All of Camelot/London was one big festival, what with Arthur getting married. Everyone was drunk and partying and jousting in a big fun tournament (JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 4!). Into this mix wandered these two guys, a father and son. The father, a cowherd named Aries, was your typical oppressed yeoman. He’d spent most of his life laboring and watching friends die, and looked sixty even though he was just south of forty. His son Tor, though, was remarkably good-looking. He was dreamy-eyed and fair-skinned, just eighteen and actually looked it. Most peasants looked eighteen for a couple of months in their early teens, and then jumped straight into middle-age, but Tor had dodged that somehow. Tor rode in on a workhorse Aries led. As they passed through the enormous party, they asked passersby directions to King Arthur.
“Why do you ask?” responded the passersby. “Are you looking for him?”
“Yeah,” said Aries. “That’s exactly right.”
“Thought so,” said the passersby, and directed them to Arthur’s hangout.
So the twosome headed on into Arthur’s court, where the party atmosphere was if anything even more intense. Arthur, lounging on his throne drinking, looked up from his soon-to-be-ex-mistresses as they approached.
“Ho, sire,” said the aged peasant, saluting. “Great King Arthur, beloved lord, worshipful sire, I come to beg your indulgence.”
“Hmm?” said Arthur. “Have we met?”
Aries shook his head no. “But, mighty sire, I have heard that for the sake of your nuptials, you’re granting requests made of you. People ask you for things, and you give them the things, assuming the request isn’t unreasonable. So it is said!”
“That does sound like me.” Arthur searched his memory and pet a soon-to-be-ex-mistress. He’d been partying pretty heartily the last couple of days, but even intoxicated, Arthur was liable to stick a rider like ‘assuming it’s not unreasonable’ on his drunken boasts. That’s just the kind of wise king he was. “I’m not saying I remember saying that, but if that’s what people are claiming, I’ll go along with it. As king, I try to live up to people’s expectations.”
This scene is one of quite a few in Le Morte D’Arthur, some of which we’ve already been through, in which Arthur made an effort to avoid being an unreasonable dude. He’s a decent guy at heart, at least up until Book XX. He was in a weird situation, king of Logris/Britain/England and all, but he was making the best of it. At least he didn’t rape anyone.
(Malory, please let us get through this whole book without Arthur raping someone.)
Back to the story. “Thank you sire,” Aries said humbly. “I’ve come to ask you to make my son here a knight.”
Arthur pursed his lips and sucks in his breath. “Hmm,” he said. “Hmm.”
“I’m trying to decide if that counts as reasonable,” Arthur said. “I think you could make a strong case either way. Okay, some questions, so I can evaluate the reasonableness of your request. First, what’s your name? It doesn’t impact the reasonableness, but it’s good to know.”
“Aries Cow-Keeper, sire.” He bowed.
“Second question.” Arthur thought for a moment. “Is this your son’s idea or is it something you’re putting him up to?”
“Oh, it was his idea entirely,” said Aries. “Listen, I have thirteen surviving children, all boys, I work fourteen hours a day seven days a week, and I expect all my children to do the same. All my other kids — Bor, Dor, For, Gor, Jor, Kor, Lor, Mor, Nor, Por, Ror, and Sor — all do as they’re told, but Tor here, he’s the eldest and ought to set and example but he hasn’t worked a day in his life. Look at him! He’s the laziest peasant in the village! He won’t work! Instead he throws darts and sings songs and watches jousts, and complains that he wants to be a knight.”
“Mmm-hmm,” said Arthur. “So your name is Tor?” he asked, addressing the son.
“Yes sire,” said Tor. “And yeah, Dad has it about right.”
“I see, I see,” said Arthur. He looked Tor up and down. “Well, you’re strikingly good-looking, and you appear to be in pretty good shape.”
“I practice jousting with sticks, for exercise.” Tor demonstrated with a little footwork.
“Okay. I think I’ve made up my mind.” Arthur got a crafty look. “But before I announce my decision, I need you to fetch Bor through Sor. I want to eyeball them.”
Aries fetched his twelve other sons, and lined them up. The contrast was striking: even though Tor is the eldest, several of his brothers looked withered and aged compared to him. It was the mark of being a hard-working peasant. They took after Aries in other ways too, jawline and hair and so forth. Tor stuck out among them like a sore thumb.
“Am I the only one who’s noticed this?” asked Arthur.
Aries, Tor, and the rest just looked at him blankly.
“Okay. I’ve made my decision: I’ll knight you. Sword!”
Someone handed Arthur a sword, which he drew.
“Kneel down, Tor, and make the formal request,” said Arthur.
Tor kneeled down and started “sire I heartily beseech thee –“
“Good enough! Let’s not waste time!” Arthur tapped Tor on the back of the neck with his sword. “I dub thee Sir Tor, knight! Play your cards right and you might get promoted to Knight of the Round Table! We have two or twenty-two or a hundred and twenty-two empty spots, so I need to be stingy about handing out commendations. Or maybe I need to send a bunch out to promote guys up, I don’t even know. Anyway. Welcome to the team!”
Everyone applauded and Arthur turned to Merlin. “So Merlin, you’re all the time spouting dire prophecy, do something useful for once. How about you tell us how Sir Tor here will work out? Will he end up murdering his brother’s wife, or dying trying to prevent me from killing you, or some crazy random nonsense like that?”
“Okay, sorry, I shouldn’t tease the wizard.”
“He will be a fine knight,” said Merlin. “Just like his father before him.”
“Huh?” said Aries.
“Called it!” said Arthur.
Merlin glared at him.
“I mean, ‘How so, sir? What by Jesu dost thou mean? Gadzooks!'” said Arthur.
“Better.” Merlin sighed. “Aries Cow-Keeper is not Sir Tor’s father any more than you’re Sir Ector’s son.”
“You know, Ector did raise me,” said Arthur.
Aries scoffed. “But I’m married to his mother! How could I possibly not be his father? How would that even work?”
“Who is the father?” asked Arthur, ignoring Aries.
Merlin looked smug. “King Pellinore!”
“Pellinore… Pellinore…” Arthur took a moment to place the name. “Oh, that guy! The one who stole my horse and then killstole King Lot!”
Merlin nodded. “The same.”
“That guy is a jerk!”
“Nevertheless he is a fine knight and a good man,” said Merlin. “He’s also a king!”
“In what sense, exactly, is he a good man?”
Aries cleared his throat to get Arthur’s and Merlin’s attention. “I said I don’t buy it,” he repeated.
“Let me explain with a surprise witness! I summon Tor’s mother and Aries’s wife, Mitzi!” (You can tell which of those three names is the one I had to toss in because Malory couldn’t be bothered to name her.) Merlin either sent a runner to fetch her, or he did magic and teleports her in. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she appeared on command.
And Mitzi was impressive! Even after twenty years of hard serf living, she was full womanly, says Malory, and fair.
“Wow,” said Arthur. “For a serf you’re pretty hot.”
“It’s true!” cried Mitzi. “I am pretty hot! Also, years ago, when I was a sexy milkmaid and shortly before I married Aries, I met a knight. He was stern and fair and I couldn’t say no to him. I mean, he had a sword.”
“So Pellinore is also a rapist,” sighed Arthur.
“I’m not saying that, exactly. Although my consent was certainly dubious.” Mitzi shrugged. “He was fair and I didn’t say no. But he had a sword.”
“I’m reluctantly obliged to buy this,” said Aries. “I mean, look at me, look at Tor, look at Tor’s refusal to work a day in his life… I can believe it.” He wasn’t thrilled about it, though.
“I’m not thrilled either,” said Tor. “If for no other reason that my mother is getting painted as a woman of loose virtue by current, by which I mean medieval, standards!” He glared at Merlin and hefted his new sword.
“Oh, Tor, don’t worry about it,” said Merlin. “Your father is a good knight and a good man –“
“In what sense is he a good man?” Arthur asked again. “Guy stole my horses.”
“He’s a king,” pointed out Merlin. “If he knew Tor existed, Pellinore’d probably cover both him and Mitzi in riches. He has no idea.”
“Hmm.” Tor considered. “I’m somewhat mollified.”
“And Aries, this was before you and Mitzi were married, so she was having semi-consensual sex as a free agent, not as your property,” Merlin told the cowherd.
“Hmm, good point.” Aries weighed his options. “Okay, I’m officially okay with this.” Then he, Mitzi, and all their children (excepting Tor) exited the story forever.
The next morning King Pellinore arrived at Arthur’s court for the huge ongoing party. Arthur welcomed him warmly, I guess because Merlin kept prodding him. Arthur filled Pellinore in about Tor his illegitimate child, and hey, maybe Pellinore and Arthur bonded a bit over having illegitimate children.
When Tor and Pellinore met, Pellinore looked him up and down, noted how clean and unwilling to labor he was, and confirmed that Tor was plainly his own son.
“Hey Merlin,” said Arthur. “Explain a thing to me. I notice that due to some really dodgy math there’s exactly two empty seats at the Round Table, not counting the one marked DO NOT SIT. Also what is the deal with the one marked DO NOT SIT?”
“Ah, sire,” responded Merlin. “Only the greatest knights may be promoted to the Round Table and we’re short two great knights, is the beginning and end of that.”
“And the third seat?”
“That is the Siege Perilous,” intoned Merlin. “Siege is what we’re calling seats now. There is one man who may sit in the Siege Perilous and any that aren’t him who try it shall be smote!”
“Huh!” said Arthur. “You learn something every day.”
“The knight who takes that seat shall be peerless, the best ever. He will be way better than you or Kay or anyone.”
“Just so long as it’s not Pellinore.”
Pellinore did not get to sit in the Siege Perilous, no. But Merlin did gift Pellinore with one of the two empty chairs at the Round Table, which was huge deal.
Meanwhile, remember Sir Gawaine? Gawaine got knighted just before Tor arrived, but because Tor’s father was present and Gawaine’s died fighting a rebellion against King Arthur, Tor was shunted to the front of the class. You may recall — I would not hold it against you if you forgot — that Sir Gawaine was the son of King Lot, and that Pellinore killstole Lot at the end of his war against Arthur, back in the previous volume. Sir Gawaine was stuck in second place for the cake and the kiss-a-wench line and the jousting and whatever other honors the knights all lines up for. He was not happy about this, but everyone ignored his seething. At one point, perhaps just after Sir Tor won the award for Most Promising New Knight, he turned to his brother and acting squire, Gaheris.
“That’s it,” Gawaine hissed. “Go get my sword! As soon as I have it, I’m going use it to murder Pellinore! And maybe his stupid son, too!”
Gaheris talked him out of it, though. It wasn’t that Gaheris thought that murdering a knight of the Round Table in front of King Arthur and the assembled knights was a bad idea (did no one learn anything from the story of Balin the Idiot Knight?). No, Gaheris’s objection was that he wanted in. Sir Gawaine needed to hold off until Gaheris had been knighted himself, and then the two of them would team up and kill Pellinore together. Gawaine agreed, and they shook on it. (Spoiler alert: Gawaine would eventually kill Pellinore solo, but he and Gaheris later team up for the murder of one of Pellinore’s other sons).
Finally it was the biggest day of the festival, the wedding of Arthur of Guenever! Actually, no. That’s no true. It’s the second-biggest day of the festival, the wedding of Arthur and Guenever. The biggest day was the unveiling of the Round Table. We’re all agreed on this one.
Malory skips the ceremony completely, which is just par for the course with him. Guenever still hasn’t had any lines. They wed at the Church of St. Stephen in Camelot, so I guess this all happened in Camelot and not London after all.
At the reception, just as everyone sat down to eat, Merlin did a last-minute nose count. He made sure that all 29 or 129 or 149 knights of the Round Table were in place, and told them to sit tight, because a strange adventure was about to start.
Sure enough, during the soup course, in ran a white hart, getting run down by a white hound and thirty black hounds. Right in the middle of the wedding reception, hart and thirty-one dogs.
“Oh, for the love of –” said Arthur. Guenever rolled her eyes.
“Wait for it,” said Merlin.
As the hart was running around all the tables (including but not limited to the Round Table), the white hound caught up to it and ripped out a chunk of its hindquarters. They both went spinning base over apex and knocked right into some knight sitting at a sideboard in the back. The knight threw down his food, grabbed the white hound by the scruff of the neck, and ran out of the hall to his waiting horse. As he rode off, the injured hart recovered quickly and dashed away, too.
“Wait for it,” said Merlin.
As the dognapper and the hart departed, a lady on a white walking-horse came riding in from the other direction. Believe it or not, this lady is in the Top Four Ladies of Le Morte D’Arthur countdown, and I’d place her at 1 myself. We’ll get into it later.
“My dog!” she shouted to King Arthur. “That knight just stole my best white brachet!”
“It’s my wedding day!” Arthur shouted back at her. “You’re crashing! Get lost!”
“Wait for it,” said Merlin.
And then another rider came in behind her, a knight on a big ol’ horse. He scooped up the shouting woman and carried her off, her screaming and protesting the whole time. All Arthur’s knights looked to Arthur and Merlin for direction: should they leap up and subdue the guy, or what? But Arthur just held his head in his hands. Merlin signaled for everyone to sit tight, so they didn’t move.
“I hate this strange adventure stuff,” Arthur said finally. “Let’s just pretend that never happened and try to enjoy the rest of the reception.”
“Sire!” said Merlin, reproachfully.
“I mean, she busted in here and she was shouting, and I don’t want to deal with it,” said Arthur.
“But thou must!” cried Merlin. “When strange adventures get started you’ve got to deal with them or else all hell breaks loose.”
“Fine, fine.” Arthur slammed down his fork. “But I’m not doing it myself. I refuse. I hate these strange adventures.”
“Very well,” said Merlin icily. “Then you must send Sir Gawaine to track down the white hart, and Sir Tor to track down the white hound, and send King Pellinore to rescue the damsel or else die in the attempt.”
“Hmm, die in the attempt, you say?”
“These three knights shall be sent off, and have strange adventures,” proclaimed Merlin. “Which will occupy the bulk of the remainder of Book III, and occur contemporaneously, but we’ll start with Sir Gawaine, because he was mentioned first.”
Have you noticed yet that Guenever still hasn’t had any lines?