the world: Launcelot, or his son, Galahad.” (Shmoop)