Book IV is a whirlwind tour! On to the next story, the Story of Another War for Arthur!
As we open, King Arthur chilled in Camelot, just enjoying the peace.
Along came some bad news to spoil his fun: a messenger. “Sire! The King of Ireland is invading!”
Second messenger. “Sire! The King of Ireland’s brother, the King of Denmark, is also invading!”
And so on, with the third, fourth, and fifth messengers. Arthur hadn’t even had his morning coffee yet, and boom, a five-king alliance stormed through his countryside plundering and setting serfs on fire.
Arthur sighed, and thought about how he’d like to spend a full four weeks without getting invaded or suffering some strange adventure. “Okay. I have to do something. These guys can’t come in to England and just start lighting up peasants. Peasants deserve fair and equitable treatment, which doesn’t involve immolation at any stage. So I’m going to have to sally forth and do battle with them. It’s not my favorite thing in the world but I’m pretty good at it, apparently, and it’s my responsibility.
“I’m going to need more men than I have, so draft a letter to all my barons, telling them to send knights and we’ll rendezvous. Be sure to CC Pellinore on the letter; he runs around calling himself ‘King Pellinore’ instead of ‘Sir Pellinore,’ so either he’s even more of a jackass than I think, or else he has plenty of knights vassal.”
Arthur’s quick announcement got a lot of tongues wagging at Camelot; many of his barons would have rather stayed home and drank than gone out to wage defensive war. But Arthur made it clear this was not optional. Camelot returned to a war footing.
Also, he asked Guenever to come along. “I know one way to do it is the king rides off to war and the queen is left in charge, but I was hoping you’d come with. If one member of this five-king junta breaks off and attacks Camelot, I don’t want you getting taken hostage or, worse, killed.”
Guenever shrugged, because she’s got nothing better to do.
Arthur sallied forth with Guenever and all the knights Arthur had on hand in Camelot. His plan was to meet up with various reinforcements from elsewhere, then attack the five-king junta. They arrived at their rendezvous point, which was in the forest next to Humber. I had to look this up: according to the Internet, Humber is a bay which (at this point in Malory’s narrative) marks the northern border of Arthur’s kingdom. Past Humber, it’s all Northern England, which is full of lunatics, And if you keep going you hit Scotsmen! So plainly this was the best place to rally up for fighting off invasion.
The Humber’s local knight, the regional franchise-holder, was the brother of one of the five kings, it doesn’t matter which one. He got wind of this troop buildup Arthur is doing, and he went to warn the five kings.
“It’s totally the flower of chivalry all up in there,” he said. “Arthur and his knights, and more knights pouring in every day. You guys better take the offensive and quit screwing around burning the countryside, because Arthur is not fooling around. You remember how he beat those eleven kings? You guys are less than half that in terms of overall number of kings. Plus, he’s not doing what so many kings do, and hiding in the back. He’s right up there in with his soldiers, like Alexander the Great or something. It’s crazy-intimidating. Seriously, you guys better get cracking.”
The five-king junta considered, and decided to take the one king’s brother’s advice. They rode out to sneak-attack Arthur before he gathered all his reinforcements together.
Meanwhile, up at Humber, Arthur had finished setting up his camp. More knights arrived every day, so in the meantime he was simply lounging, all relaxed with Guenever.
His brother Sir Kay didn’t like it. “I dunno, bro,” he said. “We could get sneak-attacked at any point, maybe we ought to be sleeping in armor and stuff.”
“You worry too much,” said Sir Gawaine.
“We’ll all be fine,” said Sir Griflet. Gawaine and Griflet and Kay were all the named-character knights Arthur had on hand just then. They were drinking and playing cards.
And of course it’s not as if Malory hasn’t employed precisely this element of dramatic irony before, so we shouldn’t be surprised. As soon as Kay expressed concern, sure enough, sneak attack by the enemy. This is the one trick Malory knows, and he plays it over and over again.
Arthur’s camp was thrown into disarray! Folks started blaming one another for giving away their location! It was a bad scene. Arthur and Kay and Gawaine and Griflet all armored up as quick as they could, but that took time. Before they were ready to join the battle, it was pretty much over. One of Arthur’s men rode up, all bloody. “Sire! Sire! All is lost! Save yourself!”
So Arthur, Kay, Gawaine, Griflet, Gawaine’s perpetual guard of scolding ladies-in-waiting (I like to imagine), and Guenever mounted up and rode away, hoping to avoid capture by the enemy. They rode out in the wrong direction and hit the Humber, and the tide was in I guess because it was way too deep for their horses to ford, so, no luck.
“Well, shoot,” said Arthur. “This sucks. Guenever, you’re an intelligent person. Do you think we should stand here and fight, or try to swim across?”
Guenever considered. “On balance I’d rather drown than have all the terrible things that would happen to me if I were captured happen to me. So I vote water.”
“Look out!” cried Kay, and points. He saw five knights approaching. He squinted, he looked, were they friends or foes? Foes, it turned out, and not just any foes! It was the five kings themselves. They had been separated from their main force somehow and, in a stunningly bad tactical decision, tracked down Arthur instead of rejoining their armies.
“We’re in luck, guys!” Kay exclaimed. “There’s five of them and three of us. Four of us, counting Gawaine.”
“I don’t like those odds, five on three,” said Gawaine.
“Tell you what,” said Kay. “I’ll kill the two in front, and then the rest of you can handle the survivors in an even matchup.”
And they actually pulled this off: Arthur, Gawaine, and Griflet each killed one king, and Kay killed two. (Also, I am not making up the bit about Gawaine. Let me quote Malory: “That were folly, said Sir Gawaine, for we are but three and they be five.”)
“Good job!” said Guenever afterwards. “Good job Arthur, good job Griflet, acceptable job Gawaine. Extra-good job, Kay! I’m not just saying that because you’re my brother-in-law. You get MVP for this battle. I’ll have to find you a wife.” At this point the group split up: Guenever and the ladies-in-waiting took a barge across the Humber, while Arthur and the knights went looking for the remnants of Arthur’s army. (Spoiler alert: Guenever would never get around to finding Sir Kay a wife.)
It turned out Arthur’s army was just over the next hill, in the woods. They’d been badly demoralized, and spent hours licking their wounds and wailing about how badly they got beat. Once Arthur found them, though, he was able to cheer them right up, by telling them about he and Kay and Griflet and Gawaine defeated the opposition leadership in a single surgical strike, thanks not so much to tactical skill as dumb luck.
Meanwhile the other side’s troops found their generals’ bodies, and then it was their turn to wail and weep and become wholly demoralized. Then boom, in came Arthur with a small death squad! They killed a few thousand guys and dispersed the rest. It was pretty clean and simple, with minimal casualties on Arthur’s side.
Afterwards, Arthur took a knee and thanks God. Guenever and her ladies returned. As Guenever congratulated all the knights on a job well done, King Pellinore finally showed up with a big pile of reinforcements.
“Too late, Pellinore!” said Arthur. “We already whupped the five kings.”
Arthur’s army and Pellinore’s armies merged, and Arthur’s army did a head count and casualty report, and they worked out that the final score of this story’s main battle was like so. Arthur lost about 200 soldiers and eight knights of the Round Table, and the five kings lost thirty thousand people total, including soldiers, knights, kings, camp followers, and hangers-on. I assume most of them weren’t killed, just demoralized and driven off. Otherwise Humber would still be known, to this day, for its awesome pile of corpses.
But either way, a decisive victory! Arthur decided to erect a small monument to the battle, and had his men set up an abbey and stock it with plenty of nuns and vineyards. They called it the Abbey of Lovely Adventure, and the Humber Tourism Board recommends it for couples and families. If you get a season pass, it pays for itself on the tenth visit.
The remnants of the kings’ armies limped back to the North, and Wales, and North Wales, where they told everyone about how badly Arthur beat them. The various warlords in those regions murmured and fretted, on account of this Arthur everyone’s talking about was just too badass for words. His chivalry was all aflower, and so on. First the eleven kings of Team Lot & Mister 100 went down, and now the five-king junta had collapsed! What were the forces of darkness to do, in the face of such implacable heroism?
Shortly after the battle, back in Camelot, Arthur sat down with Pellinore for a confab.
“I would normally be talking to Merlin about this,” said Arthur. “But he’s run off.”
“Sure,” said Pellinore.
“And since you’re nearly as much of a jackass as he is, you seem like the best candidate to advise me on this.”
“Sound reasoning. Shoot.”
Arthur pulled out the royal whiteboard. “So, after this battle we’re down eight knights from the Round Table,” he says. “I want to replace them as quickly as possible, and none of this dodgy math like we had before. Eight knights for promotion, let’s hear some names.”
“Hmm,” said Pellinore. “You’ve got a lot of fine knights working for you, and I get that you wouldn’t want to just declare that I count as nine knights. So, okay. Let’s see. Eight slots. Here’s what you do, you give four slots to senior guys, and four slots to some of the younger ones coming up.”
“Sounds reasonable,” said Arthur. “Any names?”
“Older guys, well, there’s your brother-in-law Uriens, Morgan’s husband. He swore fealty to you after Lot’s alliance collapsed, that’d be a good political get. And here’s a list of three other guys we’ve never talked about before and never will again: Sir Hervis, Sir Galagars, and the knight nicknamed ‘the king of the lake‘ on account of he’s such a strong swimmer.”
“Hervis. I remember him! He distinguished himself in battle with Nero back in Book II. Okay. Uriens, Hervis, Galagars, and the swimming guy,” repeated Arthur. “I’ll look over their records, but that sounds promising. Uriens and Hervis are definites.”
“Now as for the younger set,” said Pellinore, “you’ve got some options. How about the three knights who were with you and Guenever when things were looking bleak the other night?”
“Kay, Griflet, and Gawaine?” Arthur considered. “Kay is my brother, Gawaine my nephew (even if he is a bit of a prick) and Griflet is a good kid.”
“Hey, remember that time before he was a knight when I killed his master for no good reason and then I nearly killed him? Good times, good times.”
“I didn’t kill him, though. Because he’s a good kid.”
“Well, Kay’s earned it, definitely, after killing two kings like that,” said Arthur. “Even if he retires now and never does another heroic deed, he’s in the hall of fame for that one. So, okay, Kay and Griflet and Gawaine it is. That just leaves one more slot.”
“I can think of two candidates,” said Pellinore. “I can’t offer up an opinion on which of the two would be a better choice, however. The two I’m thinking of are your distant cousin Uriens knows, Sir Bagdemagus, and Sir Tor. Now Sir Tor, of course you know he’s my son.”
“Of course,” said Arthur.
“And since he’s my son, I can’t really speak to him. I’m not an impartial judge. If he wasn’t my son, I’d point to his many noble deeds. I’d remind you how well he acquitted himself in the strange adventure that followed after your wedding. I’d even go so far to say as there’s no better knight in your court, or indeed the whole of England. He’s a good man, who tries to do what’s best. He avoids unnecessary bloodshed, but he’s a fine jouster. However he’s my son, so I won’t mention any of that.”
“Hmm.” Arthur considered. “Tor is a good one, as good as any of the knights we talked about in the last chapter. He’s soft-spoken, not a braggart, but he’s accomplished. Nice guy.”
“If you say so, boss,” said Pellinore. “I can’t speak to him either way, since he’s my son.”
“Yeah, you know what? I’m going to go with Tor. Bagdemagus can wait for the next opening, I’m sure he’s a good man but we’re not considering him just yet. Inform the men!”
Arthur announced that he was promoting Uriens, Kay, Gawaine, Griflet, some guys whose names I’ve already forgotten because that’s how unimportant they are, and Tor to the Round Table. Everyone cheered, the knights took their seats, and the only person at the assembly who wasn’t laughing and smiling and getting drunk and congratulating folks was Sir Bagdemagus. Bagdemagus knew he’d been on the short list and was hella resentful at getting passed over.
“I mean, Gawaine got promoted,” he grumbled. “Gawaine!”
Rather complain to Arthur about it, which he knew would be pointless and crass, he just excused himself early from the party. Bagdemagus grabbed his squire and went off into the woods to sulk. He and his squire found a good sulking spot in the forest, a clearing with a cross. There they dismounted and Bagdemagus prayed and sulked all night.
In the morning his squire found a dire prophecy written on the cross! It says that Bagdemagus wouldn’t return to Camelot until after he’d slain a knight of the Round Table.
“Boss, this is some bad mojo here,” said the squire. “This prophecy is one of those dire prophecies, you know, boss. I think we should just slink back to Camelot and not tell anyone about it.”
“No!” raged Bagdemagus. “I’m not going back there until everyone agrees I’m awesome! Let’s go, we’re going to have like fifty strange adventures and return to Camelot covered in glory. Next stop: Cornwall!”
So Bagdemagus traveled to Cornwall! Along the way he found a coupon entitling the bearer to be counted as a right proper participant in the Grail Quest, which he took to be a good sign (although it does not ever come up again). At one point he stopped for a bit by the same rock containing Merlin’s magic cave-prison. Merlin heard Bagdemagus sulking outside, and banged on the walls with his fists for Bagdemagus to let him out. Bagdemagus heard him, but couldn’t figure out how to make that happen, so he gave up and left instead. As he promised his squire, he had like fifty strange adventures before eventually returning to Camelot, where he became a knight of the Round Table. At no point did he slay a knight of the Round Table.
So this whole interlude is pointless, because Bagdemagus doesn’t show up again until like Book VI. Malory has a terrible sense of pacing, you know that? It’s not me, you guys. It’s Malory.