The second leg of the Tale of Arthur Conquering Rome goes off on a tangent, but the tangent is more interesting than the war: it’s got a giant in it! The trip from Sandwich to Flanders was an overnighter. Arthur spent it alone in the royal cabin aboard one of the ships. He didn’t sleep well: tossing, turning, a dream about a dragon fighting a boar. When he woke up, he decided he wanted the dream interpreted, Biblical style, and sent for the prophet Daniel.
“Or failing that, Merlin. Or if you can’t find him, Nimue if she’s around. Or heck, just any old bearded dude, they’re pretty well interchangable.”
I’m not sure how, since they were in the middle of the English Channel, but Arthur’s attendants found him an old man who was willing to give soothsaying a shot. Arthur described his dream to the old man, and then looked at him expectantly.
“Um, okay, sire,” said the soothsayer. “So I think it’s a dream about how you’re going to fight the Romans.”
“And win! Fight and win, sire. It’ll be a terrible rout.”
“What makes you say that? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’d like to hear about the process.”
“So in your dream, a great golden dragon flies to Europe from across the sea, and, see, that represents you. You’re the dragon! Your father was Uther Pendragon, so…”
“It’s all blue and gold and silver and black because those are the colors of your various kingdoms, in some obscure heraldic system that exists I am sure.”
“And the tail with all the feathers, every feather is a different knight of the Round Table, in your service! Yeah, that hangs together.”
“I see, I see.”
“Now the dragon was fighting a bear, right? And the bear was all tattered and mean and old and ugly and dirty, and clearly that represents the Romans, I don’t think I need to clarify that. Or maybe it’s some tyrant. Or a giant, it could be a giant, they’re big and smelly. Anyhow, the important thing is that it’s a dream about how awesome you are and your coming victory.”
“Hmm. You know, I appreciate your work, Merlin –“
“I’m not Merlin, sire.”
“Fine, have it your way, you’re disguised, whatever. I appreciate your work, Merlin, but I am an adult. I suspect you’re just telling me what you think I want to hear. If the dream isn’t about how great I am, I would appreciate knowing that. I won’t have you put to death or anything; I’m asking you, after all.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin trying to sugarcoat a harsh message for one so cunning and wise as yourself, sire –“
“Well…” The old man considered. “In the dream, the battle between the bear and the dragon is bloody; the dragon is victorious and drives the bear into the sea where it dissolves, but not before the bear slices the dragon’s armored chest open.”
“So maybe you’ll suffer losses?”
“Not super helpful, Merlin,” said Arthur. “But I suppose it’s the most I could have expected.”
And on that note, Arthur’s flotilla arrived in Dunkirk. There, an additional thirty thousand troops waited for him; when you added that to all the knights he had brought over, it’s Operation DYNAMO in reverse is what it is! We’re talking an invasion on the scale of D-Day but without any immediate resistance. Every available boat and ship and cog and canoe was drafted to move troops from Sandwich to Dunkirk, back and forth, a steady stream, and by the time it was all said and done hundreds of thousands of men were ready to liberate Europe from the Nazis, I mean Romans.
And this is where things took a turn. Getting Arthur’s troops organized in Dunkirk was a slow process: they needed to count noses, sort everybody into houses, and so on. Unlike D-Day there wasn’t any fighting on the beaches, because the Romans didn’t control the northern edge of France; this was part of Arthur’s territory. You may remember Arthur’s friends from the Continent, circa Book I, Ban and Bors. Bors was King of France, which means that he was technically a Roman subject, according to the logic of this book anyhow. Nevertheless Bors was only too happy to join in Arthur’s tax revolt; he knew whose name was in the title, so he mobilized his own troops to help fend off the Roman counter-invasion.
The Roman counter-invasion ran late, because it was gigantic and it turned out it’s hard to move an arbitrarily large number of soldiers. Lucius himself led the troops, drawn from every corner of the Empire, but when Arthur landed they hadn’t even crossed the alps yet.
But lest you think this section of the story is going to be really, really boring, check it out! A farmer burst into Arthur’s tent and started babbling about the giant.
“Oi the giant oi rutabaga giant oi!”
Arthur talked the farmer down sufficient to interrogate him. About three French provinces over, a giant had been terrorizing a bunch of folks who were at least in theory Arthur’s vassals.
Why none of the thirty thousand troops that were waiting for him in Dunkirk — who were from the same general part of France, i.e. Normandy and Brittany and so on — thought to mention this giant to Arthur, I dunno. Maybe they’d all assumed he knew about it and had chosen not to act, I don’t know. Bors, the King of France, might have been expected to take some interest, but no. According to the farmer, a horrible giant had been rampaging throughout Brittany and the province next to Brittany, which Malory says is Constantine but Wikipedia asserts was one of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, or Poitou. Constantine: not actually a French province, says Wikipedia.
Regardless of precisely where, for seven years this giant had been randomly murdering children. By the time of Arthur’s invasion you couldn’t find a child in the region. They were all gone; no more children. Recently the giant had run out of children to steal, kill, and eat, so he’d abducted the Duchess of Brittany. Rumor had it he’d committed acts both vaguely described and unspeakably awful, which had resulted in her death. Five hundred knights had quested to rescue her, all five hundred had failed, and now she was dead. Malory uses the phrase foul lust of lechery to explain the late Duchess’s fate.
Since she had been Arthur’s father’s sister’s son’s wife, the farmer said, the people of Normandy-Brittany-Constantine looked to the king of Logris-England-Britain to revenge her and end the threat of the rampaging child-killing (and worse) giant.
Arthur groaned. “For the record I’m mainly motivated here by the giant’s many atrocities, and the fact that the woman in question was a distant relative isn’t important. I mean, man. That’s pretty sick, seven years of murdering children, plus other atrocities. I wish I’d heard about this much, much sooner. Now, listen, can you tell me where this monstrous villain of a giant is?”
“You bet,” said the farmer. “We went ahead and set up some signal fires for you already. See the big bonfire off in the distance, and the other big bonfire next to it? You walk in a straight line between those bonfires, you’ll find him. Oh, also he’s got a big pile of money, probably. So, if you need any further incentive…”
“I don’t!” Arthur snapped. “Atrocities are atrocious, that’s the start and finish of my position! Well, thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I’ll take care of it, grab a gift basket on your way out.”
Arthur ditched the famed and called in Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere. This was Bedivere’s first significant appearance; he would get one more in Book XXI. Sir Bedivere is in only about three scenes total in Malory, and in one of them it’s just “and Bedivere was also there and he got beaten up, pretty badly.” But he was a fairly major knightly character in the Monty Python movie, probably because he has a memorably silly name, so I’ve kept my eyes open.
The king asked Kay and Bedivere to ride off with him on the pretext of they were going to take a quick pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Michael together. Arthur didn’t want to worry his soldiers with this whole “go off and fight a giant that’s been undefeated going on eight years now” plan he’d concocted; it might have been bad for morale. They headed towards St. Michaels, which was in the same direction as the distant bonfires, and rode on and past to the shrine. There Arthur told Kay and Bedivere to hang back and act as his backup.
The king pressed on alone, and soon he met a widow. He could tell she was a widow because she was on her knees in front of a freshly-dug grave, wringing her hands and sobbing for her dead husband.
“What’s the matter, old woman?” asked Arthur. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious what the general shape of it is that’s troubling you, but do you want to talk about it?”
“Shh!” said the widow, shushing him, even though she had just been making a racket sobbing a moment earlier. “There’s a monster nearby! If he hears you he’ll eat us both. You poor man, stumbling in at random to this cursed place. Surely you’ll die here, as so many have. Not even if you had fifty soldiers could you survive. We will all die, just as the Duchess of Brittany died: slowly and painfully. It’ll be like a scene from Saw.”
“Listen, lady, and I mean no disrespect, but I’m here from Camelot,” Arthur said before he remembered that he was going incognito at the moment. “I’m, uh, I’m part of King Arthur’s court, and we don’t cotton to child-killing, duchess-eating giants. I’ve come to try to talk to the giant, get him to stop with his fiendish ways, and go peacefully.”
The widow laughed hollowly. “Peacefully? You waste your time, knight. The only thing in Camelot the giant would care about is Queen Guenever, and then only because he’d like to rape, torture, murder, and eat her. He’s killed more than a dozen messengers and couriers trying to talk him into leaving the area, and right now he’s probably wearing his jeweled coat that we gave him last Christmas as a present in hopes it would inspire him to stop murdering and eating people, which it didn’t.”
“That’s as may be, but I’d be a pretty crap epic hero if I didn’t at least try to solve my problems with words, at least occasionally.”
The widow shrugged and pointed over her shoulder, saying the giant was just on the other side of that rise.
So Arthur crested the hill and looked down the other side and saw, sure enough, the giant. The giant sat at a bonfire, gnawing on something, wearing nothing but matted hair and dirt. Three maidens, who may as well have been wearing t-shirts with I AM A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS printed on them, had been tasked with the thankless job of cooking the giant’s supper: a dozen birds cooked on skewers, like shish-kebab.
Then Arthur looked more closely and saw that no, those weren’t birds, those were babies, and his “talk to the giant” plan went out the window right then and there.
“Death!” he shouted. “Death and shame and the devil take you!“
The giant glanced up from his gnawing-bone. “Wot?”
“Why would you do that? Why would you kill and eat babies and rape my cousin’s wife to death and argh I can’t even! Get up and fill your hand, for I’ve come to kill you!” Arthur brandished Excalibur.
The giant rose, put on zero pairs of pants, and grabbed his big club. In a single motion he closed the hundred yard gap between them, and clocked Arthur in the head.
“You’re much faster than you look,” said Arthur, or tried to, blood welling out of his mouth and all. But Arthur was no slouch, he had his +1 sword, and he disemboweled the giant right quick. Probably he assumed the fight was over at that point.
But no! This giant just got angrier and angrier, the more intestines he had spilling out! He tossed his club aside, grabbed Arthur, and started trying to rip him apart! Arthur and the giant were grappling and we all know how terrible the grappling rules are in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Or if you don’t, it varies by edition but you can take my word for it: Arthur was pretty well screwed by the giant’s crazy-superior strength.
The three damsels in distress kneeled and prayed for someone to help Arthur — God, Jesus Christ, Sir Kay, anyone — and Arthur rolled with the giant up over the crest of the hill, down the other side, and the next hill, to the shrine of St. Michael.
Bedivere and Kay were still sitting there. They had some coffee in a thermos Kay brought.
“I wonder what Arthur’s up to,” mused Bedivere.
Before Kay could respond, the king rolled1 up, along with a disemboweled giant in the middle of ripping him to pieces. Naturally Kay and Bedivere leaped up!
“Kay! Kay! Kill this thing, Kay!” gasped Arthur.
“On it!” Kay pulled out his sword and hacked the giant’s head off at the neck, which was finally enough to get the giant to stop moving.
Afterwards Arthur put the giant’s head on a pike and sent it to his cousin the Duke of Brittany. He sent Bedivere to and fetch Excalibur and Arthur’s shield from where he had dropped them when the giant grabbed him. Kay went looking for damsels to free and found the giant’s smock and club, which he gave to Arthur as trophies (“See how big that smock is? I fought a giant who wasn’t even wearing that smock!”) and also some riches. Kay helped himself to the riches, on the grounds that he was the one who did the actual giant-killing.
But no sooner was the giant dealt with, then one of Ban’s messengers rolled into the camp. Apparently while Arthur had been dicking around with giant-killing, the Roman Empire had finally arrived. They’d invaded Benwick and just burned everything. “Get down here already,” was the gist of the message.