This story opens with Arthur dreaming. In his dream, an army of monsters invaded England! Arthur raised an army to fight them, and after a long, bloody campaign drove them from his shores.
This bugged Arthur; I guess he thought that if he battled monsters he should win easily. To cheer himself up he decided to go hunting. Arthur moodily hunted for a while, almost bagged a deer, doesn’t, moodily changed horses, moodily hunted some more, then decided to call it a day. As the sun sank low, he watered his horse at a handy wilderness-fountain and mulled over the existential angst of being King Arthur. While he was doing this, he heard what he thought was a pack of thirty or so hounds approaching! But no, it was the Questing Beast. The Questing Beast sounded like that, apparently. It showed up and, ignoring Arthur, drank from the fountain, then leaves.
“Peculiar,” thought Arthur. Then he lay out for a quick nap.
He hadn’t yet fallen asleep before a knight walked up and poked him with his foot. “Excuse me, stranger. Dude, wake up. Dude. Wake up. I’m looking for a beast which cannot be described except to say that it sounds like thirty hounds, have you seen him?”
Arthur opened his eyes and glared at the stranger. Finally he pointed the direction the beast went. “Yeah, it went that way.”
“Terrific!” said the knight. “Now if only I had a horse.”
At this point one of Arthur’s servants showed up with another horse. “You wanted a spare horse, your majesty?”
Arthur said no, because he had already received his second horse like two hours ago; there’d been some kind of mixup in the stables.
“Since you aren’t using this horse,” said the strange knight, whose name was Pellinore. “Hint, hint.”
“What? This is starting to seem weirdly contrived. Am I getting punk’d?” asked Arthur. “Am I dreaming? Are monsters about to appear? Has a mystery play sprung up around me? What is happening?”
Pellinore explained that he was on a quest to catch the Questing Beast, as if this answered all Arthur’s questions.
“Okay, I’ll play along,” said Arthur. If I was Arthur I’d be better-looking. I’d also suspect I was in some kind of dream or allegory or crazy Merlin prank situation. “Yo, Pellinore,” he continued. “How about you stop questing after this ‘Questing Beast,’ and I’ll go quest after it for, I dunno, a year? Or until I catch it.”
“Stranger, you’re as ignorant as you are ugly!” retorted Pellinore. “Only I can catch it. Or one of my sons. Or a nephew, or my father, or an uncle, if he’s a paternal uncle. You get what I’m saying. I’m saying a male relative. And yes, I’m a sexist jackass, but who isn’t these days?”
While Arthur mulled this over, Pellinore stole both horses.
“My horses now!” cried Pellinore. “I need them to catch the Questing Beast. The score is two horses Pellinore, zero horses everyone else!”
Arthur mumbled something about Pellinore better being ready to fight him for them, to which Pellinore laughed. He’d be there, right there, at this fountain, any time Arthur wanted to fight. Any time at all! Pellinore wasn’t going anywhere! Then Pellinore rode off.
Arthur needed to lie down after all that. He sent someone to get him another horse, and lay down and tried to process the whole bizarre experience, when along came Merlin.
Merlin, for funsies, was disguised as a fourteen-year-old gossipy junior-high girl.
“Helloooo Arthur,” said Disguised Merlin.
“Uh huh,” said Arthur. “Hello, little girl.”
“Hellooo? Arthur?” said Disguised Merlin.
“What’s up?” asked Disguised Merlin.
Arthur waved at the air. “I just saw… there was this thing that wasn’t a deer and sounded like thirty dogs… guy stole my horses…”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” said Disguised Merlin. “Don’t waste time thinking about it.”
“What do you know, anyway? You’re a mere schoolgirl,” said Arthur.
“I know you’re the king of England, and your father was Uther Pendragon, and your mother Igraine! And I know a hilarious story about your conception,” said Disguised Merlin. “Knew your father, I did!”
“No, no, no,” said Arthur. “The thing before was weird and confusing, this is just dumb. You’re way too young to have known my dad. Get lost!”
“Whatevs,” said Disguised Merlin, and stepped behind a tree. When he stepped back he was disguised as an eighty-year-old man.
“That’s better,” said Arthur. “Now you look elderly and wise.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Merlin.
“So first there was this beast that wasn’t thirty dogs, and then there was this guy, and he stole my horse, and finally a certain schoolgirl came up and was all I know a hilarious story about your conception which was just disturbing.”
“Mmm-hmm,” said Merlin. “That sounds like one cunning and awesome schoolgirl you should have been nicer to. I’m sure she would have told you that God is angry with you.”
“With me personally, or with all mankind?”
“Both,” said Merlin. “But specifically you slept with Margawse your half-sister and she had your incestuous offspring Mordred, who will eventually ruin everything for everyone.”
“What is it with this fountain? You are the third person to come up and say bizarre nonsense at me since I got here!” said Arthur. “Margawse is my half-sister?!”
“I’m only the second person to tell you bizarre nonsense at this fountain!” said Merlin, “because I’m Merlin! And I was the schoolgirl! It was me, all along!”
Arthur sighed. “So you can see the future and it all ends with this ‘Mordred’ killing me, huh?”
“Yes. Try to act surprised. But it’s best not to think about that right now,” said Merlin, “because anyway when you die you get a great funeral and when I die they just toss me in a ditch.”
At this point someone came back with another horse for Arthur, and Merlin procured a horse somehow. They rode back to Caerlaeon, which was where Ector and Ulfius were, possibly because Malory has forgotten that he established Arthur’s court as being in London rather than at Caerlaeon. Probably other people were there, too, but Ector and Ulfius were the ones Arthur wanted to question.
“Just the knights I sought. Guys, do you know who my parents are?” he asked them.
Ector and Ulfius were nonplussed. “Your biological father was King Uther,” said Ector.
“And your mother was Queen Igraine,” said Ulfius. “There’s actually a hilarious story about your conception…”
“Not now!” snapped Arthur. “Queen Margawse is Igraine’s daughter, right?”
“Right,” said Ector.
“I’m Igraine’s son, you say, right?” Arthur asked. “Biological son. Nothing against my adoptive mother, your wife, Dad.”
Ector nodded. “Right,” said Ulfius.
“So when Margawse and I slept together, you didn’t think it might be a good idea to say something?!“
“Well, we thought you knew, and were just, you know, being weird,” said Ector.
“Your dad –” started Ulfius.
“– His biological dad –” broke in Ector.
“Yeah,” said Ulfius. “Uther, well, Uther did some crazy stuff like that. A lot. One time, this is a funny story, one time he got Merlin to magically disguise us…”
“Okay, great,” said Arthur. “That’s great. That’s just fine and dandy. This kind of thing just makes a guy want to stab his own eyes out. Is Queen Igraine still around? Can I speak with her?”
“Do you really want to?” asked Ulfius.
“I imagine so,” said Ector. “You are the king, after all.”
“Yeah, okay, so, get Igraine here, because I want to meet her.”
Malory doesn’t say where Queen Igraine spent the twenty years or so since we last saw her (prior to Uther’s death) but she showed up pretty quickly and she brought along her second-youngest daughter, Morgan le Fay, the one who got such good grades in necromancy school. But then! As soon as Morgan le Fay and Igraine arrived at Arthur’s court, and before anyone said two words of greeting, Sir Ulfius stood up and started hurling invective.
He’d been waiting for a chance to bawl out Igraine for a long time. He got all red-faced and would have been violent maybe if no one were there to stop him, but as it was he just shouted a lot. The upshot of it is that Ulfius blamed Igraine for the massacre/battle against Team Lot & Mister 100.
If Igraine had shown up and endorsed Arthur at or after his coronation, then Lot and the others would surely have accepted him as king. After all, the bulk of their protest had been that Arthur was Sir Ector’s adopted son whose parentage was entirely unknown and whose claim to the throne was solely through Merlin’s sword-and-stone nonsense.
Ulfius bottled up this rage, but it all came boiling out now. He called her traitress and a causer of war and false to God and threatened to murder anyone who defended her.
Igraine rebutted his verbal assault, saying that she’d defend herself without it coming to violence she hoped, what with it being a patriarchal society wherein she was forbidden to fight. She’d like to think that some man (her son, maybe?) might have been moved to defend her. The tale of Arthur’s conception, she said, was a hilarious anecdote, which Ulfius knew as well as she did, since he was there for most of it, and besides it was Merlin who made it possible.
Arthur, at this point, considered asking about the details of this hilarious anecdote everyone kept mentioning, but decided against it.
But, to Arthur’s chagrin, Igraine retold it for everyone present, Arthur’s whole court: Uther’s lechery, Merlin’s false mustaches, Gorlas conveniently dying three hours before Arthur’s conception, and Uther marrying Igraine afterwards.
By the end of it everyone was pretty grossed out, even Ulfius, and the wind had gone out of his sails some. He grumbled that Merlin was the real grade-A monster here; Merlin was the one to blame for it.
“I know!” Igraine was all weepy. “I bore Uther a child, and then thanks to Merlin, I never got to see him again or raise him or find out what became of him.”
Then Merlin stepped forward, and took Igraine by one hand, and Arthur by the other, and put their hands together, which was a touching little scene. Merlin got away with not explicitly apologizing, and Arthur cried and Igraine cried and Ector introduced himself to Igraine as Arthur’s adoptive father and then they cried together, and then Arthur called for another big party.
Eight days of partying later (Kay and the caterers Griflet and Lucan were busy) a boy rode up, with a dead knight. The boy explained that the knight was Sir Miles, the boy was Miles’s squire, and a guy out in the woods set up a tent out in the woods by the fountain…
“…nothing good ever happens at that fountain,” Arthur muttered.
“And at that tent,” the boy continued, “the villainous guy killed Sir Miles, and I’m hoping someone can avenge him? Or better yet I can get knighted myself and I’ll go avenge him? My name’s Griflet, by the way.”
“We already have a Sir Griflet,” said Arthur. “He’s one of the caterers. He just got mentioned a couple of lines up.”
“That’s me!” said the boy. “It’s a continuity error!”
“Hmm, if it’s a continuity error then I’d better knight you,” said Arthur. He looks Griflet up and down. “You’re awfully young, though. The Sir Griflet who fought so bravely at the massacre/battle against Team Lot & Mister 100 wasn’t so young.”
“I’ll age, I promise,” said Griflet.
“It is indeed a continuity error, sire,” said Merlin. “Best to knight him and be done with it. He’ll be a fine knight right up until he dies trying to stop your best friend from preventing the death of your wife.”
“Why do I let you say anything ever?” Arthur asked Merlin. “Griflet, fine, you can be a knight. Get over here and kneel down. Sword!”
Someone handed Arthur a sword, and he did the usual shoulder-tap bit on the boy. Thus knighted, Sir Griflet was all fired up to ride off and try to kill the knight who slew Sir Miles, but Arthur stopped him.
“Promise to come right back after the fight, win or lose!” Arthur commanded Griflet. Which strikes me as a little odd, I mean, if he lost he’d likely die.
But Griflet swore that promise, took a sword and armor and a horse, and rode back to the fountain. As he’d told Arthur, someone had pitched a tent there, and all the knight’s stuff was just sitting out on the grass.
Griflet grabbed a spear and banged it against the knight’s shield where it lay on the ground. When the knight came out from the tent and tried to get him to knock off the racket, Griflet challenged him to a joust.
“What? Why?” asked the knight.
“You don’t remember me?”
“You killed my master, Sir Miles?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It was like twenty minutes ago!”
“Oh. Oh, right, Sir Miles. You’re that kid. Listen, kid, you’re way too young for me to want to kill you, and you’re also way to young for me to lose to you in a fight.”
“I don’t care,” said Griflet, “I want to joust you.”
“Fine, fine, your funeral,” said the knight. “Which one is the joust? I can never remember.”
“It’s the one where we’re on horses and strike one another with spears!” Griflet was a little annoyed by the knight’s attitude.
“Oh, man, I hate that one. Of all the knightly methods of contention it’s my least favorite. You’ll probably defeat me easily,” said the mystery knight, and he dressed for a joust and mounted up and they hefted spears.
The two knights ran at one another. Griflet’s spear was shaky while the other knight’s aim was true, and boom, Griflet was dehorsed and left semiconscious with a big gaping spear wound, and his horse got knocked down too.
“Yeah, I lied before. I’m actually a great jouster. I told you it was a bad idea,” said the mystery knight. “Ha! Dumb kid.” But he felt a little bad about beating on Sir Griflet, who might have grown up to be a great knight eventually, so he got down off his horse and helped Griflet up. The kid was bleeding pretty badly, but the mystery knight loaded him up on his horse, and sent him back to Arthur’s court.
In Arthur’s court they quickly administered first aid and bandages and leeches! Everyone worried that young Sir Griflet wouldn’t make it, but then he made it!
But this was a very eventful day! We aren’t done yet. Tax collectors showed up: twelve elderly men from Rome, asking for Arthur’s taxes for Caesar. And by “asking” I mean “demanding, with an undertone of threatening.”
“Well,” Arthur said, “you guys are messengers, and I don’t believe in killing the messenger, so I’m not going to hurt you, I’m just going to say that my answer is a categorical get bent to all Roman Emperors. All taxes paid by me shall be paid using the medium of sword-blows, and you guys picked a real bad time, because I’m upset about this whole Griflet thing anyways.”
The tax collectors stormed off, warning that this wasn’t the end of it, just wait until Book V, and Arthur stewed and sulked. He told one of his men to get all his best combat gear together, and a horse, and the next morning he strapped on his armor and took his spear and went riding around looking for trouble.
Trouble was not long in the coming, for before Arthur’d wandered too far he came across Merlin, chased by three churls.
“Churls! Scat!” shouted Arthur, and rode into them waving his spear around. The churls scattered, and Arthur felt much better.
“Ha, Merlin,” said Arthur. “You’re all Captain Magic and Weird Trickery Man, and here you would have been murdered by churls if I hadn’t happened along.”
“Yeah, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Merlin. “You’re going to die before I am, also God hates you.”
“Stop talking!” snapped Arthur. “You are the worst buzzkill ever, Merlin.”
Merlin and Arthur walked along like this for a while, with Merlin making dire predictions and Arthur trying to laugh it off, and then they came to the fountain.
“Crap,” said Arthur. “This fountain.” He shook his head. “This fucking fountain.”
The mystery knight who busted up Griflet was still there, as was all his stuff.
“Yo,” said the knight that busted up Griflet.
“Yo yourself,” said Arthur. “Are you the dick that’s been jousting and killing people?”
“Maybe,” said the knight. “A lot of guys were jousting.”
“I’m going to hit you until you promise to stop,” announced Arthur. He pulled out his sword.
“Hey, swords are fine and all,” said the knight. “But I’m actually way better with spears. Sometimes I tell people I’m not just to mess with them, but seeing as how you’re challenging me and all, could we do it with spears?”
“Sure,” said Arthur. “Except I have zero spears.”
“Borrow one of mine,” said the knight. “I have like a million extra.”
So Arthur grabbed a spear, and they jousted. The knight slammed Arthur pretty well and Arthur the knight likewise, and both spears shattered under the force of it.
“Okay, now with swords,” said Arthur.
“I have more spears,” said the knight. “C’mon, be a sport.”
“Okay, fine,” said Arthur, testily. They took new spears and rode at one another again, and this time the knight hammered Arthur quite well and knocked him off his horse.
“I’m okay! I’m okay,” said Arthur. “Just got the wind knocked out of me. Now I’m dehorsed, so that’s a point for you and now we fight on foot with swords. That’s how it goes.”
“Yeah, no,” said the mystery knight. “I’m going to stay up here.”
“Cheater! Why am I surprised?” Arthur lay into him with his sword. Arthur didn’t kill the knight’s horse because that would have been cheating and made Arthur just as bad as this knight, but he did get the knight unhorsed pretty quick.
“Yeah, well, I let you,” said the mystery knight. “Can’t really get a guy on foot with a spear from horseback, anyway.”
Then Arthur and the mystery knight went fight fight fight with swords. It was awesome, right up until the knight’s sword chopped Arthur’s sword in half.
“Darn it,” said Arthur. “This is the sword someone handed me to knight Sir Griflet with. I should have brought my magic one.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t,” said the other knight. “Now do you surrender or do I kill you?”
Merlin, who’d been watching this whole battle from the sidelines, called out to Arthur. “Don’t choose death! God hates you so when you die you’ll go to hell! It’ll be terrible! If you surrender you will lose all self-respect! I’m an old wizard and yet I’ll outlive you! You slept with your sister!” and many other cheers meant to lift Arthur’s spirits.
“I choose neither!” cried Arthur. And he jumped onto the mystery knight, knocked him down, and ripped his helmet off, and it’s Pellinore that jackass who stole Arthur’s horse. Shocking twist!
Then Arthur and Pellinore rolled around fighting in the dirt, wrestling like boys. Pellinore was definitely getting the upper hand, and things didn’t look good for our hero.
So Arthur’s lay there, senseless, and he was about to get his skull caved in by Pellinore and Pellinore’s enormous heavy sword. Finally Merlin decided to get up and do something useful for once, besides spout spoilers. “Hey, you,” he said to Pellinore. “Yeah, you! Quit murdering that guy! He’s better than you!”
“Better than me? Who is this guy, anyway?” asked Pellinore.
“It’s King Arthur, you idiot!”
“Arthur!” Pellinore was impressed. “The guy whose horse I stole before? I owe him! Obviously I’d better double-kill him!” And Pellinore hefted his sword, about to decapitate Arthur, but then Merlin cast sleep and instead Pellinore needed to lie down for a while.
A few minutes later, Arthur came to, with no permanent brain damage from having been knocked unconscious, so that’s how far back that particular genre convention goes, the bashing someone on the head and they collapse but wake up fresh as a daisy after the next commercial break. Arthur came to on the back of Pellinore’s horse, behind Merlin.
“Aw, Merlin, did you have to kill him?” asked Arthur, who was king of leaping to conclusions as well as Logris-Britain-England. “He was a really, really good jouster. If he weren’t trying to kill me, I’d have tried to hire him. Hmm. Maybe we can make some kind of bargain, you can bring him back to life? I don’t have much to offer, just, you know, all of England. I could loan that to you, if you resurrect Pellinore. You want to borrow all of England?”
“Relax,” said Merlin. “He’s in better shape than you are. He’ll be awake in eighteen turns, that’s about three hours. I warned you about Pellinore. I remember clearly telling you that he’s nine feet tall and breathes fire, metaphorically speaking, and in the future he’ll do you a big favor. Also he’ll have two sons who will be the second-best and third-best knights, Sir Percivale and Sir Lamorak.”
“Can we not have one normal conversation, without you prophesying all over the place?”
“Oh, and also he’ll be the one who tells you about how Mordred is going to destroy everything. Try to act surprised when that happens.”
“Listen, let’s… let’s just be quiet for a while.”
Merlin didn’t take Arthur back to his court. Instead they chilled at a local forest hermit’s place for several days while Arthur recuperated and got leeched. A long weekend later he was ready to go, so they hopped on the horse Merlin stole and another horse which, I don’t know, the hermit gave them, that sounds plausible. Anyway, they started riding, and straightaway, Arthur started complaining that he didn’t have a sword. Pellinore had broken his, you may recall.
“No problem,” said Merlin. “Over in that lake there’s a sword you can have.”
“I thought I was no longer surprised by anything you say,” said Arthur. “But that’s a little weird.”
“Check it out,” said Merlin, and pointed. They’d been riding past a lake, nice lake, features included an arm wearing a shining white sleeve sticking straight up out of the middle of the lake, said arm was holding a sword (scabbard included). Also, there was a woman who might have been swimming and might have just been walking on the water, it’s hard to say.
“Yeah, a little weird,” Arthur said again. “Who is that woman?”
“That’s the woman who lives in the lake,” Merlin said. “Duh.”
“Great, thanks,” said Arthur.
“Actually she lives in a magic rock at the bottom of the lake. Very nicely furnished, super comfy. She’s coming over here, and she’ll give you the sword if you ask for it.”
Sure enough, the woman headed over to Arthur and Merlin and said hi. After exchanging pleasantries, Arthur was like, “hey, you know that sword? Can I have it?”
“You’re King Arthur, right?” she asked.
“Hmm. On the one hand it’s a nice sword. On the other hand, I don’t need it for anything, and I would love to be owed a favor by King Arthur, that sounds super handy,” the woman said.
“How about an autograph?”
“No, no, no. One favor to be named later, take it or leave it,” said the woman.
“Yeah, okay,” said Arthur. “I can’t see any way that could backfire on me.”
So he and Merlin tied up their horses and they got in a little rowboat and rowed out to the arm, where Arthur took the sword. The arm then retracted down into the water.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Merlin. “Pay it no mind.”
“Way ahead of you,” said Arthur. “I’m trying real hard to block out pretty much this whole misadventure, especially all your dire predictions.”
A few hours later, Arthur and Merlin rode up the road and came to a familiar-looking tent.
“I recognize this tent,” said Arthur. “It’s belongs to that villain Pelli–”
“It’s the tent of King Pellinore, the knight who beat you up so badly a few days ago,” interrupted Merlin. He spoke very quickly so as to prevent Arthur from getting a word in edgewise. “He packed it up and moved it here away from the fountain. Earlier today he met one of the knights in your service, Sir Egglame, that is the man’s name, don’t make fun, and they jousted which joust I could describe for you now but I’m eliding the jousting in favor of the bare facts. Egglame ran away, on account of otherwise Pellinore would have killed him, so, no fault to Egglame there, and Pellinore ran after him and now they’re both halfway to Caerlaeon, and we’ll bump into Pellinore up the road in just a few minutes.”
“Okay,” said Arthur. He was more patient with Merlin than I would have been. “Hey, I can try out this nice new sword on him!” Arthur brightened at the prospect.
“No no no,” said Merlin. “He’s tired after beating on Egglame and chasing him, and you’d just kill him, which, that’s not going to happen because of all the things he’s going to do in the future. Best to let him live.”
“Best, I said, to let him live.”
“He’ll do you a good turn, and his sons also, and also he’ll be your brother-in-law soon.”
“Fine,” said Arthur petulantly. He fiddled with his new sword and scabbard.
“Hrmph,” said Merlin. “Which do you like more, the sword or the scabbard?”
“Is this a trick question?” asked Arthur.
“No. I’m just making conversation.”
“Obviously the sword is best, because you can kill your enemies with it. The scabbard is just a sword delivery system, like how waffles are just a carrier for butter and syrup.”
“Wrong!” cried Merlin. “It was a trick question! The scabbard is a magic scabbard that causes your blood to remain in your body at all times.”
“That doesn’t sound so useful… no, wait, what if I get cut and start to bleed… or someone puts a leech on me unexpectedly… yeah, okay, I can see how that would be useful.”
“Good,” said Merlin. “Hold on to that scabbard. Also, hold still for a moment, I’m going to do some magic.”
Then Merlin cast invisibility on Arthur, such that when the two of them rode past King Pellinore a few minutes later, Pellinore didn’t see Arthur at all and therefore didn’t insult him.
Afterwards Arthur mused that perhaps Pellinore was turning over a new leaf. “He didn’t insult me!”
“He would have if he’d seen you,” said Merlin. “I did magic at it.”
Then Arthur and Merlin rode back into Caerlaeon, and everyone was glad to see Arthur, since he’d been gone for days. Arthur told them all about the crazy mystic adventures of the last few chapters, really everything since he met his biological mother, and everyone marveled about how great Arthur was for having endured such a crazy mystic adventure with no friends along, just Merlin.