Book V is a fairly short book compared to those before it, and it’s got a decent unity of theme: this is the story of King Arthur and his buddy, Emperor Lucius. That’s a sarcastic ‘buddy;’ they don’t really get along. It’s also the story of the Allied push through France and Germany at the close of World War II. Enh, kind of.
Another thing to note: several years pass between the Morgan le Fay, Gawaine and Uwaine thing in Book IV, and the events of this book. While it’s not multiple decades, it is long enough for Sir Launcelot du Lake to have grown into an adult knight (albeit a young one) instead of the beamish boy we saw back at the start of Book IV. It’s also long enough that Arthur finally gets to throw a party commemorating meaningfully large span of time without invasions or strange adventures. Five years? A decade, maybe? These are Arthur’s salad days. Everything’s fresh and lush.
King Arthur threw a celebratory tournament party, with lots of jousting (JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 10!). Knights came in from miles around, Guenever made eyes at Launcelot, and so on. There was lots of great food and everyone had a terrific time; it’s well-established by this point that King Arthur was excellent at throwing parties (funerals, weddings, coronations, whatnot). And then twelve dudes appeared and cast a pall on everything.
You might remember these twelve dudes! They had appeared way back in Book I, demanding Arthur pay England-Britain-Logris’s back taxes to Rome. At the time Arthur had been wrapped up in the whole King Pellinore, Questing Beast, Sir Griflet thing, and had sent the taxmen away without comment. At the time, the taxmen’d asserted they’d be back and, sure enough, there they were. The dozen of them marched into the big ballroom at Camelot, waving olive branches to symbolize their peaceful intent.
“What have you got there, sticks?” asked Arthur. “Are those sticks?”
“We come in the name of Lucius, Tribune of the People, Procuror of the Public Weal of Rome, Caesar Augustus Caesar of the Roman Empire,” intoned the lead taxman.
“Rome, Rome, Rome…” Arthur tried to place the name. “Isn’t that over? It’s what, AD four hundred and something? Didn’t Rome fall at some point?”
“Well, that aside…” The taxman cleared his throat. “His high-and-mightiness sends greetings to his good cousin the King of Logris-England-Britain, and commands you to recognize his authority over you by right of Julius Caesar’s conquest of these islands, and resume tax payments. Britain has been in arrears since the late King Uther Pendragon fell.”
“His death was a tragic loss to the state, as he always paid his taxes on time, and his father before him, and so on. Since his tragic death payment has been, to say the least, sporadic. But we’re willing to forgive you all the back taxes owed for the last quarter-century or so, if you’ll be so kind as to fill out this paperwork and hand over a nice big gift basket of gold and jewels. It’s a very generous offer. I recommend you take it.”
“Hmm.” Arthur leaned back and considered. “I’m just saying, I’m not sure I’d be getting value for my dollar. What do my taxes pay for? Because it’s definitely not my soldiers or my roads or my school system or my Arthurian Endowment for the Arts or the Department of Housing and Arthurian Development or the Arthurian Institutes of Health or the Arthurian Science Foundation. I mean, most of those things don’t even exist!”
“If you choose to refuse this offer of tax amnesty, which I do not recommend, then His high-and-mightiness Caesar Lucius Caesar will have no choice but to dispatch the legions to these benighted islands, to occupy Britain-England-Logris and embarrass and chastise you in front of all your serfs. We can’t allow local warlords to simply just refuse to pay taxes, after all. That would set a terrible precedent.”
“After all, we’re trying to have a civilization here. And as the axiom goes, you can’t have civilization without taxes sent overseas to Rome. I think we can all agree on that!”
“Hmm, I said. I need to think about this.”
“Is Merlin here? Can I speak to Merlin?”
“Merlin’s out. Haven’t seen him for a while.”
“If Merlin were here I’m sure he would tell you how important taxes are.”
“Give me a little time to think about it, okay? This requires some consideration.”
“Very well. We’ll wait.” The taxmen started tapping their feet and looking pointedly at their watches.
“No, no, it’s going to take a bit. Go out into the festival, we’ll find you some decent hotel rooms.” Arthur waved them away.
The taxmen shuffled out, grumbling about how they hadn’t signed up for an extended stay in this lousy backwater, regardless of Cow Days or whatever Arthur called his ridiculous paltry little barbaric festival. As they went one of Arthur’s knights leaned over to the king, and whispered that all Arthur had to do was say the word and boom, knights would fall on those taxmen like arrows from the bow. The Romans would never find their bodies.
Arthur was indignant at this suggestion, however. “I don’t like foreign auditors strolling in and claiming my country owes twenty-odd years of back taxes, I don’t like that any more than you do, but we can’t just go around murdering folks who collect taxes we don’t approve of. What are we, libertarians? C’mon. Think this through.”
The king gathered all his advisors and knights together, the kings who swore fealty to him and everyone, maybe Nimue was there, I don’t know. He set up the ol’ royal whiteboard. “Pitches, pitches, let’s hear some pitches, chop chop. How do we want to handle this? I have an idea in mind but before I spring on you I want to get a sense of how you all feel about the situation, so, c’mon. C’mon. Let’s hear it. Go!”
Sir Cador of Cornwall, who hadn’t had any lines up to this point and whom I kind of doubt would have many lines after this one, raised a hand. “Sire, we all know that it’s been some number of years since our last major war. Everyone’s tanned and rested and ready to whoop some Roman ass, if that’s what you desire! I myself hope for promotion to Round Table status, and it’s far more likely to happen if I distinguish himself on the battlefield. Otherwise I have to hope for a successful strange adventure, and we all know what crap shoots those are.”
“That’s good!” said Arthur. “That’s good because it flows so naturally into my next announcement that I’m just going to cut the rest of the debate short. Good debate guys, great meeting, here’s what I think the consensus is.” He took out a red marker and wrote CONQUER ROME on the royal whiteboard, and underlined it. “Capiche?”
The King of Scotland, whose name according to Malory was King Anguish, which is a continuity error inasmuch as everywhere else in Le Morte D’Arthur Anguish is the King of Ireland, gave a big ol’ whoop. “Yeah! Yeah! Let’s take over Rome! Boo-yah! We can do it! We’ll kick their asses! We’ll show them what guys from islands north of France can do! Woo! Woo!”
‘Anguish’ really fired up the crowd. Before too long he had everybody in Camelot shouting about how great Arthur was, how he was going to be the new Emperor of Rome by the time they were through, and what dicks the Romans were. They fell over one another in their eagerness to pledge wave upon wave of their men to the war effort: twenty thousand Scots from Scotland! Thirty thousand Normans from Normandy! Thirty thousand Welsh from Wales! Zero Goreans from Gore, because Queen Morgan le Fay was still not on speaking terms with Arthur. But thirty thousand Orcs from Orkney! Thirty thousand Fighting Gamecocks from Cornwall! And so on.
Arthur found this outpouring of support and high emotion really touching, and he thanked his assembled lords and baron and knights and probably Nimue. Then he called the taxmen back in, sat them down, and speechified at them.
“I’m not going to pay any taxes. You really should have been expecting that. I’m not going to pay, but I want you to go back to Caesar Lucius Caesar, and you say to him, ‘Loosh,’ you say, ‘Loosh, this guy Arthur just isn’t playing ball. He told us the amount of taxes he’s willing to pay, and that amount is zero. Zero taxes.’
“You tell him how I don’t see any right he has to demand taxes from me. You tell him that I grew up hearing folktales about the British Roman generals who marched back to Rome and took the place over: Septimus Severus, Titus Flavius, Publius Hertinax. I know revisionist Roman histories claim those dudes weren’t native to Britain, that they just lived here for a while. But my position is no, they were British, and then they became Emperors.
“You tell him that I’m British-English-Logrish, and that I’m going to become Emperor also. Just like Constantine and Belinus and Brenius. Were they Logrish kings? Yes. Did they conquer Rome? Yes. Did I just now make them up off the top of my head? Possibly! That doesn’t matter! What matters is that I’m going to conquer Rome…”
SMASH CUT to the taxmen, in Rome, in Lucius’s office, as the lead taxman recited Arthur’s speech from memory.
“…He’s going to conquer Rome, he says, and get everyone to recognize him as Emperor,” he concluded.
“Then he gave us some nice gift baskets of fruit and paid for our flights back,” another taxman piped up.
“First-class the whole way!” agreed another. “He’s a real class act, that Arthur.”
Lucius’s response was not great. He stomped around his office throwing things for a while, snarling incoherently. Eventually he calmed down enough to form whole sentences, at which point he ranted at length. It had been foolish to assume that Arthur would have acted like a reasonable person here, like any other king in his situation, and done the decent thing; it had been a stupid assumption to figure that a supposedly wise and benevolent king wouldn’t leap at an opportunity to throw tens of thousands of men’s lives away; what king wouldn’t want a pointless war? And so forth.
One of Lucius’s advisors pointed out that Arthur was renowned for being the title character of the book, and generally badass. The advisor had visited England-Logris-Britain the previous year, on vacation. While there he had been impressed with how chivalrous and knightly everyone was. Serious knightliness happening up in there. By drawing Arthur’s attention, the advisor warned, Lucius had maybe just signed his own death warrant; he’d made himself a target.
“Fine! You know what? Fine! It’s fine! If he wants to have a war, we’ll just have a stupid war! I’m going to France! Send messengers first to Ambage and Arrage, to Alexandria, to India, to Armenia, whereas the river of Euphrates runneth into Asia, to Africa, and Europe the Large, to Ertayne and Elamye, to Araby, Egypt, and to Damascus, to Damietta and Cayer, to Cappadocia, to Tarsus, Turkey, Pontus and Pamphylia, to Syria and Galatia. Then send word to to Spain and Portugal and Italy and Sicily and Burgundy and Friesland and Prussia and Bavaria and Tunisia and Cyprus and Greece and Turkey and Palestine and Bulgaria and India and Timbuktu and Scythia and Syria and Macedon and Prussia and Poland and Hungary and Austria and Algeria and Crete and Morocco and Croatia and Romania and Moldova and Beirut and Bosnia and Serbia and Slovenia and Ukraine and Qatar and Kuwait and Chechnya and Ethiopia and did I already say Greece? Send messengers out and tell them to send their armies to Normandy, because we aren’t going to let this man Arthur get any further onto the Continent than Flanders!”
Lucius also called in a favor and mustered a troop of giants, fifty giants, to act as his personal bodyguard. An enormous column of soldiers rolled slowly across Europe, over the Swiss alps and through Germany, which they sacked on their way to Flanders. Big chunks of Benwick were put to the torch, as were parcels of the land that King Claudas and Ban and Bors had been fighting over. It was all prelude to Lucius’s plan, which was to wait until Arthur and his knights and armies were all assembled in Normandy, and then hit Normandy so hard there wasn’t a Normandy any more, there was just a somewhat wider English Channel. Or, as Malory phrases it, Lucius purposed to destroy the realm of Little Britain.
Now, back in Britain, Arthur gathered all his knights
together, and all his barons, and all his vassals, and all the knights and barons and vassals of his vassals. He brought
everyone together for a new thing he’d just invented, which he
Parliament! It’s Funkadelic! posters were hung all across
the land, and I’m sorry, that was a terrible joke. Let’s just move
on. People, by which I mean men, by which I mean aristocrats, collected. It took a while, but on 21 January of no particular year, they had all collected and Arthur made a speech.
“Okay, everyone! Can you hear me in the back? Good? Good! Welcome to Parliament!”
“You all know why I called you together — we’re going to invade Rome! I’ve decided I’m the rightful Emperor of Rome, and it’s time to reassert my claim from those pretenders who have been ruling it for centuries! We’re going to start at Normandy and not quit until we’re resting comfortably in the Parthenon!”
Cheers. Sir Lucan the Caterer’s brother Sir Bedivere whispered something into Arthur’s ear.
“Okay, I’ve just been told, the Parthenon is in Athens. We’ll take in some gladiatorial combat at the Colosseum, how about that?”
Laughter, rowdy cheers!
“Right, so, write this date down: the fifth of February! That’s the day we’re setting out to cross the channel! I want everyone prepped and ready at Sandwich, you got that?”
“Now in the meantime — settle down, this is important — in the meantime, a couple of announcements! First off, I can’t be leading an army across Rome while also ruling Logris-Britain-England like a king! That would be spreading myself too thin! So, my wife — Guenever, will you come up here, please?”
Cheers and applause as Guenever mounted the stage.
“My wife, Guenever, and my country, England, two of the most important, heck, they are the two most important things in my life! I can’t say I’m thrilled to be leaving Britain-England-Logris, but I know it’ll be in capable hands…”
Guenever smiled as she made ready her prepared speech about how good an interim ruler she would be.
“…Because I’m asking Sir Baudwin, who’s been with me since the beginning, and Sir Constantine, whose father once lost a fight to Gawaine, to jointly rule England in my stead while I’m away!”
Applause, cheers, some kind of commotion in the ranks of Round Table knights behind Arthur. Guenever looked pissed! This was not how she had expected the speech to go!
“Hold on!” Arthur put a hand over his microphone, conferred with some of his other knights. “Okay! It’s okay, ladies and gentlemen! My knight Sir Launcelot here was just asking me if, since Sir Tristram is staying behind to protect his lady the lovely Isoud, he could be permitted to stay behind and comfort Guenever.”
Nods, murmurs of understanding.
“Of course I had to tell him no –“
A crashing sound as Guenever fainted and fell off the stage. Her ladies-in-waiting moved her into her bedchamber.
“Had to tell him no,” Arthur explained once Guenever was taken care of. “Since he’s one of our best young knightly fighters. Now, one last thing, and then I’ll let you get back to your mistresses and wives and husbands and children, I’m sure everybody has someone they want to see… How about you, Launcelot? You have a mistress or wife yet?”
Arthur covered his microphone with his hand while he and Launcelot briefly conversed. Launcelot seemed upset about something, but it was unclear just what.
“Anyway. One last thing, I’m sure I’m going to win and win handily, because we’re on page 123 out of 737, but in the extremely unlikely event of my death, Interim Acting Co-King Sir Constantine will be your new king. I don’t think it’ll come up, but just in case, be aware, that’s my preference.”
Arthur and Launcelot and almost everybody else headed down to Sandwich (which, if you’re as bad with Logris geography as I am, was just up the coast from Dover) and filled the sea with their boats. Baudwin and Constantine and Guenever were left behind to rule, co-rule, and continue to act as a valuable member of the team, respectively. This section is not Arthur’s finest hour with respect to his treatment of Guenever, I must say.
Actually, I tell a lie. This is about as good as it ever gets. He mentioned her, at least.