Thomas Malory

King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table

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King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table Summary

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Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table (1485) is a collection of tales about the legendary English King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. A collection of stories, there is no over-arching narrative structure.

The stories begin with the tale of the English King Uther, who has fallen in love with Igrayne, the beautiful wife of one of his vassals. Uther asks his adviser, the wizard Merlin, to assist him in seducing Igrayne. Merlin casts a powerful spell and Uther appears to Igrayne as her husband, and they have sex. Igrayne becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy, Arthur. Merlin takes Arthur away, hiding him among the household of another of Uther’s vassals, Sir Ector.

Years later, young Arthur travels to the Sword in the Stone, where an inscription promises that whoever can pull the sword free shall become King of England. Arthur pulls the sword free and is proclaimed king. There is some resistance initially, but after a short time, Arthur is crowned. However, almost immediately a formal rebellion breaks out in the north, led by King Lot of Orkney, who is Arthur’s uncle. One of Arthur’s loyal knights, Sir Pellynore, meets Lot in a duel and kills him, ending the rebellion. To make peace, Arthur marries Lady Gwenyvere. As part of her dowry, she brings a roundtable with room for 150 knights. Arthur populates his newly founded Fellowship of the Round Table with 149 men, leaving one spot open.

Arthur receives word from the Emperor of Rome, Lucius, who demands a tribute from the new English King. Arthur takes counsel with his advisers, who urge him to march on Rome to make war. Arthur decides to do so; defeating the Emperor in battle, he is proclaimed Emperor in his place. As Arthur returns from the war, he claims every place he passes through as part of his empire.

Some of Arthur’s knights have been captured by a rogue knight, Sir Tarquin. Sir Lancelot, a knight whose reputation as a gallant and successful adventurer is unmatched, arrives, setting them free.

A young man arrives at Arthur’s court, taking work as a kitchen worker. He engages in a series of duels with knights, however, and wins each one, proving himself to be of much better skill. He gains a wife, and then reveals himself to Arthur as Sir Gareth, Arthur’s nephew. Later, the knight Sir Tristram falls in love with Isolde. His uncle, jealous, marries her instead, forcing Tristram to ask for her hand on his behalf. Tristram kidnaps Isolde and lives with her for a while, but returns her to his uncle, as it is the right thing to do. His uncle rewards this by killing him.

King Arthur determines to go on a quest for The Holy Grail. All of his Knights of the Round Table wish to glimpse this holy relic, which supposedly has miraculous healing powers. Only knights who are pure of heart and chaste in morals are able to perceive the Grail. Sir Lancelot, acknowledged as the best of all the knights, realizes that his pursuit of glory in the mortal realm has left the Grail blocked to him. He leaves off the quest but redeems himself when he saves Queen Gwenyvere from being framed for murder.

Lancelot and Gwenyvere fall in love and conduct an illicit affair. Their affair is exposed by Mordred, Arthur’s son from an unintentionally incestuous affair, and Sir Aggravayne. The Queen is condemned to death for adultery, but Lancelot and a group of allies rescue her in defiance of the King. They are pursued, and Lancelot kills several knights in a battle, including Sir Gareth. As a result, Arthur is urged to go to war against Lancelot. Leading his loyal knights, he lays siege to Lancelot’s castle.

With the knights gone, Mordred seizes power. He sends out fake announcements of Arthur’s death, declaring himself king. Arthur, hearing of this, returns with his army and is met by Mordred’s forces. The two men duel at the Battle of Salisbury Plain. Arthur kills Mordred but receives a mortal wound. He commands his sword be thrown into a lake; Arthur’s body is taken to Avalon on a mysterious barge.

The Queen and the Knights of the Round Table are devastated. Gwenyvere tells Lancelot she believes their sin doomed Arthur. She joins a nunnery, and Lancelot and the other knights go into monasteries. When Gwenyvere dies, Lancelot tenderly buries her next to her husband, then passes away himself. However, legends persist that Arthur is not truly dead; rather he was taken at the moment of death and kept there, sleeping, and will return at the time of England’s greatest need. A new King is declared.