It’s a new thing! Herotodus!

Way back in 2012 when I began my Dionysian imitatio (look it up, nerds) of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, I promised that afterwards I would cover the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong.  However, upon reflection and examination I’ve decided to go another way.  Few different reasons for this.  Firstly, unlike Le Morte D’Arthur, the Three Kingdoms is not a horrible miasma of continuity errors and aimless plots.  Secondly, while Le Morte D’Arthur has been seen as something of an embarrassment for centuries now, the Three Kingdoms is justly revered as one of the Four Great Masterpieces of Chinese literature.  One of the main characters, Lord Guan Yu, is literally worshipped as a god in parts of the world.  There’s simply no way I can approach it, as a subject, in the same vein as Malory’s terrible, terrible epic.

Fortunately, there’s a decent alternative present within Western literary tradition:  the Histories, by the Father of History himself, Herotodus of Halicarnassus!  It’s not nearly as bad as Malory but c’mon, what is?

Herotodus didn’t invent history per se; other people were writing more-or-less accurate accounts of selected events before he came along.  However none of his predecessors’ works have survived to the present day. His sweeping (and extremely lengthy) text includes a survey of the world as he knew it and all the people within it, just to provide background for his main topic, the Second Persian War.  This may sound dry, but that’s only because you aren’t aware that the world as he knew it included giant ants that collected gold, flying serpents, crystal mummy-tombs, and a temple with a plutonium altar!  Plutonium may be too strong a word, but what else do you call a big cylinder that glows green in the dark and is considered more precious than gold?

Herotodus’s editors divided his work into nine books, each named for one of the Nine Muses.  This is twelve fewer than Malory needed, though the Histories and Le Morte D’Arthur are approximately the same length.  Granted, they could have merged Terpsichore with Erato and Urania with Calliope, and thus have seven books all very roughly equal length instead of nine books with wildly divergent word counts, but this organization has some rhyme and reason to it, unlike Sir Thomas “I’ll just paste the conclusion of Books VIII, IX, and X in here at the end of Book XII, no one will notice” Malory’s.

My Dionysian imitatio of the Histories will, I warn you, differ in structure and tone somewhat.  I’m looking at this not as a final product, but as the first-draft rough-cut version of something I’ll eventually assemble into handsome ebook volumes and recoup literally tens of dollars with.  Also, while Le Morte D’Arthur had dialog and a relatively limited number of characters, the Histories is wall-to-wall stultifying description and character-free narratives that meander wildly before drifting back to the Second Persian War.  It’s Abraham Simpson stories, all the way down.  In the future when I’m editing this behemoth, I’ll do my best to carve out the most interesting bits and contextualize events.  I’ll have sections titled “Croesus, What a Guy,” or “In which the Oracle at Delphi peddles some entertaining balderdash.”  But that’s not until 2017 or whenever I finish this first pass.  Right now, we’re going to be working our way through the book in the approximate order it was written in.  You’ve been warned.

(Also, for serious, the ebook version of Arthur Dies at the End is a substantial improvement on the rough-cut stuff I’ve had posted here.  It’s reasonably priced and comes with attractive ebook covers!  What more could you want?  Buy it!  Tell your friends!  Tell your coworkers!  Send out mass emails!  I need those literally tens of dollars, people! I’m not going to beg but okay, I’m begging!  This is me begging!)

Herotodus!

We start with Book I, Clio, named for the Muse of History.  Clio the Proclaimer! Clio, Daughter of the Lord of Cloud-Capped Heaven!  Golden Clio, the Giver of Sweetness!  Clio, Queen of Song!  Clio who granted us the art of remembering things that have already been; she taught us to write and to sing.  She knows the hearts of the gods and the way by which things come to be.  It is right to begin the sacred work with Clio, for unforgetting Clio keeps all ages, and all the storied annals of the past.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI Conclusions

So, that was a thing that happened, huh?  After lots of meandering, the story of the Death of Arthur really got started in Book XX, and in Book XXI we have the deaths not only of Arthur, but also Gawaine, Launcelot, and Guenever.  Plus we finally get to see a little bit of Sir Mordred, and while we spend only a single chapter with the man, I think we do get a sense of just how much of a dick he is.

The first of the four big deaths in this book is Sir Gawaine, who dies in the midst of Arthur’s army capturing Dover.  After Gawaine spent the back half of Book XX taking massive amounts of punishment and defeating dozens of knights, it’s a little surprising that his final battle occurs off-screen and with anonymous foes; by the time Arthur finds him he’s already dying.  But even so, he gets to pull one last classic Sir Gawaine screw-up: writing a letter exhorting Launcelot to come fight Mordred with Arthur.  By the time Launcelot gets the letter, Mordred and Arthur may both be dead already, and certainly Launcelot disregards the letter as a cheap ploy.

Then from beyond the grave Gawaine brittas it again*, and tells Arthur to delay because surely Launcelot is on his way, and what happens?  Arthur’s doom comes whether Arthur’s ready or not, big battle, and Arthur dies.  Or travels to the magical island of Avalon; Malory seems to want to have that one both ways, what with the magical boat bearing him off together with Morgan and Nimue, and also with Bedivere and the Archbishop of Canterbury founding a monastery at the site of Arthur’s tomb.  This Book is the only one wherein Malory admits he doesn’t have a solid grip on the French romances he’s translating, because they all disagree with one another about Arthur’s death and final fate, and the final fates of Bors and the handful surviving brethren of the Round Table.

He’s sure about one thing though: Guenever is a great nun.  She changes the way people think about nunning!  And I can believe it, mainly because Malory has had so few good things to say about Guenever since her introduction back in Book III.  So if he’s willing to call her a great nun, then she’s a great nun, end of story.  She’s so great that, even though her star-crossed love for Launcelot drives her to faint three times when they meet again, she declines his offer to run off to be the Queen of France with him.  Instead she stays in the convent and runs out the clock, which so upsets Launcelot that he goes off and becomes a monk, too, out of spite as much as anything.

So that’s the great love story of medieval romance: her husband dies, she declines to remarry her longtime lover; they both become religious ascetics and eventually die.  And Sir Gawaine is just the worst.

* Gawaine gets no respect.  “Knock knock!  Who’s there?  Cancer!  Oh, good, come in, I thought it was Sir Gawaine!”

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 13, the end

So the Archbishop and the hermit-knights break out their funeral wagon, last used to transport Guenever’s body.  They load Launcelot onto it, and take the Knight of the Cart on one last cart-ride, across the land to his old home, Joyous Gard, now a cold and empty place.  They hold a large funeral for him, in the courtyard outside Joyous Gard, with bonfires and lots of peasants come to gawk at the dead body.

In the middle of the funeral, up rides Sir Ector the Lesser!  He doesn’t recognize any of his old friends, because he hasn’t seen them for seven years and they’re all in robes with beards.  They recognize him, though, and are extremely sheepish that they completely forgot about him.

“Seven years I’ve been looking for you guys!  You all went off to be monks together and you didn’t tell me?!”

The hermit-knights are pretty abashed about it.  They invite Ector to join their order, since with Launcelot dead there’s an empty bunk at the hermitage.  At this point, says Malory, the story is pretty much over.  Launcelot’s dead, Guenever’s dead, oh and of course Arthur’s dead.  The hermit-knights go back to the hermitage, or whatever, and they dwell there. After a time Sir Constantine (who becomes the King of England after Arthur, mainly by keeping his head down until everyone else who wanted it is dead; that’s how you win the game of thrones) recalls the Archbishop of Canterbury to quit being a hermit and get back to the important work of Archbishoping.  Maybe the hermit-knights go their separate ways at that point, with only Sir Bedivere remaining at the hermitage.  Maybe Bors, Ector, and the rest get involved in the Crusades or something.  Malory doesn’t know, and he doesn’t particularly care.

The book ends with a polite request from Sir Thomas Malory for you, the reader, to do him a solid and pray for him.  If he’s alive, pray for him, and if he’s been dead for centuries and you’re reading a retelling of his novel on an electronic device of some kind, pray for his soul in Purgatory.

Thus endeth this noble and joyous book entitled the Death of Arthur. Notwithstanding it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble knights of the Round Table, their marvellous enquests and adventures, the achieving of the Grail, and in the end the dolorous death and departing out of this world of them all. 

Mic drop, Malory out!

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI Chapters 11 and 12

Malory flashes forward seven years.  Everything is the same, except Launcelot has become a priest.  The hermits have become a regular little monastery of quiet introspection and contemplative meditation.  One morning, at breakfast, Launcelot tells his fellow-hermits that he had a marvelous advision the night before: Guenever, dead.

“Was this a dream, or a holy vision?” asks the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Holy vision, I’m pretty sure,” says Launcelot.  “My Guenever-related dreams are extremely different.”

“We’d better go to Almsbury, then, and check it out,” says the Archbishop.

So after breakfast, Launcelot together with seven or eight of his nine close friends, sets out for Almsbury.  It’s not terribly far, thirty miles, but the hermits lack horses and are not in fighting shape, so it takes them two days to hike it.  Frankly I think that thirty miles in two days is pretty good, but what do I know?  I’m a coddled American who rarely walks more than three miles in a stretch.

When they arrive in Almsbury, they go immediately to the convent, where Guenever lies in state.  She’s dead, sure enough.  Oddly enough, though, she’s only a half-hour dead.  When she died, a mere thirty minutes prior to Launcelot’s arrival, she predicted that he would come for her, and told the nuns to ask Launcelot to bury her with her husband.

In a wash Launcelot realizes that it’s finally all over, well and truly.

They bear Guenever’s body back to the hermitage, where they hold a nice funeral for her and inter her with Arthur.  Launcelot, so stoic before, breaks down during the funeral.

“Suck it up, man,” says the Archbishop.  “It’s unseemly!”

“No.  No, it’s not unseemly.  For our love was a special thing, and it’s only right that I mourn her.  She and I had a real thing going for a while there.  It can’t be wrong of me to mourn her.”

Then Launcelot stops eating and dies.  He dies very slowly, over weeks.  The odd bit here is that, according to Malory, he shrinks before he goes, and dies a foot shorter than when he lived.  Sir Bors and the Archbishop try to talk him into eating, but they can’t bring him around.  Instead he asks for a funeral, and is told he’ll get a good one.

“Don’t bury me here, with Arthur and Guenever; I don’t deserve it.  Bear my body back to Joyous Gard.”

Afterwards the Archbishop falls asleep.  He dreams a holy vision of his own: Launcelot happy in heaven.  Sir Bors rushes in and wakes him.

“You were laughing in your sleep!  But I have sad news…”

“Launcelot is dead,” says the Archbishop.  “Yes, I had a vision.”

And it’s true!  He’s dead.

Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!

Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*

Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*

Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*

King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.

Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*

Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.

Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.

Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.

Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.

King Bagdemagus, slain by Sir Gawaine sometime prior to Book XVII.

Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.

Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in Book XVII.

Sir Patrice, ate a poisoned apple intended for Sir Gawaine, in Book XVIII.

Sir Meliagrance, decapitated by Launcelot with one hand tied behind his back, in Book XIX.

Sir Tristram, murdered by King Mark sometime before Book XX.

Sir Colgrevance, again, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Agravaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Mador de la Porte, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Meliot de Logris, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Petipase of Winchelsea, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Galleron of Galway, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Melion of the Mountain, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Astamore, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Grummore Grummursun, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Curselaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Florence, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Lovel, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gingalin, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gaheris, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gareth, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Belliance, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Segwarides, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Griftlet the Caterer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Brandiles, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Aglovale, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Tor, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gauter, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gillimer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Reynolds, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Damas, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Priamus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir “the Other Kay” Kay, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Driant, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Lambegus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Herminde, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Green Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Red Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gawaine, died of injuries after retaking Dover from Mordred, in Book XXI.

Sir Mordred, slain by King Arthur in the final battle, in Book XXI.

King Arthur, traveled to Avalon, in Book XXI.

Sir Lucan, died of injuries sustained in the final battle, in Book XXI.

Sir Lionel, slain in battle in London for some reason, in Book XXI.

Sir Launcelot du Lake, of old age, in Book XXI.

Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies.  Total knights officially dead: fifty-three.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI Chapters 9 and 10

Launcelot finds Guenever easily; she hasn’t been living as an incognito nun, just as a nun.  He strides into her cloister, and when she sees him she faints!

The nuns with Guenever help her back up.

“Oh, thanks,” she says.  “It’s just, that’s…”

She sees Launcelot, where he stands in the doorway, dramatically backlit by the daylight outside.  And she faints a second time.

The nuns help her up, again.

“Whew,” she says.  “It’s just, I haven’t seen him for…”  And swoon!  Down she goes for the third time.

All the nuns wave Launcelot out of the cloister, before they help Guenever up.  “What the heck?” they ask.

“That’s Sir Launcelot, my beloved knight and lover for many decades.  Oh, the things we’ve done to one another’s bodies… Bring him over to me.”

The nuns squint.  “Are you serious?”

“Yes!”  Guenever sits down and looks as regal as she can, which is pretty darn regal.  “Bring him in.”

So the nuns lead Launcelot into Guenever’s presence.  “Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain,” she tells the nuns.

“Guenever…” he begins.

“It’s good to see you,” Guenever says, stiffly.  “As you can see I’ve become a nun, in hopes of making up for the sins of the past.”

“She’s really good at it!” pipes up one of the nuns in the back.

“Thanks, Shirley.”  Guenever smiles at Shirley, then turns back to Launcelot.  “As such, I need you to leave and never come back.”

“Aw!”  Launcelot half-expected this, but still he’s crestfallen.  “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to Benwick with me and be my queen?”

“Very sure.  I’m extremely focused on my nunning career now.  Go marry someone else.  Find a girl named Elaine, I know you like them.”

“All the Elaines I knew are dead, and besides, you’re the only one I want!”

“I’m sorry, Launcelot.  It can’t happen.  Otherwise our tragic star-crossed love story would have a happy ending, and thus lose all drama and angst.  Marry someone else.”

“If I can’t marry you, I don’t want anyone.  I’ll live the rest of my life celibate!”

“Hah!”  Guenever does not think highly of Launcelot’s ability to remain celibate.  “First girl named Elaine who throws herself at you…”

“Guen, I was celibate throughout the Grail quest.  I can do it, if I need to, and proving my love for you to God or whatever… I’m going off to be a monk, if you’re going to be a nun.”

“Then I guess we’ll meet in heaven!  Peace be with you!”

“And also with you!”  Launcelot stands there for a moment.  “One last kiss?”

Nay, that I shall never do!”

Launcelot wanders off.  He searches for a spiritual advisor to help him; basically he’s looking for Nacien.  But the Grail quest is over and Nacien’s gone!  Instead Launcelot stumbles into the hermitage where the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bedivere dwell.  Bedivere recognizes Launcelot immediately, and welcomes and praises him.  When Launcelot has heard all of Bedivere’s story, he decides to stay there, in the hermitage.

Meanwhile Launcelot’s coterie of knights ride across England, searching for Launcelot.  He told them to go back to Benwick without him, but not all of them were willing to just give up on him like that.  Sir Lionel searches for him in London, and ends up starting a small war there and dying, whoopsy.

But Sir Bors finds Launcelot one morning, at the hermitage, and ends up joining them.  So too does, eventually, Sir Blamore and a half-dozen more of Launcelot’s close associates.   Sir Launcelot, Sir Bors, Sir Blamore, and Sir Bleoberis!  Also Sir Galihud, Sir Galihodin, Sir Gahalantine, Sir Villiars, and Sir Clarras! They’re all hermit-monks together, with Sir Bedivere and the Archbishop of Canterbury!  It’s like one of those 1960s sitcoms with eleven men and zero women.

Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!

Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*

Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*

Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*

King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.

Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*

Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.

Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.

Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.

Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.

King Bagdemagus, slain by Sir Gawaine sometime prior to Book XVII.

Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.

Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in Book XVII.

Sir Patrice, ate a poisoned apple intended for Sir Gawaine, in Book XVIII.

Sir Meliagrance, decapitated by Launcelot with one hand tied behind his back, in Book XIX.

Sir Tristram, murdered by King Mark sometime before Book XX.

Sir Colgrevance, again, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Agravaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Mador de la Porte, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Meliot de Logris, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Petipase of Winchelsea, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Galleron of Galway, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Melion of the Mountain, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Astamore, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Grummore Grummursun, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Curselaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Florence, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Lovel, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gingalin, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gaheris, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gareth, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Belliance, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Segwarides, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Griftlet the Caterer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Brandiles, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Aglovale, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Tor, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gauter, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gillimer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Reynolds, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Damas, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Priamus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir “the Other Kay” Kay, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Driant, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Lambegus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Herminde, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Green Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Red Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gawaine, died of injuries after retaking Dover from Mordred, in Book XXI.

Sir Mordred, slain by King Arthur in the final battle, in Book XXI.

King Arthur, traveled to Avalon, in Book XXI.

Sir Lucan, died of injuries sustained in the final battle, in Book XXI.

Sir Lionel, slain in battle in London for some reason, in Book XXI.

Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur Book XXI, Chapter 8

Hey, remember Sir Launcelot?  Remember how he’s been conspicuously absent for the last few chapters?  Turns out he’s been chilling in Benwick this whole time.  He got the letter from Sir Gawaine but assumed it was just Gawaine being a dick again, and disregarded it.  Once Arthur’s gone, though, he eventually gets that news, and it spurs him to act.

“To England!” he cries.  “We must go avenge our fallen king, and slay the false knight Sir Mordred!  Maybe it’ll make up for all the slaughter I did in Book XX!”

Bors, Lionel, Ector, Palomides, and all the other former Knights of the Round Table, now Knights of Hanging Out In Benwick, let out a cheer.  “To England!”

With much pomp and circumstance they load onto ships and cross the channel.  When they come to Dover, Launcelot’s ready for a fight, so he sets up an elaborate amphibious assault, ready to storm the beaches.  His host is tanned, rested, ready, their numbers hideous to behold.  They pour onto the seaside, and it isn’t until Launcelot and his seven or eight chief lieutenants (Malory can’t keep track and keeps contradicting himself) has unloaded, along with all this men, that they realize there is no opposing army there to fight them.

“What gives?” they ask the townsfolk of Dover.

The folk of Dover very politely explain that Arthur and Mordred and a hundred thousand or so knights all died in a huge massacre, up at Barham Down, and now there’s a massive power vacuum in England.  Also here, Dover, is where Gawaine died.

“So we’re too late?” Launcelot is aghast.

“Pretty much.”  Launcelot visits Gawaine’s tomb, as Gawaine requested in the letter, and silently prays and forgives Gawaine all his faults.

Then Launcelot throws a huge funeral-party, because what else is he going to do with all this food and money he brought?  He rents out the church for funeral after funeral, spending lots of money and having to supply tons of candles, and it goes on and on for days.

Three days after Launcelot locked himself in Gawaine’s tomb to have a good cry, he stumbles out and calls together his apostles, I mean his knights.  “Guys, thanks a lot for coming out, but we’re done here I guess.  I’m going to go find Guenever now.  I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.  Or if I’m not, just go home without me, okay?”

Bors asks if this is such a good idea.  Launcelot insists that it is, and also forbids any of the knights from going with him.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI Chapters 6 and 7

“Sire!” calls Bedivere, as the magic barge’s gangplank retracts all by itself and Arthur, up on deck, lies down with his head in Morgan’s lap.  “Sire!  What will happen to me?  I’m the last Knight of the Round Table!”

“You’re on your own, Bedivere,” says Arthur.  “You and England both.  We’re going to Avilion, where I’ll recuperate, and…”

At this point Morgan lets out a very loud sob, which completely drowns out the tail end of Arthur’s sentence.  The other ladies aboard the boat — Nimue, the Queen of Northgalis, and the Queen of the Waste Land — likewise sob and cry and carry on, as the barge drifts out to sea and vanishes into the mist.

“Well, hell,” mutters Bedivere, and wanders off.

At this point in the narrative Malory admits to some confusion.  There are different stories about what happens here, he says, and this is Malory’s synthesis of several sources.  What Malory claims happens is this.  Bedivere wanders aimlessly down the beach until he comes to a small chapel and hermitage, where a lone hermit has just finished covering over a grave.  This hermit is actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Mordred drove off back in Chapter 1.

“Ahoy, your Grace!” says Bedivere, because he recognizes the archbishop.

“Greetings, sir knight,” says the archbishop, because he’s a classy guy.  The archbishop explains that he just finished burying a mysterious dead body that was dropped off by four witches in a magic barge.  They gave him a hundred candles and a stack of coins, to pay for the funeral, but they didn’t stay for the ceremony.

Alas, that was my lord King Arthur, that here lieth buried, then.  I saw him with the witches before,” says Bedivere.

“If you say so,” says the archbishop.  “You’re welcome to join me as a hermit, by the way.”

“Great!”  Bedivere abandons his armor and wears the gray robes of a hermit, and lives that way for the rest of his life.

Frankly Malory isn’t sure whether there’s supposed to be doubt as to whether the body the Archbishop buries is intended, unambiguously, to be Arthur’s.  Maybe the women who dropped the corpse off were different women!  Maybe the body they dropped off wasn’t the right corpse!  Maybe King Arthur will return in Britain’s hour of greatest need!  Maybe a lot of things.  Malory doesn’t know and has no opinion about the whole once and future king stuff.

He does know one thing for sure, though, which is that news of Arthur’s death eventually reaches Guenever.  She’s been in the Tower of London this whole time, and now everybody is dead.  Everybody except Launcelot, but he never showed up, so screw him, I guess.  Guenever comes out of the tower eventually, but rather than return to Camelot, she travels to Almsbury to become a nun.  And, Malory assures us, she’s a great nun.  As nuns go Guenever is the best.  She wins all the nunning awards.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 5

“Well, darn,” says Sir Lucan.

“C’mon, let’s get the king’s body out of here,” says Sir Bedivere.  “Those looters are going to be coming through here soon.”

Lucan and Bedivere pick up Arthur, and did I mention before that Lucan was badly wounded and needed a lie-down?  Because the effort of standing up, followed by picking up Arthur’s body, turns out to be too much for Sir Lucan’s heart, which gives out.  Lucan collapses, dropping Arthur as he falls dead to the chapel floor.

The shock is enough to rouse Arthur, who, it turns out, was not a hundred percent dead.  “Waugh!” cries Arthur.

“Sorry, sire!” says Bedivere.  Then he notices his brother just died.  “Waugh!”

“Calm down, Bedivere.”  Arthur may lack the strength to sit up, but he’s still king.  “If I wasn’t dying, you can bet I’d be giving Lucan a stirring eulogy.  He’s been with me since Book I.  Now you’re the last one I have.  I’m dying, so I need you to do some magic for me.”

Bedivere blinks.  “Magic, sire?”

“Take Excalibur, my magical sword, and carry it out to the beach, and throw it into the ocean.”

“Sire, has your brain been damaged?”

“You heard me.  Then come back here, and hurry, because I don’t have much time left.”

Bedivere gingerly takes Excalibur, and stumbles out of the chapel, intent on obeying Arthur’s bizarre commands.  He makes it only halfway to the water, though, before he has a thought along the lines of Hey, Arthur is clearly dying and probably he’s crazy from the head wound and Excalibur is a magic sword and also it’s all jeweled and golden.  So basically instead of throwing the sword into the sea, he hides it.

Back in the chapel, Bedivere coos as he approaches the dying king.  “Hey, sire, buddy, hey, how are you doing, buddy?”

Arthur takes a breath before speaking.  “You threw Excalibur into the water?”

“You bet I did!”

“Good, good.  What did you see happen?”

Bedivere blinks.  He was not expecting this.  “It sank?  Into the water?”

“Bedivere!” Arthur barks.  “You didn’t throw the sword away at all, did you?”

“…No, sire.”

“Go back and do it again!  And do it right!”

So Bedivere goes and fetches Excalibur and takes it down to the beach, and then, again, he holds it and weighs it in his hand and thinks about how pretty and valuable it is, and rather than cast it into the sea he hides it again.

Back to the chapel.  “Done, sire!”

“And?”

Bedivere has composed a good lie this time.  “There was, like, a flash of light?  And angels, and maybe the Grail?  Or Merlin?  Something magick-y definitely happened.”

Arthur just glares at him.  “I’m extremely disappointed in you, Bedivere.”

“Sorry, sire.”

“This is why you’ve never been a major character up to this point.”

“Sorry, sire.”

“If you screw this up a third time I don’t care that I’m as weak as tissue paper, I swear I will kill you with my bare hands.”

“Sorry, sire.”

“Now go, and obey my command!  Throw away Excalibur!”

So for a third time, Bedivere leaves to dispose of Excalibur.  And this third time he psyches himself up, winds up, and pitches the sword out into the ocean.

Where — and you probably picked this up already somewhere via cultural osmosis — an arm reaches up out of the water and neatly catches it, before lowering back down into the wine-dark sea.

Bedivere’s jaw drops.  Of all the things he was expecting, that wasn’t one of them.  He rushes back into the chapel.

“Sire!  It was amazing!  An arm came up from nowhere and caught it!”

“Finally,” says Arthur.  “I can’t believe we’ve wasted all this time.  Now come on, help me up.  I’ve got to get down to the beach.”

Down on the beach, to Bedivere’s shock, a boat has landed.  Arthur doesn’t seem at all surprised to see it.  He lets Bedivere lead him down to the gangplank, then takes a few unsteady steps forward alone, letting his sister Morgan le Fay catch him as he collapses.  Bedivere is stunned to see Morgan le Fay, Nimue, and several other ladies on deck, but Arthur was expecting them.

Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!

Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*

Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*

Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*

King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.

Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*

Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.

Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.

Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.

Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.

King Bagdemagus, slain by Sir Gawaine sometime prior to Book XVII.

Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.

Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in Book XVII.

Sir Patrice, ate a poisoned apple intended for Sir Gawaine, in Book XVIII.

Sir Meliagrance, decapitated by Launcelot with one hand tied behind his back, in Book XIX.

Sir Tristram, murdered by King Mark sometime before Book XX.

Sir Colgrevance, again, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Agravaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Mador de la Porte, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Meliot de Logris, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Petipase of Winchelsea, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Galleron of Galway, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Melion of the Mountain, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Astamore, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Grummore Grummursun, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Curselaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Florence, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Lovel, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gingalin, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gaheris, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gareth, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Belliance, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Segwarides, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Griftlet the Caterer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Brandiles, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Aglovale, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Tor, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gauter, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gillimer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Reynolds, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Damas, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Priamus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir “the Other Kay” Kay, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Driant, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Lambegus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Herminde, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Green Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Red Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gawaine, died of injuries after retaking Dover from Mordred, in Book XXI.

Sir Mordred, slain by King Arthur in the final battle, in Book XXI.

King Arthur, traveled to Avalon, in Book XXI.

Sir Lucan, died of injuries sustained in the final battle, in Book XXI.

Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI Chapter 4

It’s a tense scene, with both Arthur’s group and Mordred’s group expecting the other to double-cross.  Naturally things go south; the catalyst here is a snake biting a knight’s ankle.  This knight (Malory doesn’t specify if he’s one of Arthur’s or one of Mordred’s) draws his sword to chop up the snake, because that’s what you do I guess.  And one drawn sword turns to ten drawn swords turns to twenty drawn swords and horns blowing and banners unfurling and cavalry charging…

Arthur spends the entire battle chasing Mordred around; Mordred spends the entire battle trying to stay out of Arthur’s kill-zone.  The battle stretches on for hours, and knights keep coming up with the intention of slaying Arthur.  Arthur keeps slicing them to bits, and the ground turns to blood-red mud.

At last, after fifteen hours or so of carnage, Arthur finds himself alone on the battlefield.  He’s surrounded by corpses.  It’s dark, and he’s lost track entirely of where anyone is; everybody he sees is dead.

He calls out, and hears a distant reply.  Arthur makes towards the source of the shout, and finds Bedivere and Lucan, both badly wounded, resting at the bottom of a ditch.  Or maybe lying there waiting to die.  One of the two.

“Where is everybody?” Arthur asks them.

Lucan and Bedivere exchange glances.  “We’re everybody,” Bedivere says, eventually.

“Pretty sure everybody else died,” agrees Lucan.

“Or fled.”

“But man, there are a lot of corpses in this field.  Six figures easy.”

“Yeah.”

“Damn.”  Arthur lowers his head.  “This has all gone even more to pot than it already had, which, that’s saying something.  I just wish I knew where Mordred was, so…”

At this point, Sir Mordred comes around a corner, whistling a happy tune.  He sees Arthur among the piles of corpses and stops whistling abruptly.  Then he runs off.

“Spear!” cries Arthur.

“What?”

“Give me your spear! I lost mine and Excalibur’s too good a weapon to use on that prick!”

Lucan reluctantly hands over his sword.  “Sire, what with about a hundred and fifty nine thousand, nine hundred and six of the original one hundred sixty thousand knights being dead, maybe you should just let this one go.  Mordred’s power is plainly broken.  And if you chase him down, Sir Gawaine’s dire prediction might bear out.”

“Don’t care.  Launcelot’s not here.  Mordred is.”

Arthur dashes off after Mordred, and catches up to him!  “Traitor!  Now is thy death-day come!” he shouts, and charges.

Mordred hears Arthur coming and draws his sword.  When Arthur connects with him, Mordred thrusts, and long story short, Mordred bashes Arthur’s helmet in while Arthur drives a spear into Mordred’s brain.  They both go down.

After a few minutes Bedivere and Lucan find them.  They haul Arthur and Mordred’s body to the nearest shelter, an abandoned chapel.  Within, they take a quick inventory:  Bedivere is wounded, Lucan is badly wounded, Arthur is very badly wounded, and Mordred is dead.  Lucan and Arthur both need to lie down for a bit.

From outside the chapel they hear shouts.  Arthur sends Lucan out to see what’s happening; Lucan comes back in a moment later reporting that scavengers are looting the hundred and sixty thousand corpses.

“We should get out of here,” says Arthur.  “But instead I think I’m going to die.  Let my last words be these: ‘darn it, Launcelot, where were you?’”  And he keels over.

Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!

Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*

Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*

Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*

King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.

Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*

Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.

Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.

Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.

Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.

King Bagdemagus, slain by Sir Gawaine sometime prior to Book XVII.

Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.

Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in Book XVII.

Sir Patrice, ate a poisoned apple intended for Sir Gawaine, in Book XVIII.

Sir Meliagrance, decapitated by Launcelot with one hand tied behind his back, in Book XIX.

Sir Tristram, murdered by King Mark sometime before Book XX.

Sir Colgrevance, again, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Agravaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Mador de la Porte, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Meliot de Logris, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Petipase of Winchelsea, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Galleron of Galway, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Melion of the Mountain, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Astamore, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Grummore Grummursun, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Curselaine, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Florence, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Lovel, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gingalin, slain trying to arrest Launcelot, in Book XX.

Sir Gaheris, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gareth, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Belliance, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Segwarides, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Griftlet the Caterer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Brandiles, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Aglovale, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Tor, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gauter, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gillimer, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Reynolds, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Damas, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Priamus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir “the Other Kay” Kay, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Driant, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Lambegus, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Herminde, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Green Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

The Red Knight, slain by Launcelot during his rescue of Guenever, in Book XX.

Sir Gawaine, dies of injuries after retaking Dover from Mordred, in Book XXI.

Sir Mordred, slain by King Arthur, in Book XXI.

Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies.

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Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 3

On the eve of this planned joust/battle with Mordred, Arthur dream[s] a wonderful dream.  He’s in a chair on a scaffold!

It gets better.  The scaffold is all connected to this big wheel assembly, and it’s slowly turning.  As it turns, Arthur’s chair tilts up, steeper and steeper, until it’s horizontal and Arthur falls out of it, into the black moat below.  Bonus: the moat is full of foul and horrible spiders, that eat him!

Indeed, yes, a wonderful dream.  Arthur wakes up with a shout, but falls asleep again quickly.  This second dream is arguably more pleasant: he’s in an airy, well-lit space, seated comfortably with a cool drink, chatting with Sir Gawaine while several dozen maidens — all the women whose illegitimate children Gawaine sired, in life — attend them.

“Being dead is pretty sweet, Uncle Sire,” Gawaine says.  “I got all these babes, God turns out to be a swell guy…”

“So the ghosts of your former lovers are, what, your heavenly wives and concubines?”

Gawaine shrugs.  “Or they’re purely ethereal constructs created to serve my whims.  Doesn’t really matter.”

Arthur sighs.  “That’s great.  With you dead, I forget sometimes how you’re the worst.”

“Anyway, because God and Jesus both like you, They gave me permission to visit you like this, and warn you about Mordred.”

“Little late for that!”

“No no, I mean, this battle you have planned tomorrow, it’s not going to go well.  If you kill Mordred without Launcelot, you’ll end up dead.  You need to delay, until Sir Launcelot shows up.”

“I don’t think Launcelot’s coming.  It’s been a month with no word back.”

“But I sent a letter!  Give him another month!”

Then Sir Gawaine and all the ladies vanish.

Arthur wakes up, again, and this time instead of going back to sleep he calls in what’s left of his brain trust, Sir Lucan the Caterer and his brother Sir Bedivere, who are literally the last knights that King Arthur has.  They aren’t the only surviving Knights of the Round Table; Laucelot’s followers are all still alive, and there are a few others scattered around, like Sir Constantine (who ruled England in Arthur’s stead in Book V) and Sir Pellas the Good (who has fled the book for good, together with his wife Nimue).  But only Bedivere and Lucan remain at Arthur’s side, neither taking up arms against him nor sitting the war out at home.

“Loyal dregs,” says Arthur, “the time has come for me to send you on an extremely important mission.  Go to Mordred and barter for a cease fire.  Make whatever concessions you need to; we’ve got to delay the fighting for another month.  Sir Gawaine came to me in a dream and told me so.”

Understandably, Bedivere and Lucan have some questions about this new plan, but Arthur lays it all out.  “Whatever it takes, for a month of peace.  Then Launcelot will arrive with reinforcements, and save me, even though we are technically at war.”

So Bedivere and Lucan load up and roll out.  They ride over to Mordred’s camp, where he and his army of one hundred thousand knights have assembled.

Between Arthur’s 60 000 and Mordred’s 100 000, I’m beginning to wonder whether there were any men in England who weren’t knights.  A few minutes quick googling lets me estimate the English population in the nebulous fifth-or-fifteenth century to be around two million, though, so, only about a third or half of the fighting-age male population were knights I guess.

Anyway, Bedivere and Lucan have to make some ridiculous concessions to get Mordred to even agree to sit down at the bargaining table.  He drives a hard bargain, and they’re obliged to carry out Arthur’s wishes and do whatever it takes.

What it takes: Mordred gets half of Arthur’s kingdom now, and the other half when Arthur dies.

Mordred, Bedivere, and Lucan negotiate a treaty signing ceremony to take place in between the two assembled armies, with only small honor guards present for Arthur and Mordred, no more than fourteen knights each.  When the ceremony begings, Arthur calls his honor guard into a quick huddle.

“You all know the drill here.  We’re stalling for time.  This treaty is just to stave off the battle until Launcelot gets here.  That said, I don’t want to die in an ambush and Mordred is a tricky little snake.  You see him pull anything, you be ready to get me out of there, all right?”

Meanwhile Mordred talks to his own huddle of guards.

“Okay, idiots, listen up.  Arthur’s planning something.  Look at him over there, with his gray hair and his crown and his magic sword.  Sneaky jerk, probably wants his kingdom back.  Bedivere and Lucan were happy to give up the farm, so obviously he’s got a trick up his sleeve.  Stay alert and look alive and if anything goes down, I want you guys to kill Arthur first and ask questions later.”

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