Le Morte d’Arthur Summary
Le Morte d’Arthur is the tale of King Arthur. It begins with the formation of the Knights of the Round Table and follows the rise of King Arthur and his tragic fall. The story begins with Uther Pendragon, the King of England who lusts after Igraine, who happens to be the wife of the Duke of Tintagil. They conceive a child together and name him Arthur who is then sent to be raised by a surrogate family. With the birth of Arthur, Merlin the sorcerer pronounces a prophecy that the boy will one day become the High King of a United England.
Chaos ensues after the death of Uther with the various parties warring for the throne. Arthur emerges as the rightful king after he pulls the sword from the stone as foretold by Merlin. With this, Arthur learns of his true lineage and accepts his place as king. Unfortunately, Arthur has gotten his half-sister pregnant who gives birth to Mordred, the one who is destined to kill Arthur. However, Arthur takes the crown and established order in the realm with his Knights of the Round Table.
The books of Le Morte d’Arthur each center on a particular character form the Arthurian legends.
Book I details the birth and early rise of King Arthur. We also follow two important campaigns led by the young king. We learn of his alliance with the French Kings Ban and Bors. Arthur attempts to kill his son begotten by and incestuous relationship in order to stop him from destroying the kingdom. And we read of Merlin’s prophecies regarding the rise of the Round Table.
Book II follows Sir Balin, known as the Kight of Two Swords, and his brother Sir Balan. They help unite the kingdom with their defeat of King Rience of Wales. This victory leads to the defeat of the twelve kings of the north. The two brothers end tragically when they kill each other in case of mistaken identity.
In Book III we learn of the Arthur’s marriage to Queen Guinever. We also get a more thorough introduction to the Knights of the Round Table, and are introduced to Sir Gawaine, Arthur’s nephew Sir Pellinore, and Pellinore’s son Sir Tor.
It is in Book IV that witness the death of Merlin after he is buried alive by the Damosel of the Lake, Nimue. Arthur fights a brief war with the five kings of the north. And we are introduced to Morgan le Fay who is Arthur’s half-sister, mother of Mordred, and his arch-enemy.
In Book V the twelve delegates of the Roman Emperor Lucius arrive and demand that Arthur pay taxes to Rome. Arthur faces war with Rome after he refuses. Against the mighty army of the Romans, Arthur and his knights prevail, and they move on into Europe. They make their way to Rome and Arthur is crowned Emperor of Rome. In this book we are also introduced to Sir Launcelot, a central character in the Arthurian legend.
Book VI follows the quests and adventures of Sir Launcelot, where he battles and destroys two giants. Sir Launcelot distinguishes himself as the finest knight of the Round Table, and indeed in the world. We also learn that Launcelot is in love with Queen Guinever.
Although the bulk of Mallory’s text is taken directly from the Arthurian tradition, Book VII emerges as fairly unique. In this book a mysterious young man arrives at court where he is mocked by Sir Kay. He calls the young man “Baumains,” or fair-hands, an effeminate name. Nonetheless, Baumain remains at court for one year, at which point he is finally knighted by Sir Launcelot.
Beaumains embarks on adventures with lady Linet and he is revealed to be Sir Gareth. He is the fourth son of King Lot and Queen Margawse and Sir Gawaine’s brother. This also makes him the brother of Gaheris, Agravaine, and Mordred. Gareth proves his nobility by killing Arhtur’s enemy, the Black Knight and the Black Knight’s brothers. Gareth also defeats Sir Ironside, the Knight of Red Launds in order to stop the siege of the castle of Dame Lioness.
He later wins the hand of Dame Lioness after a tournament hosted by King Arthur. Gareth eventually takes his place at the Round Table as the fourth most powerful knight following Launcelot, Tristram, and Lamorak.
In Books VIII, IX, and X we follow the adventures of Sir Tristram. These tales largely trace the tragic love between Tristram and Isoud of Ireland. Tristram defeats an Irish prince during his travels in Ireland. During these adventures he falls in love with La Beale Isoud. After returning to Cornwall, his uncle, King Mark, becomes jealous of this love affair and demands that Isoud be bought to him.
King Mark marries Isoud, but Tristram and Isoud carry on their love affair. As Tristram rises in greatness as one of the Knights of the Round Table, King Mark becomes worried and more jealous of Tristram. Eventually, King Mark accuses Tristram of treason for carrying on the illicit affair with the queen, Isoud, but he escapes. He marries another woman and continues his chivalric adventures. Tristram repels an enemy invasion and he is eventually re-united with Isoud.
At the end of the book, we find that King Mark kills Tristram by stabbing him in the back. Throughout these adventures and misadventures, these books weave in the story of Le Cote Male Taile and Sir Gareth in which he grapples with a mysterious man and a dangerous damosel. We are introduced to Sir Lamorak, the son of King Pellimore and one of the most powerful knights of the realm.
Books XI and XII focus on the tale of Sir Launcelot. After arriving at the city of Corbin, Launcelot is seduced into sleeping with Elaine, the daughter of the king. She conceives Galahad who will one day surpass his father. As one of the most powerful knights in the world, Galahad is destined to discover the holy Sangreal. Launcelot returns to Camelot and Guenever discovers his secret. She is jealous but forgives him. Soon after this, Elaine comes to Camelot and seduces him again. Guenever is furious and banishes Launcelot which drives Launcelot insane.
We begin Book XII with Launcelot in a state of madness. He flees to the woods, living off fruit and water until he is finally taken in by a knight. Guenever, in her despair, sends knights to search for Launcelot. The search continues for two years to no avail. Launcelot finally makes his way to Corbin, physically and mentally broken. He is healed by the holy Sangreal. After this, he moves to the castle Joyous Gard with Elaine and Galahad. Eventually, Sir Percivale and Sir Ector find Launcelot and inform him that Guenever has forgiven him, and he returns to Camelot.
Books XIII, XIV, and XV recount the search for the holy Sangreal, or the Holy Grail. This is the most prized treasure throughout the entire Christian world at the time. All of the knights are dispatched to find the Sangreal. Galahad comes to Camelot and we learn that he is the knight destined to find the grail. Galahad and 150 kights set out to find the grail. This causes Arthur’s concern. Book XIII is largely about Galahad as he searches for the Sangreal.
He encounters numerous trails and performs miracles along the way. Launcelot is also in search of the Sangreal, but he knows that he lacks the faith for the task and struggles to redeem himself. In Book XIV we see Sir Percivale’s attempt to find the Sangreal. He must wrestle with temptation and purify himself along the way. This section concludes with Book XV in which Launcelot continues to struggle with his faith.
The conclusion of the quest for the Sangreal comes in Books XVI and XVII as Galahad, Percivale, and Bors unite in their quest. After numerous obstacles, they arrive at Castle Perilous where they meet Joseph of Arimathea and Christ himself. Galahad meets what is called the Maimed King who claims to have waited years for the most pure knights to claim the Sangreal. The knights take the Sangreal to the city of Sarras. Following the death of the tyrant of Sarras, Galahad is made king. He dies in the presence of the Sangreal. Percivale dies two years later. Bors returns to Camelot with the Sangreal.
In Books XVII and XIX love affair between Launcelot and Guenever continues and the consequences start to unravel. Upon his return from the Sangreal quest, Launcelot and Guenever continue their affair. Fearing they will be discovered, Launcelot distances himself from Guenever. She becomes angry and banishes him. Launcelot does return to save her from being kidnapped. Later, Launcelot is wounded in a tournament. A young maiden named Elaine falls in love with him and tries to heal his wound. She dies of a broken heart after being rejected by Launcelot.
Books XX and XXI bring a conclusion to the cycle. Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred accuse Launcelot and Guenever of treason. With 12 other knights, they trap Launcelot and Guenever in their chamber. Launcelot escapes after killing all of the 12 knights and wounding Mordred. Though wounded, Mordred brings the news of all of this to Arthur.
The grounds for revenge are set. Sir Gawaine pleads on behalf of Guenever, but Arthur refuses to grant mercy and sentences her to be burned at the stake. In his zeal to rescue her, Launcelot kills forty Knights of the Round Table, including Sir Gawaine’s brothers. Sir Gawaine seeks his revenge and begs Arthur to go to war. The war ensues. Launcelot finally manages to gain a peace and is banished to France. Gawaine refuses to accept peace and encourages Arthur to fight on.
During the ensuing battle, Gawaine is seriously wounded by Launcelot. At the same time, Mordred has been left to rule in Arthur’s absence. Mordred forges a paper that claims Arthur was killed in battle. He is declared king. On his way back from the war, Arthur encounters Mordred’s army. Upon his death, Gawaine warns Arthur to avoid the battle on Salisbury Plain. This is the prophecy that Mordred, Arthur’s son, will kill him. Arthur calls for a treaty to postpone the battle. Mordred agrees. However, a miscommunication triggers the battle.
As the battle comes to a close, Arthur sees that only Sir Bedevere and his brother Sir Lucan have survived. In a rage, Arthur kills Mordred, but Mordred fatally wounds Arthur. Arthur is taken to the isle of Avelion. It remains a mystery as to whether or not Arthur lived. The narrator intervenes to explain that Arthur may one day return. Bedivere claims that Arthur is buried at a hermitage. Launcelot and Bedivere go to the hermitage to retire as hermits. Guenever’s body is eventually entombed in the same place. Upon the death of Launcelot, Sir Constantine is made King of England.