My Five Favorite Arthurian Tales [12 minute read]

I recently looked at the metrics for my site. One of the most consistently popular pages people visit, more than the ones about Bioshock Infinite, Lord of the Rings abandoned ideas, and Naruto fanfic thoughts, is my “Legendary Swords of the World” post.  It’s sort of weird, because I didn’t put a lot of thought into that, and I didn’t think it’d be of interest to anyone beyond people into ancient literature.

But hey. As it happens, I have a Masters in Medieval English, so why not write more in the somewhat niche topic of medieval literature?

So let’s talk about my five favorite stories from Le Morte D’Arthur.

The tale of King Arthur is less a single narrative with an end and beginning and more a collection of short stories featuring a cast that go on adventures, with a single overarching narrative about the king’s wife cheating on him with his best friend. This is because back in the day, you didn’t really have copyrights, so everything was basically fanfiction, with bards going, “Gosh I love medieval Star Wars, I’mma gonna write my own story with those characters,” or “Hey, everyone loves medieval Star Wars, so here’s how my story totally connects to Star Wars!”

“Copyright” wasn’t really an idea until much later. Most of Shakespeare’s stories are reboots of older franchises.

The stories started out in Wales, then expanded to the Saxons, then went overseas to France where, as my professor put it, “they picked up a lot more adultery,” then came back to England (and honestly, some of the stuff I heard about the original Welsh stories was… sorta freaky).  They’d been bouncing around for a while by the time Sir Thomas Malory compiled all the various stories people told and put them into a semi-coherent narrative.

This means that not all the stories are equally good, and several characters change dramatically.  But I have favorites, and here they are.

The Tale of Sir Beaumains.

This picture is not from Malory, nor is the quote, but it accurately sums up a good portion of the narrative.

There is one story that Malory wrote.  The Tale of Sir Beaumains appears nowhere else in the older stories.  So when Sir Thomas Malory decided to compile all the stories, apparently he decided to throw in his own bit of flair. I’ll do a fuller write-up someday possibly, but for right now here are the main points.

Beaumains is actually Arthur’s nephew Gareth, but he chooses to work in the kitchens, which is why everyone calls him “Beaumains,” or “White-hands.” This goes on until a lady shows up asking for help saving her mysterious mistress from a cruel knight, which Beaumains takes up when no one wants it. What follows is a boss rush of sorts where Beaumains takes down a Black Knight, then a Green one, then a Blue one, then an INDIGO one, all while the lady, Linet, is mocking him and egging on his opponents because dangit, she wanted a better knight than the kitchen boy. But finally when he makes it to the Red Knight she apparently wises up and tells him the whole thing was a test to make sure he was ready for the Red Knight.

So Beaumains sees the lady, Lady Lionesse, (who turns out to be Linet’s sister) and falls madly in love with her. He beats up the Red Knight (but lets him live because it turns out he did it for his girlfriend), but then Lady Lionesse sends out a messenger saying she won’t see him now, but that he’ll have to come back in a year or so. Beaumains is understandably ticked off, but he leaves.

Here’s where things get weird.

Lady Lionesse, it turns out, is totally into Beaumains, but reasons that after all she barely knows the guy. (Who marries a guy they just met?) So she goes in disguise to a castle Beaumains is staying at, and shows up as totally some other lady. Beaumains falls in love with her all over again, she falls in love with him to such an extent that they try to have a midnight “rendezvous.” Except then Linet, who’s a magician apparently, gets a magic zombie knight to keep them apart so her sis doesn’t do something stupid before her wedding.  Finally everything is revealed and Beaumains and Lionesse go back to Camelot to be hailed as the most awesome of couples.

I like this story because it allows you to see Malory’s mindset. It’s sort of a classic “coming of age” story where a young underdog beats up everyone and is revealed as this amazing and rich member of nobility. It’s also surprisingly colorful—none of the other stories go into detail about the color of the knights being challenged–and while the presentation of the women is… not flattering, they have more personality and agency than the women in most Arthurian tales.

And there’s kind of a logic to their behavior. Because Beaumains doesn’t even know the lady’s name when he takes the quest, he doesn’t undergo the challenge for any promise of fortune or love—just the challenge and the honor. He’s not tricked—certainly not sweet-talked—into doing anything.  He falls in love with her beauty, sure, but Lionesse has a perfectly valid point that that’s not much of a romance, and the fact that he falls in love with her again, not even knowing who she is, shows that there’s more than an at-a-distance commitment there. It’s in some ways a surprisingly romantic story.

Gawain and the Three Maidens

I didn’t use to like Prince Valiant’s take on Gawain, but writing this has helped me realize that it’s surprisingly accurate to Malory, if not the Pearl Poet.

Gawain’s characterization differs from legend to legend. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight pitches him as the pinnacle of knighthood, the greatest of the great.  Sir Gawain in Le Morte D’Arthur is… different.

Presumably Gawain is at a much younger age when he travels with Sir Ywain and Sir Marhaus. The three of them run across a fountain where there are three women—an old woman, a middle-aged woman, and a young woman (there are obvious similarities here to the Mother-Maiden-Hag arrangement often associated with witches in folklore, but they’re described in Malory merely as damsels).

Differing adaptations of Macbeth (though not all) have used the folkloric device to guide their version of the witches.

The three women say the knights should split up and each take one along with them. Ywain takes the old woman, as he says she’s old and wise, and Ywain is the youngest and needs all the experience he can get. Sir Marhaus decides to accompany the middle-aged woman, as he says she’s the one closest to his own age.

Then, as Malory puts it

“’Well,” seyde Sir Gawayne, “I thanke you! For ye have leffte me the yongyst and the fayryste, and hir is me moste levyste.”

Basically: “Awesome!  I get to travel with the young sexy lady!”

So they go along, and they see a knight who gets captured after beating ten different attackers. The young lady says Gawain should help him.  “Nah,” says Gawain. “Like, I mean I would, but I don’t think he wants help.” “Jerk,” answers the lady, and  when later Gawain starts fighting with another knight, the lady joins up with someone else, because she’s so disgusted with him.

Gawain does, eventually, decide to help the captured knight, but ends up doing nearly the exact opposite by seducing the lady the captured knight was trying to woo.  When the three knights join back up together, it says “the damesell that Sir Gawayne had coulde say but lytll worship of him.”  (Apparently she came back.)

It’s just a bit of personality that rarely shows up in Malory (or most old tales), which are generally about iconic figures just pursuing things for abstract reasons.  We get a sense in this story of Gawain as a younger goofball who’s a bit of an egotist and not really as honor-oriented as the rest of the court. (perhaps this is the take that the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight film was going for).

Gawain in general in La Morte D’Arthur is kind of an ass—there’s one sequence where he actually kidnaps another knight’s girlfriend, and toward the end of the story it’s revealed / retconned that this whole time he’s had this buff where he gets increasingly stronger toward noon, and that Arthur’s been giving him an unfair advantage by making all duels take place in the morning and end at noon. It’s curious then that the Pearl Poet chooses him as the hero and pinnacle of knighthood in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Maybe it is because, indeed, Gawain doesn’t get a lot of independent adventures (he fails the one with the young lady) and the Pearl Poet wanted to choose a side character.

Sir Palomydes and the Red City

Palomydes is “the Saracen,” a foreign (likely Arabic) knight who has converted to Christianity (though not yet baptized, until he finds the Questing Beast) and serves in Arthur’s court. We mentioned him earlier when talking about Arthurian swords. He’s in love with La Belle Isolde, who spurns him for his his rival, Sir Tristram, who’s just the worst, which unfortunately means most of Palomydes’ scenes are in Tristram’s story. And that’s a shame, because Palomydes is amazing and actually has one tournament where he beats all the knights, up to Lancelot. And he beats up Arthur once, when Arthur is in disguise.

Tristram and Palomydes are getting along for a change, and on their way to a big tournament when they find a magic boat floating down the river, with a dead knight inside. The boatsmen give the knights a letter, saying that no one can read it unless they vow to fulfill the quest.  Tristram takes it and reads it, and it’s a note asking the reader to revenge his death on the two knights who killed him, who reside in The Red City.

“Oh gosh,” says Tristram.  “I’d, like, love to take this quest, but I’ve got this tournament to get to and it’s like a huge deal, and I’m a huge deal and I’m pretty sure Arthur put it on especially for me.”

Jackass.

Palomydes was going to the same tournament, but he’s awesomer. He takes the quest and gets on the boat and travels till he gets to the Red City, on the sea coast. Everyone there welcomes him, but he soon learns that the whole city is sorrowful because their king was killed by his two adoptive sons, who he raised to be knights. So Palomydes takes the knights on and gets a terrible beating, but manages to kill them. And the city loves him and wants him to stay, but he needs to get to the tournament too, so he leaves and gets THERE IN PLENTY OF TIME, TRISTRAM YOU JACKASS.

I like this story because it’s finally, finally Palomydes getting a win.  He’s the guy who’s indisputably a good fighter, but who can never really win what he’s after and is nearly always brought up in reference to Tristram, but his behavior with the boat shows that he’s got a very chivalric nature—he takes whatever quest is offered. Finally he finds a group of people who love him, and he wins a whole city out of the deal.

(I mean, presumably.  That was the deal, anyway, and I certainly hope Palomydes gets some time to retire with some people who respect him before Gawain kills him in the Camelot Civil War.)

The Bloody Town

This story is in the middle of the Holy Grail Quest.  Sir Galahad, the holiest of knights, is traveling with Sir Percival, second holiest of knights; and Sir Bors—and also Sir Percival’s sister, who brought them all together and knows a lot of stuff about the Grail. So right off the start, we have a trio of badasses wandering around.  They get to a castle, and ten knights come out, accompanied by a lady with a big bowl.

Galahad and the others whip out their weapons. One knight approaches and explains that they’re going to need to drain blood out of Percival’s sister—enough to fill a bowl. They do this to every virgin passing through, they explain. It’s for a good cause, they promise.

Galahad and co. do not take kindly to this idea and beat up all ten of the knights.  Then sixty knights come out, and say “No really, we will kill you if you don’t let us drain this blood.” 

“Nuts to that,” says Galahad, and he and his friends fight all sixty of them till it’s nearly nighttime.  This is a big action scene.

“Okay,” says somebody finally.  “Let us explain.” The lady of the castle has a curse of leprosy, see, and the only thing that can save her is to anoint her in virgin’s blood.  Percival’s sister hears that, and immediately agrees. If it’ll save a life (and possibly save the three knights from the ever-increasing battle), then it’s worth it.

So she does it. And she dies.

There’s just something so very different about it—the knights don’t save the woman. The woman doesn’t want to be saved, in a way. You’ve got three badasses traveling together who fight their way through a whole city in what’s implied to be an intense action sequence, and yet, tragedy still strikes. To Percival’s sister, no less. And it’s Lady Percival’s choice, which means that again, she has more agency than most other ladies in the Arthurian stories.

The cherry on top of this is that when Galahad and Percival come back to the castle later, the entire place has been destroyed and everyone struck dead for their serial murdering habits. Galahad and Percival find sixty tombs in the churchyard—earlier virgins that were killed by this castle’s bleeding practice

Throwing Away Excalibur

The title of the book is literally translated The Death of Arthur, so really throughout the narrative you see the signs of things leading to Arthur’s death—the unstoppable wheel of fate. And Arthur’s death is profound and all, and the stuff with Lancelot and Gwenevere and all the rest has a wonderfully tragic air of friends turned enemies, but honestly it’s a bit soap-opera-ish and it’s not my favorite part.

My favorite part is as Arthur lays dying on the field, attended by only two knights: Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan. Lucan, though “sore wounded” goes out to see stuff, and sees the peasants robbing the bodies and killing any survivors.  The golden, iconic, honorable age of Arthur has fallen apart in a few months. Even worse, when Bedivere and Lucan try to lift up Arthur to get him out of there before they’re found by the peasants, Lucan splits open and his guts fall out.

And whan the Kynge awoke, he behylde Sir Lucan, how lay fomyng at the mowth, and parte of his guttes lay at hys fyete. “Alas,” seyde the Kynge, “thy sys to me a fulle hevy sight to se thys noble deuke so dye for my sake, for he wold have hopyn me that had more nede of helpe than I. Alas, that he wolde nat complayne hym, for hys harte was so sette to helpe me.”

It’s dark.  There’s nothing glorious about this death. It’s painful, it’s gory, and a lot more visceral in its detail than any other death in the cycle. It emphasizes the knightliness of Sir Lucan, but also the grim end that Arthur’s court is coming to.

Arthur knows he’s dying.  He gives Bedivere the order to take his sword Excalibur and throw it in the lake. Bedivere takes it, but at the lakeside he looks at the sword and sees how beautiful it is, and thinks, “No, the king’s gone crazy with grief, this sword is too beautiful to throw away” and he just hides it, telling Arthur he threw it away. But when Arthur asks him what he saw, and he says “nothing, just the lake,” Arthur knows he’s lying and tells him to go and throw it away for real this time.

Bedivere goes again. He takes the sword again.  But this time he thinks “No! What’s the point, this won’t do any good!” So he again hides it, and again Arthur figures out he’s lying, and again tells him to go back, crying that Bedivere is faithless and that fate has left him with no loyal followers anymore. So Bedivere finally goes back to the lake and hurls the sword as far as he can.

An arm springs out of the lake and catches it.  It brandishes the sword three times and then sinks away.

Bedivere comes back and tells Arthur, and Arthur knows now he’s telling the truth. He tells Bedivere to take him to the lakeside, quickly. Bedivere hauls him over there, and sees approaching a boat, with three fair ladies—the queen of North Gaul (France), The Lady of the Lake (Nimue, who trapped Merlin), and Queen Morgan Le Fay, oddly enough, who’s done nothing but torment Arthur. They’ve come to bring Arthur to Avalon, to hopefully heal from her wounds.

And that’s more or less the end. Lancelot comes and saves Bedivere, Gwenevere becomes a nun, Lancelot becomes a hermit, and after Gwenevere dies he pines away for the memory of her beauty.

But I love it.  It’s dark, it’s glorious, it’s magic, it’s tragic. It’s the death of chivalry, and yet there’s a sense of triumph to it, as Arthur similarly disappears. It brings things full circle with how Arthur obtained the sword in the first place and has a strange note of reconciliation with the story’s overarching villain. It’s just the right mix of realistic and magical, showing the magical past of Arthur transitioning into the gritty and honorless period of Malory’s own time (Malory wrote this during the middle of the infamous War of the Roses).

And there’s an odd note of ambiguity about Arthur’s final fate.  Malory says that the Bishop of Canterbury received a body that was said to be Arthur’s, but Malory also says that they never really made sure, so who knows? Other people say, he points out, that Arthur’s not dead, but will return to England—but Malory doesn’t believe that.  He thinks that “here in thys world he chaunged hys lyff.” Scholars aren’t sure what this means—whether it means that Arthur died, or “passed on” to some new condition. It’s a rare occasion where Malory steps forward and appears as the narrator.

Interesting thought–if Arthur were to return, what would he be like? Would he still be a medievalist, or a more modern soldier–or even a modern politician? (Not this guy, This guy is reportedly a Syrian volunteer who opposed the jihadists)

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur has good and bad sections (TRISTRAM TAKES UP WAY TOO MUCH SPACE AND SHOULD BE OBLITERATED).  Not all the knights are good, not all of the adventures end happily. But all the stories together weave a picture of a kingdom full of magic, where honor is the highest good to strive for and adventure must always be sought.  And it’s moments like what I’ve outlined here that crystalize it in moments both iconic and yet human. There’s a reason why Arthur has been so endlessly adapted—and doubtless will continue to be.


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