Previously, I posted a detailed summary of Books 1 and 2 or Malory’s “Morte D’Arthur.” Today, I have chosen bits of the other books to discuss.
Book XIII: This is the beginning of the Holy Grail legend. Arthur and his knights go down to the river, where they find a stone floating (note the magic, as stones generally sink to the bottom). In the stone is a magnificent sword, which is lettered in gold with the words “Never shall man take me hence but only he who is the best knight in the world.” This sword is not meant for the renowned Launcelot nor any of the other knights. Launcelot’s stone is the Siege Perilous. Therefore, Arthur and the knights return to the palace, but magic prevails. The palace becomes dark and all the windows and doors are closed and cannot be opened. Eventually, a old man dressed in white appears and with him is Galahad. The man claims Galahad is a descendant of the Biblical figure, Joseph of Arimathea, who caught the blood of the dying Christ in a goblet, i. e., the Holy Grail.
Galahad pulls out the sword from the floating stone. Amid thunder, the Holy Ghost enters the palace carrying the Holy Grail. The knights as a whole vow to pursue the quest of San greal (the Holy Grail). This book follows Galahad’s various adventures. The tales show his meeting Sir Launcelot and Sir Percevale, both of whom he defeats. Sir Launcelot enters a chapel to sleep, but he is plagued by dreams of a sick knight healed by San greal. Sir Launcelot’s sin of desiring Guinevere prevents him from being worthy of the Holy Grail. Launcelot encounters a hermit to whom he confesses his sinful love of Guinevere. The hermit makes him promise not to love her longer, and then he shrives him.
Book XVII: Having decided to rescue the inhabitants of a besieged castle, Galahad takes on first Gawain and then Ector. Afterwards, near the Castle Caroneck, he meets a gentlewoman, who tells him to follow her, which he does. She leads him to a ship carrying Perceval and Bors. This ship takes them to a second one, which carries a warning that only the most worthy of knights may board. This message come is the form of a strange sword. This sword brings death to the one who drew it, unless the man be a perfect knight.
“Outside the ship, they meet Sir Percivale’s sister, who explains the history of the boat and the marvelous sword they will find inside it. The knights encourage Galahad to take the sword, which he does, naturally. The knights and maiden reboard the other ship (the one that bore Percyvale and Bors), which carries them to the Castle of Carteloyse in the Scottish Marches. There, they meet with hostile occupants and kill them all. Then they learn from the priest of the castle that they rescued the castle from three brothers who committed incest with their sister. Next, the knights and maiden come to a desolate forest, where they glimpse four lions led by a white hart. The four lions change into a man, lion, eagle, and ox. They learn that the hart represents Christ, and the lions stand for the four gospel-writers. The company arrives at a castle, where the knights must fight to prevent Percivale’s sister from having to give a basin full of blood. When the fight ends in a draw, the party agrees to lodge in the castle for the night and continue fighting the next day.When Percivale’s sister learns that the custom of the castle that involves bleeding a maiden is to save the life of its lady, she agrees to be bled, but loses her life in the process.” (Shmoop)
The next part deals with Launcelot. “A voice tells Launcelot to enter into the first ship that he finds. When he does, he finds Sir Percivale’s dead sister on board and reads a letter telling of the adventures that led to her death. Sir Galahad boards the ship also, and he and Launcelot sail together for six months, fighting a ton of wild beasts and having wild adventures. And it is, until a white knight on a white horse arrives and tells them it’s time to separate, and that this will be the last time they see one another. The boat takes Launcelot to a castle, which he enters, arriving before a locked door.Launcelot prays before the chamber door and it opens. He then sees a silver table and a holy vessel covered in red silk, but when he tries to enter, a fiery breath knocks him right out. The people of the castle care for Launcelot, and he awakes from his sleep after twenty-four days, which represent the twenty-four years he lived in sin. The people of the Castle (which turns out to be Carbonek, King Pelles’ palace) tell Launcelot he’ll never see more of the Grail than he has already seen, so he decides to return to Logres. On his way to Logres, Launcelot sees Badgemagus’ tomb and learns that he was slain by Gawain. Launcelot returns to Arthur’s court, done with his grail quest.” (Shmoop)
The third part of the book returns to Galahad and achieving the Holy Grail. A vision appears to Sir Galahad in which delightful food is placed before him. Galahad anoints a cripple and makes the man whole. Galadhad is captured by a tyrannical king who places him and his companions in prison, but they are consoled by the San greal. The wicked king dies and Galahad is chosen as the new king. Soon after, Joseph of Arimathea appears and calls Galahad to Heaven. The pure knight is dead. Since then, no man has seen the Holy Grail.
Book XXI: Sir Mordred, Arthur’s nephew, proclaims falsely that Arthur is dead and seizes the kingdom and Guinevere, who resists his advances. Mordred is excommunicated (for trying to marry his father’s wife) by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who quickly makes an exit to Glastonbury Abbey to hide from Mordred’s threats to kill him. Arthur receives word of Mordred’s plot and returns to England, forcing Mordred’s retreat to Dover. In the battle, Launcelot wounds Gawain, causing Gawain to take to his deathbed. On his deathbed, Gawain writes to Launcelot and begs Launcelot to come to Arthur’s aid. Arthur forces Mordred’s army to retreat to Salisbury Plain, where the two armies will meet on the Monday after Trinity Sunday. Arthur’s dreams hold a prophesy of his imminent death. Arthur’s knights suggest that Arthur cede some lands to Mordred rather than to meet in battle. Mordred agrees, but in signing the treaty one of Mordred’s men withdraws his sword when he sees a black snake (part of Arthur’s dream). The knights take up the fight. Arthur kills Mordred with a spear, but before he dies, Mordred plunges his sword into Arthur’s head. Arthur commands Sir Bedivere to cast the sword Excalibur into the lake. Bedivere hesitates, but on the third attempt, he throws the sword into the water, where the Lady of the Lake reclaims it. A barge containing ladies comes to receive the wounded king and to escort him to Avylyon, to either be healed or die. None know of Arthur’s actual death. Upon his tomb is written “Hic facet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futures,” which means “Here lies Arthur, king who was and king who will be.”
(Image via Lancelot and Guinevere by deskridge on DeviantArt
deskridge.deviantart.com) When Guinevere learns of her husband’s death she becomes a nun. Launcelot seeks her out at the Nunnery at Almesbury, but Guinevere is repentant of their sinful love and tells Launcelot to leave her. It is her belief that her sins caused the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom. He assures her that he, too, will do penance for their adultery. He travels to the monastery where Bedivere has become a monk, where he joins the holy order. After six years, Launcelot has a dream detailing Guinevere death. He decides it is only proper to fetch Guinevere’s body and see that it is buried beside Arthur. Unfortunately, the sight of the two graves sends Launcelot into a great depression. He refuses water and food and within six weeks, Launcelot is dead of a broken heart. All of Launcelot’s knights take holy orders to become monks. Sir Cador’s son, Sir Constantyn, becomes King of England.
Criticisms and Praise: Malory doesn’t give his characters any depth of reality. There’s no psychological depth to make the characters three dimensional. Malory accepted the Arthurian legend as he found it. Because of this the stories are full of incongruities, particularly the tale of Sir Gawain. It is a bit ironic that the characters of Launcelot and Guinevere are more developed than Arthur, for the tale is told. Malory lacked the humor to add realism and the writer’s prowess to add sympathy for a beloved hero.
The tale is full of action, which for the bloodthirsty is quite satisfying. Malory also employs a dignified, simple, direct prose with a distinct rhythm.