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(The Death of Arthur)
By Sir Thomas Mallory
The original, squashed down to read in about 20 minutes
Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-94.
The real King Arthur, if he existed, was probably a leader of the Britons against the immigrant Angles (who became the English) some nine-hundred years before this, one of the first popular printed books in English. This is the version of King Arthur and his knights which spawned all those movies and musicals. Mallory himself was an odd character, an MP who was prosecuted for burglary, rape and sheep stealing, but managed to fight his way out of prison.
Adapted into modern English. Abridged: JH/GH
I PRAY you all, gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights, from the beginning to the ending, pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance, and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul.
I. The Coming of Arthur
It befell in the days of the noble Utherpendragon, when he was King of England, there was a mighty and noble duke in Cornwall, named the Duke of Tintagil, that held long war against him. And the duke's wife was called a right fair lady, and passing wise, and Igraine was her name. And the duke, issuing out of the castle at a postern to distress the king's host, was slain. Then all the barons, by one assent, prayed the king of accord between the Lady Igraine and himself. And the king gave them leave, for fain would he have accorded with her; and they were married in a morning with great mirth and joy.
When the Queen Igraine grew daily nearer the time when the child Arthur should be born, Merlin, by whose counsel the king had taken her to wife, came to the king and said: "Sir, you must provide for the nourishing of your child. I know a lord of yours that is a passing true man, and faithful, and he shall have the nourishing of your child. His name is Sir Ector, and he is a lord of fair livelihood." "As thou wilt," said the king, "be it." So the child was delivered unto Merlin, and he bare it forth unto Sir Ector, and made a holy man to christen him, and named him Arthur.
But, within two years, King Uther fell sick of a great malady, and therewith yielded up the ghost, and was interred as belonged unto a king; wherefore Igraine the queen made great sorrow, and all the barons.
Then stood the realm in great jeopardy a long while, for many weened to have been king. And Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, to London before Christmas, upon pain of cursing, that Jesus, of His great mercy, should show some miracle who should be rightwise king. So in the greatest church of London there was seen against the high altar a great stone and in the midst thereof there was an anvil of steel, and therein stuck a fair sword, naked by the point, and letters of gold were written about the sword that said, "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England."
And many essayed, but none might stir the sword.
And on New Year's Day the barons made a joust, and Sir Ector rode to the jousts; and with him rode Sir Kaye, his son, and young Arthur, that was his nourished brother.
And Sir Kaye, who was made knight at Allhallowmas afore, had left his sword at his father's lodging, and so prayed young Arthur to ride for it. Then Arthur said to himself, "I will ride to the churchyard and take the sword that sticketh in the stone for my brother Kaye." And so, lightly and fiercely, he pulled it out of the stone, and took horse and delivered to Sir Kaye the sword. "How got you this sword?" said Sir Ector to Arthur. "Sir, I will tell you," said Arthur; "I pulled it out of the stone without any pain." "Now," said Sir Ector, "I understand you must be king of this land." "Wherefore I?" said Arthur. "And for what cause?" "Sir," said Sir Ector, "for God will have it so." And therewithal Sir Ector kneeled down to the earth, and Sir Kaye also.
Then Sir Ector told him all how he had betaken him to nourish him; and Arthur made great moan when he understood that Sir Ector was not his father.
And at the Feast of Pentecost all manner of men essayed to pull out the sword, and none might prevail but Arthur, who pulled it out before all the lords and commons. And the commons cried, "We will have Arthur unto our king." And so anon was the coronation made.
And Merlin said to King Arthur, "Fight not with the sword that you had by miracle till you see that you go to the worst, then draw it out and do your best." And the sword, Excalibur, was so bright that it gave light like thirty torches.
II. The Marriage of Arthur
In the beginning of King Arthur, after that he was chosen king by adventure and by grace, for the most part the barons knew not that he was Utherpendragon's son but as Merlin made it openly known. And many kings and lords made great war against him for that cause, but King Arthur full well overcame them all; for the most part of the days of his life he was much ruled by the counsel of Merlin. So it befell on a time that he said unto Merlin, "My barons will let me have no rest, but needs they will have that I take a wife, and I will none take but by thy advice."
"It is well done," said Merlin, "for a man of your bounty and nobleness should not be without a wife. Now, is there any fair lady that ye love better than another?"
"Yea," said Arthur; "I love Guinever, the king's daughter, of the land of Cameliard. This damsel is the gentlest and fairest lady I ever could find."
"Sir," said Merlin, "she is one of the fairest that live, and as a man's heart is set he will be loth to return."
But Merlin warned the king privily that Guinever was not wholesome for him to take to wife, for he warned him that Launcelot should love her, and she him again. And Merlin went forth to King Leodegraunce, of Cameliard, and told him of the desire of the king that he would have to his wife Guinever, his daughter. "That is to me," said King Leodegraunce, "the best tidings that ever I heard; and I shall send him a gift that shall please him, for I shall give him the Table Round, the which Utherpendragon gave me; and when it is full complete there is a place for a hundred and fifty knights; and a hundred good knights I have myself, but I lack fifty, for so many have been slain in my days."
And so King Leodegraunce delivered his daughter, Guinever, to Merlin, and the Table Round, with the hundred knights, and they rode freshly and with great royalty, what by water and what by land.
And when Arthur heard of the coming of Guinever and the hundred knights of the Round Table he made great joy; and in all haste did ordain for the marriage and coronation in the most honourable wise that could be devised. And Merlin found twenty-eight good knights of prowess and worship, but no more could he find. And the Archbishop of Canterbury was sent for, and blessed the seats of the Round Table with great devotion.
Then was the high feast made ready, and the king was wedded at Camelot unto Dame Guinever, in the Church of St. Steven's, with great solemnity.
III. Sir Launcelot and the King
And here I leave off this tale, and overskip great books of Merlin, and Morgan le Fay, and Sir Balin le Savage, and Sir Launcelot du Lake, and Sir Galahad, and the Book of the Holy Grail, and the Book of Elaine, and come to the tale of Sir Launcelot, and the breaking up of the Round Table.
In the merry month of May, when every heart flourisheth and rejoiceth, it happened there befel a great misfortune, the which stinted not till the flower of the chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain.
And all was along of two unhappy knights named Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred, that were brethren unto Sir Gawaine. For these two knights had ever privy hate unto the queen, and unto Sir Launcelot. And Sir Agravaine said openly, and not in counsel, "I marvel that we all be not ashamed to see and know how Sir Launcelot cometh daily and nightly to the queen, and it is shameful that we suffer so noble a king to be ashamed." Then spake Sir Gawaine, "I pray you have no such matter any way before me, for I will not be of your counsel." And so said his brothers, Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth. "Then will I," said Sir Mordred. And with these words they came to King Arthur, and told him they could suffer it no longer, but must tell him, and prove to him that Sir Launcelot was a traitor to his person.
"I would be loth to begin such a thing," said King Arthur, "for I tell you Sir Launcelot is the best knight among you all." For Sir Launcelot had done much for him and for his queen many times, and King Arthur loved him passing well.
Then Sir Agravaine advised that the king go hunting, and send word that he should be out all that night, and he and Sir Mordred, with twelve knights of the Round Table should watch the queen. So on the morrow King Arthur rode out hunting.
And Sir Launcelot told Sir Bors that night he would speak with the queen. "You shall not go this night by my counsel," said Sir Bors.
"Fair nephew," said Sir Launcelot, "I marvel me much why ye say this, sithence the queen hath sent for me." And he departed, and when he had passed to the queen's chamber, Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred, with twelve knights, cried aloud without, "Traitor knight, now art thou taken!"
But Sir Launcelot after he had armed himself, set the chamber door wide open, and mightily and knightly strode among them, and slew Sir Agravaine and twelve of his fellows, and wounded Sir Mordred, who fled with all his might, and came straight to King Arthur, wounded and beaten, and all be-bled.
"Alas!" said the king, "now am I sure the noble fellowship of the Round Table is broken for ever, for with Launcelot will hold many a noble knight."
And the queen was adjudged to death by fire, for there was none other remedy but death for treason in those days. Then was Queen Guinever led forth without Carlisle, and despoiled unto her smock, and her ghostly father was brought to her to shrive her of her misdeeds; and there was weeping and wailing and wringing of hands.
But anon there was spurring and plucking up of horses, for Sir Launcelot and many a noble knight rode up to the fire, and none might withstand him. And a kirtle and gown were cast upon the queen, and Sir Launcelot rode his way with her to Joyous Gard, and kept her as a noble knight should.
Then came King Arthur and Sir Gawaine, whose brothers, Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, had been slain by Sir Launcelot unawares, and laid a siege to Joyous Gard. And Launcelot had no heart to fight against his lord, King Arthur; and Arthur would have taken his queen again, and would have accorded with Sir Launcelot, but Sir Gawaine would not suffer him. Then the Pope called unto him a noble clerk, the Bishop of Rochester, and gave him bulls, under lead, unto King Arthur, charging him that he take his queen, Dame Guinever, to him again, and accord with Sir Launcelot. And as for the queen, she assented. And the bishop had of the king assurance that Sir Launcelot should come and go safe. So Sir Launcelot delivered the queen to the king, who assented that Sir Launcelot should not abide in the land past fifteen days.
Then Sir Launcelot sighed, and said these words, "Truly me repenteth that ever I came into this realm, that I should be thus shamefully banished, undeserved, and causeless." And unto Queen Guinever he said, "Madam, now I must depart from you and this noble fellowship for ever; and since it is so, I beseech you pray for me, and send me word if ye be noised with any false tongues." And therewith Launcelot kissed the queen, and said openly, "Now let me see what he be that dare say the queen is not true to King Arthur-let who will speak, and he dare!" And he took his leave and departed, and all the people wept.
IV. The Passing of Arthur
Now, to say the truth, Sir Launcelot and his nephews were lords of the realm of France, and King Arthur and Sir Gawaine made a great host ready and shipped at Cardiff, and made great destruction and waste on his lands. And Arthur left the governance of all England to Sir Mordred. And Sir Mordred caused letters to be made that specified that King Arthur was slain in battle with Sir Launcelot; wherefore Sir Mordred made a parliament, and they chose him king, and he was crowned at Canterbury. But Queen Guinever came to London, and stuffed it with victuals, and garnished it with men, and kept it.
Then King Arthur raised the siege on Sir Launcelot, and came homeward with a great host to be avenged on Sir Mordred. And Sir Mordred drew towards Dover to meet him, and most of England held with Sir Mordred, the people were so new-fangled.
Then was there launching of great boats and small, and all were full of noble men of arms, and there was much slaughter of gentle knights; but King Arthur was so courageous none might let him to land; and his knights fiercely followed him, and put back Sir Mordred, and he fled.
But Sir Gawaine was laid low with a blow smitten on an old wound given him by Sir Launcelot. Then Sir Gawaine, after he had been shriven, wrote with his own hand to Sir Launcelot, flower of all noble knights: "I beseech thee, Sir Launcelot, return again to this realm, and see my tomb, and pray some prayer more or less for my soul. Make no tarrying but come with thy noble knights and rescue that noble king that made thee knight, for he is straitly bestood with a false traitor." And so Sir Gawaine betook his soul into the hands of our Lord God.
And many a knight drew unto Sir Mordred and many unto King Arthur, and never was there seen a dolefuller battle in a Christian land. And they fought till it was nigh night, and there were a hundred thousand laid dead upon the down.
"Alas! that ever I should see this doleful day," said King Arthur, "for now I come unto mine end. But would to God that I wist where that traitor Sir Mordred is, which hath caused all this mischief."
Then was King Arthur aware where Sir Mordred leaned upon his sword, and there King Arthur smote Sir Mordred throughout the body more than a fathom, and Sir Mordred smote King Arthur with his sword held in both hands on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan. And Sir Mordred fell dead; and the noble King Arthur fell in a swoon, and Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere laid him in a little chapel not far from the sea-side.
And when he came to himself again, he said unto Sir Bedivere, "Take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and throw it into that water." And when Sir Bedivere (at the third essay) threw the sword into the water, as far as he might, there came an arm and a hand above the water, and met and caught it, and so shook and brandished it thrice; and then the hand vanished away with the sword in the water.
Then Sir Bedivere bore King Arthur to the water's edge, and fast by the bank hovered a little barge, and there received him three queens with great mourning. And Arthur said, "I will unto the vale of Avillon for to heal me of my grievous wound, and if thou never hear more of me, pray for my soul." And evermore the ladies wept.
And in the morning Sir Bedivere was aware between two hills of a chapel and a hermitage; and he saw there a hermit fast by a tomb newly graven. And the hermit said, "My son, here came ladies which brought this corpse and prayed me to bury him."
"Alas," said Sir Bedivere, "that was my lord, King Arthur."
And when Queen Guinever understood that her lord, King Arthur, was slain, she stole away and went to Almesbury, and made herself a nun, and was abbess and ruler as reason would.
And Sir Launcelot passed over into England, and prayed full heartily at the tomb of Sir Gawaine, and then rode alone to find Queen Guinever. And when Sir Launcelot was brought unto her, she said: "Through this knight and me all the wars were wrought, and through our love is my noble lord slain; therefore, Sir Launcelot, I require thee that thou never look me more in the visage."
And Sir Launcelot said: "The same destiny ye have taken you unto I will take me unto." And he besought the bishop that he might be his brother; then he put a habit on Sir Launcelot, and there he served God day and night, with prayers and fastings.
And when Queen Guinever died Sir Launcelot buried her beside her lord, King Arthur. Then mourned he continually until he was dead, so within six weeks after they found him stark dead, and he lay as he had smiled. Then there was weeping and dolor out of measure. And they buried Sir Launcelot with great devotion.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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