The story opens with Uther Pendragon, King of England! He ruled all of England (aka Britain aka Logris) we’re told, and there was also this guy the Duke of Tintagil. He lived in Cornwall, which I thought was part of England but apparently not, since he and Uther were at war.
They’d been at war for a while; to end the stalemate Uther contacted the Duke of Tintagil, said to come over. “We’ll have a nice civilized sit-down like reasonable people. And bring along your wife, the Duchess Igraine; I hear she has a good head on her shoulders.”
So Igraine and her husband showed up at Uther’s war camp, ready to diplomatize, and Uther started putting the moves on her, toot sweet. Igraine wouldn’t have any of that; she went to her husband (Malory never provides her husband’s name, but other sources call him Gorlas). “Listen,” she said, “this peace talk has been a ruse! Uther just wants to get into my pants!”
“Well, screw that,” said Gorlas.
“I agree,” said Igraine. So boom, they rode back home to Cornwall.
When Uther found out about this, he was pissed beyond reason. I’m envisioning Uther as a Zap Brannigan type. Maybe Igraine smiled nervously and nodded and sent him off, with a rose between his teeth, to a love-nest bedchamber featuring scented oils and also a life-sized portrait of Uther in nude recline. Malory doesn’t give us that level of detail, though. Malory doesn’t give much detail, or any, actually. I’m interpreting pretty freely here.
Anyhow, Uther was pissed, and he called in his cabinet, and told him about it, and they agreeably looked grim and asserted that there was nothing to be done but to issue an ultimatum. They sent a message to Igraine and Gorlas: either Uther would sleep with Igraine, or he would invade Cornwall.
Real classy move, Uther.
Naturally Igraine and Gorlas were not down with this, and said so. Uther’s response was an instruction to decorate themselves with stuffing and garnish, because he intended to eat them. The Duke of Tintagil gathered up all the stuffing and garnish that he could and put half of it in Castle Tintagil with Igraine, and took the other half to Castle Terrabil. Castle Terrabil, Malory assures us, wasn’t a bad castle at all. Not only was it not terrible, it had some very nice doorways and gates in it.
So Uther invaded Cornwall and laid siege to the two castles. When they didn’t crumple immediately, Uther responded by throwing a childlike tantrum; he was mad about the whole thing and especially how he hadn’t gotten to sleep with Igraine even though he wanted to. The guy was a jackass, man, trying to lure in Igraine under false flag of peace talks, then throwing a big ol’ fit when she rebuffed him. We don’t get any info as to why he was so all fired up to sleep with this particular duchess, either.
He told one of his knights, Sir Ulfius, about this frustration, and Sir Ulfius volunteered to go fetch Merlin, who would know how to make Uther feel better.
Interestingly Merlin is not given any kind of explanation, unlike all the other characters so far. Malory tells us that Uther was the king, that Igraine was the duchess of Cornwall whom everyone agrees has a good head on her shoulders, that Sir Ulfius was a noble knight, and so on. But Merlin, we’re just supposed to already know who Merlin is. The word “wizard” does not come up. He’s just Merlin, you know?
Anyway, Ulfius went off to find Merlin, and given that Merlin was a wizard, naturally bumps into him basically immediately. Merlin had disguised himself as a beggar for some reason, and was hanging around right by Uther’s camp. Merlin stopped Ulfius. “Whoa, where are you off to in such a hurry? Are you looking for someone? Hmm? Someone who’s name starts with an M?”
“Beat it,” said Ulfius, “I’m on official Patriarchy business.”
Merlin was thus robbed of his dramatic reveal but ploughed on regardless: he outed himself as Merlin, said that he knew Ulfius was looking for him. “I’ll be happy to give Uther what he wants, provided Uther gives me what I want, which will be good for Uther too, because then Uther will get what Uther wants and what I want is also good for Uther.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Ulfius. “I didn’t completely follow that, but I’m sure Uther will give you whatever, assuming it’s not something crazy.”
“Good enough!” And off they went to find Uther.
(This bit where Ulfius searched for Merlin, Merlin-as-beggar strode up, Merlin tried to do a cool thing where he’d be like “but I’M Merlin!” completely misfires in a way that, since there’s so little detail, I’m free to imagine as adorable. Poor Merlin! Will nothing go right for him?)
Ulfius ran back to Uther in his camp outside the besieged Castle Terrabil. “Merlin’s here!”
“What? You liar, I don’t see Merlin. Liar.”
In fact Merlin was waiting outside; apparently he was like a vampire in that he couldn’t come in unless invited. Uther sent Ulfius out; Ulfius escorted Merlin in; Uther greeted Merlin; Merlin cut him off.
“I know what you want,” said Merlin, “and I can make it happen. I just have one thing I need in return.”
Merlin made Uther swear on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John before he continued (this is the first mention of Christianity so far). Once Uther committed himself, Merlin explained that he wanted the child that Uther would father upon Igraine, to raise as Merlin saw fit. Merlin was completely confident that after one night with Uther, Igraine would be pregnant. Merlin also claimed that this course of action would be best for everyone. Perhaps he didn’t think much of Uther’s child-raising abilities.
After Uther agreed, Merlin said to stand back because he was going to do some magic.
Merlin disguised himself and Ulfius as a couple of the Duke’s men, Sir Jordanus and Sir Brastias, and disguised Uther as the Duke himself. Then they made for Castle Tintagil, where they were admitted despite the siege.
When Duke Gorlas’s men asked why he’d suddenly appeared, Uther-as-Gorlas claimed he was very sick. He was also very tired. In the morning, he would explain what he was doing at Castle Tintagil instead of Castle Terrabil where he was supposed to be repelling Uther’s siege. Right then, though, he just wanted to go to bed with his wife. And by “go to bed,” Igraine learned, Uther-as-Gorlas meant sex. Despite claiming to be very sick and very tired.
Meanwhile, the actual Duke cottoned to Uther leaving the siege, somehow. He decided that while the king was away was a great time to sally forth and break the siege. Which he tried to do, and failed at miserably, and got himself killed before Uther, Ulfius, and Merlin had even arrived at Tintagil.
Which I suppose technically clears Uther of the sleeping-with-another-man’s-wife charge, since the Duke was dead when he slept with Igraine. Nevertheless her lack of informed consent pushes the interaction pretty far into rape. Whether Ulfius and Merlin spent the night with Jordanus’s and Brastias’s wives isn’t addressed, but in the morning Merlin woke Uther up early. Uther-as-Gorlas kissed Igraine goodbye, and he and Merlin and Ulfius rode off.
They had only been gone a few minutes before word came that the Duke had died the night before, in a midnight raid trying to lift the siege on Terrabil. This really confused the hell out of Igraine, but she kept her mouth shut about it.
Anyway, with the Duke dead, all of Uther’s barons pointed out that there wasn’t a reason to keep on fighting. Uther agreed, so he got Ulfius to pull some shuttle diplomacy, Henry Kissinger style, going back and forth between his camp and Igraine in Castle Tintagil. Ulfius eventually arranged for Igraine and Uther to meet, which is something of a feat given how as far as Igraine knew the last time they met for peace talks it had been just a ruse for Uther to try to seduce her.
But that was then, this was now. Igraine was a widow and Uther was a) unwed and b) hot for her, so Igraine and Uther agreed to marry! That sealed the deal, boom, peace between England and Cornwall.
Meanwhile, Uther arranged for three sisters to marry three other kings: Margawse married King Lot of Orkney, Elaine (ELAINE 1!) married Nentres of Garlot, and Morgan, the youngest sister, went to necromancy school and upon graduation married Uriens of Gore. A little googling tells me that Margawse, Elaine, and Morgan were Igraine’s three daughters with the late Duke, but Malory forgets to mention this. He does explain that Margawse was the mother of Sir Gawaine, and that Morgan (who graduated summa cum laude from necromancy school by the way) was the mother of Sir Uwaine, but the relationship between Uther marrying off these sisters and everything else that happened in this chapter is wholly unclear.
The whole incident served to establish Merlin as Uther’s bag man. It featured magic as a plot point (though Malory’s vague enough that I could believe Merlin just wrapped Uther in bandages and put fake mustaches on himself and Ulfius), which is fun. Unfortunately it also featured Uther sleeping with Igraine under a ruse, which is to say Igraine did not exactly give informed and enthusiastic consent; this more off-putting than I was expecting to find.
Now, I’m no starry-eyed schoolboy. I knew going in that medieval texts weren’t going to be feminist, but there’s something creepy in the bit where Malory goes out of his way to excoriate Uther from adultery (since Gorlas was dead before he slept with Igraine) while just ignoring the rape aspect. We can take comfort in the knowledge that ‘Uther getting Merlin to disguise him as some dude so that Uther can sleep with that dude’s wife’ will not be a repeating motif. Book I, chapter 4, is subtitled “Of the death of King Uther Pendragon,” so it’s immediately obvious that the total amount of Uther being a jackass is likely to be a small percentage of the book. On the other hand, he only has a handful of chapters in which to become less unlikeable.
(Vocabulary word: mickle, meaning a large amount or greatly. “As mickle as the child is worth” means “as the child is worth a great deal.”)