For the 50th (and birthday) episode of the RpgGamerDad podcast I talked to RpgGamerDad about the Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur for RpgGamerMum Reads Ancient Tomes So You Don’t Have To. Le Morte D’Arthur is a wonderful but absolutely massive tome in gorgeous but sometimes tiresome to read late Middle English. I love it but can fully understand why it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Originally RpgGamerDad asked me to provide a 5 minute summary but it soon became clear that simply wasn’t an option. You can hear us talk about Morte D’Arthur here (it starts at the 30 minute mark and lasts half an hour). And even that is a vastly edited down version! So here, in three parts is my summary of the milestones of the life of King Arthur, as found in Morte D’Arthur.
This first post is about Arthur’s conception and early life leading up to the point when he is established as king, has learnt the full story about his parentage and started to make some pretty dubious decisions. Later posts will cover Guinevere, Lancelot, The Holy Grail, Morgan le Fay, Merlin etc and ultimately, the events that lead to Arthur’s death. Good times!
Uther makes an unwelcome pass at the Duke of Tintagel’s beautiful wife Igraine, having invited them both to stay. They flee and when they refuse to return he attacks them. When Uther falls ill – wasting away from rage and love – one of his knights seeks out Merlin and promises him anything he wants if he will help the king. Uther echoes this promise and Merlin helps him rape Igraine by disguising him as her husband, who, unbeknownst to her, has just been killed in battle. Shortly afterwards Uther and Igraine are married at Stonehenge. Merlin claims his reward: he takes the unbaptised baby conceived when Uther was in disguise and gives it to Sir Hector to baptise as Arthur and then raise as his own. Neither Uther nor Igraine know where the baby is and Igraine doesn’t even know her son’s name.
The sword in the stone:
Uther’s illness and death cause chaos. Merlin and the archbishop summon all the barons to London where a great chunk of marble with an anvil with a sword in it appears on Christmas Day in a graveyard. On it is written: WHOEVER PULLS OUT THIS SWORD FROM THE STONE AND ANVIL WILL RIGHTLY BE KING OF ALL ENGLAND. On New Year’s Day there is a tournament. Sir Hector, his son Sir Kay and Arthur go to the tournament but Kay forgets his sword and sends Arthur back for it. Arthur can’t get into their lodgings as they are locked so he takes the sword from the stone instead. Briefly Kay tries to pretend he should be king as he now has the sword but eventually it is established that Arthur can put it back and take it out again as many times as he likes and no one else can get it to budge an inch. Even so, as he is just a nobody the barons kick it into the long grass – and do so a couple more times until several months later when the people of London rise up and demand that Arthur be crowned king. And so he is.
After his coronation, Arthur goes to Wales and on his first anniversary invites lots of kings to a feast. King Lot of Orkney comes, King Uriens of Gore and the King of Scotland, each with hundreds of men. Arthur thinks they have come to honour him (hooray!) but in fact they have come to attack him. The kings ask Merlin why Arthur should be king and he tells them the story of Arthur’s conception and birth. Despite this they won’t accept Arthur as king so Merlin tells Arthur to fight them but to use his old sword, not the one from the stone, until the point when he thinks he is losing the battle. Then he should use it. Sure enough, Arthur is losing but when he brings out the sword it flames brilliantly and he wins his first battle.
Incest! Mordred is conceived
To negotiate a truce King Lot sends his wife Morgawse (mother of Gawain and others) to court. Arthur is smitten with her and sleeps with her, not realising she is his mother’s daughter. She becomes pregnant with Mordred, who will be the cause of great suffering in the land and his father’s death. Arthur has terrible dreams after this of dragons and serpents invading his land, killing everyone.
Arthur learns the truth (Questing beast, King Pellinor)
Arthur goes hunting to shake off this bad dream and encounters a hideous beast coming towards him. It is part dog, part-lion, part serpent. It doesn’t attack him, just drinks from a spring and goes off. Arthur has a nap and is woken by King Pellinor, who has been chasing the beast for the last year. Arthur wants to take over the quest from him but Pellinor won’t have it. Only someone of his family can kill the beast. He steals Arthur’s horse and rides off after it. Merlin comes in disguise and finally tells Arthur about his parentage. He also tells Arthur that Morgawse is his sister and that her child will destroy him and his knights. Arthur checks Merlin’s story with Sir Hector and finally meets his mother.
The Lady of the Lake
Arthur’s sword – presumably the one from the stone – is broken in his fight with Pellinore but Merlin tells him not to worry. They come to a lake and an arm clothed in white lifts a shining sword out of the water. A lady approaches. Merlin tells Arthur she lives in a palace within a great cavern. Arthur asks about the sword and she tells him it is hers and that she will give it to him in return for a gift. He must row out to the sword and take it and its scabbard out of the water. She will let him know about the gift when the time comes. Merlin teaches Arthur that the scabbard is more valuable than the sword because while Arthur has it he will never lose a drop of blood.
Arthur’s evil deed
Merlin tells Arthur that he will die at the hand of his son, who has been born on the first of May. Arthur, channelling Herod, has all noble children born on the first of May sent out to sea in a ship to die. The ship is wrecked but Mordred survives. The people blame Merlin rather than Arthur for all this. An evil world had been born.
This is a bit weird, not merely because Merlin claimed not to know the name of the son who would destroy Arthur, but does know that he is Morgawse’s son and that he is born on the first of May. However, as nothing really comes of this plot point, I guess it doesn’t matter.
This is the end of the first post on the milestones of Arthur’s life. More to follow soon!