Once Uther has died, the story picks up a little, as we come to a good bit. It’s a bit that every Arthur story I can think of off the top of my head has. You know what’s coming. Here’s a hint: there’s a stone involved, but not just any stone. This stone has a prize inside.
An indeterminate period of time passed, more than a decade, probably less than two. Without a king, England-Logris- Britain was just falling apart. You’d have loads of warlords and their thugs and blood and fire and it was a bad situation that got steadily worse as time went on.
One day Merlin and the Archbishop of Canterbury were hanging out, not unlike Gandalf and Saruman in the film version of Fellowship of the Ring, although instead of Saruman trying to get Gandalf to serve Sauron it’s the Archbishop trying to get Merlin to agree to appoint someone king and end the strife. Why Merlin’s go-ahead was needed on this project I don’t know. Merlin’s whole deal is weird. He was Uther’s advisor just prior to Uther’s death, he seems to have known everyone, and he did magic.
Merlin had a plan. Step one, get as many warlords and knights together as possible for a Christmas party at a cathedral in London. Here Malory reminds us he isn’t really a primary source, since he breaks kayfabe and admits that “the French book” (Chrétien de Troyes I guess? It’s been a long, long time since my freshman literature survey course) doesn’t specify which cathedral it was. Regardless, going to church for a party sounds like loads of fun.
Party invitations were sent out, and a bunch of knights, the ones who were interested in going to a church party, met up at the cathedral. In the churchyard there someone (Merlin) had set up a big rock with an anvil on it. Skewering the anvil was, of course, a sword, with Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England engraved on it. What a shocking twist!
This reminds me of something I’ve wondered about. As we soon see, Arthur keeps this sword and carries it around with him for a good long while, right? It isn’t the one he gets from the Lady of the Lake later in Book I, but it’s a functional/useful/magical/+1 to hit and damage sword, right? While he had it, it still had this engraving on it, I assume. Did he use it as a conversation piece? Like, he held it up in such a way as to show off the engraving, and when someone inevitably asked about it, he would say “oh, that’s a funny story,” and then he recount this story, the one that I was in the middle of telling you before I digressed?
But I digress. The knights got all excited about the Sword in the Stone, but the Archbishop rebuked them. “Leave it alone until after Mass!” Mass happened, because that is what a church party is. Then the knights went in peace to serve the Lord, which is to say, they all tried to pull the sword out from the stone. Of course, no one could.
“No big deal,” said the Archbishop. “The rightful king can and will pull the stone out; none of y’all are worthy to be him. So, okay, what we’ll do is, we’ll get all the knights together, not just you guys. Y’all are kind of lame it turns out. We get everyone together at, say, New Year’s, and we have a big tournament, and surely the rightful king, who is able to pull out the sword, shall make himself known at that point.”
The knights grumbled a bit.
“Now I’m not saying that the whole sword thing is just an elaborate pretext me and Merlin came up with, and that the winner of the tournament will become king,” said the Archbishop, “but I am winking a lot.”
He winked, and the knights settled down.
New Year’s! All the knights came out to the tournament. There was jousting! (JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 1!) It was a grand old time. Sir Ector showed up, along with his son Sir Kay, and also his other son Arthur, who wasn’t a knight yet. Sir Kay was just barely a knight at this point; this was his first time to the jousting tournament. Of course he pulled a boner and left his sword at the hotel. Oh, Sir Kay!
Arthur ran back to the hotel to fetch it, and of course the place was all dark and locked up with a sign that said GONE JOUSTIN’. No luck there! What’s a young Arthur to do?
As we all knew was going to happen, Arthur remembered seeing a sword in a stone at church that morning. He hurried over to the church to see if it was still there. It is! He grabbed it, slid it out of the stone, and carried it back to Kay.
Kay took it and recognized it. He immediately ran off to Ector. “Check it out, Dad, I’m the king of England!”
Kay’s ruse lasted all of about thirty seconds. Kay was not terribly committed to the bit. Once Ector and Arthur and Kay had gone back to the church and Ector saw that yeah, the sword in the stone was no longer in the stone, he asked Kay where he got it.
Kay said, “look, it’s the sword that used to be in the stone, see?”
And Ector was all, “yeah. Did you pull it from the stone?”
“It used to be in the stone, and now I have have it!”
“Son. Do you pinky-swear you pulled it out of the stone?”
Kay sighed and admitted that no, he couldn’t pinky-swear such testimony. Arthur fetched it for him.
Arthur didn’t know what the hell is going on, because no one bothered to tell him about the whole sword in the stone deal, since he wasn’t a knight. Also either he was illiterate, or else he had been in too much of a rush to read the engraving. He was getting more than a little perturbed at this bizarre conversation between his father and his brother.
Ector turned to Arthur. “Did anyone see you pull out the sword?” asked Ector.
“No,” said Arthur. “What the hell is this about, Dad?”
“Well, see, son, you’re the king,” said Ector.
“The hell?” Malory phrases it “Wherefore I and for what cause?” but clearly Arthur found the notion ludicrous.
“It’s a magic sword,” Ector explained, with I think admirable patience. He had Arthur stick the sword back in the stone so Ector could demonstrate how neither he nor Kay could pull it out, though Arthur could easily.
Ector kneeled before him, and got Kay too also, and this freaked Arthur out. Ector, since he was just piling on the revelations, decided this was as good a time as any to tell Arthur he was adopted.
Ector wasn’t his father! His father was in fact Uther the dead rapist-king! Arthur got pretty severely bummed. He did not know how to process this, and asked Ector for advice, but the only oar Ector would stick in was a request for a job for Kay.
“Sure thing,” said Arthur, and thus Sir Kay became Arthur’s PA, or sensechal, a position he would hold for the rest of Le Morte D’Arthur.
Ector found the Archbishop and filled him in on all this. After the tournament, when the knights showed up to try their hands at pulling out the sword, Arthur was there waiting for them. He readily demonstrated his sword-pulling prowess. The barons and lords and knights assembled didn’t buy it, though. Arthur was basically a kid, so they decided to come back and try again later.
They came back later, but none of them could pull out the sword. Meanwhile, Arthur, who’d been waiting there, pulled it out yet again. This process repeated twice more, all spring, and still all the barons and the warlords refused to accept it.
In the course of his literally months of sword-pulling demonstrations, Arthur acquired a cadre of knights who bought into his being the king: Ector and Kay, but also Ulfius and Brastias, a Sir Baudwin, and a bunch of others Malory doesn’t name.
Months and months of this went by. Arthur pulled the sword from the stone and the barons and the landed gentry and the knights all refused to accept him, lather, rinse, repeat. He kept trying, though, straight through from New Year’s to Pentecost. Pentecost, for those of you who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School, is part of the Movable Cycle; depending on the phases of the moon it lands anywhere from mid-May to late June. So literally five or six months of sword-drawing. At Pentecost he did it again! The largest collection of English aristocrats yet showed up. They brought along a bunch of knights and a huge mass of commoners, and once again, Arthur demonstrated that he could pull the sword from the stone and therefore was the rightful king. And once again, the barons and so on were all, nope, we don’t buy it, you’re way too poor-looking and scruffy and insufficiently powerful a warlord to be king.
But they had miscalculated in bringing along an enormous pile of commoners, because the commoners were sick and tired of this back and forth, and accepted Arthur as king (it was no skin of their noses). They threatened to riot unless the barons come round. They would kill one thousand barons a day, the peasants claimed, unless the barons swore fealty to Arthur. So the barons submitted and apologized. Arthur was very gracious about it. He accepted their apologies and allowed himself to be knighted/crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And there was a big party, which should have been nice.
The big party was sullied, sadly, by everybody and their dog coming to Arthur and complaining about how they’d been wronged by somebody else, and their nation had just gone to hell since Uther died, and what were their taxes paying for if not, et cetera, et cetera. Arthur listened to all of these complaints and clucked his tongue and said he’d see what he could do. A lot of barons whose estates had gotten very large since Uther’s death discovered the hard way that Arthur didn’t respect their property rights. He seized parts of their lands and turned around and gave it to the various impoverished gentry whose land it had been up until somebody seized it. However, the rich barons were cool with this, because they didn’t want to get lynched.
Arthur set up rebuilding some kind of government. He put Kay, and the other knights who stuck by him all spring during Sword-in-the-Stonegate, in charge of various projects, departments, and castles. He set about reconquering all of the island of Great Britain that he didn’t already rule — everything north of the river Trent, including Scotland, and most of Wales. This took a while, but after a year, maybe two, it was all done with. That’s what Malory says here, anyway; he’s about to super contradict himself about it. It makes more sense to assume Arthur was spending this time consolidating his power in the greater London metropolitan area, with the fat-cat land barons and the angry peasants and so on. It sounds like something that would take a while to work out.
King Arthur hasn’t done much at this point, really, but already I like him about ten thousand times as much as Uther. Arthur is humble, he forgives his enemies, and he seizes the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy and returns them to the poor (albeit the poor nobility rather than the poor in general). Here’s hoping he doesn’t get Merlin to help him rape anyone. Also, I can’t help but notice that according to Malory, Arthur and Merlin haven’t met yet. When I was a kid I watched Disney’s Sword in the Stone a bunch, and as a teen I read the first half of Once and Future King multiple times in unsuccessful attempts to make it through the whole thing, and one thing I do remember is that Merlin and Arthur had a Doc Brown & Marty McFly relationship, in that version of the story. Plus, lots of shapeshifting, which hasn’t come up yet either. So that’s kind of an interesting change. Merlin himself comes across as much more Gandalf the Gray than I was expecting, too; he’s all the time setting events into motion and telling kings what to do.