Arthur called together a special A-team task force: Sir Gawaine, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, and a knight we haven’t met up to this point, the very young Sir Lionel of Benwick. Lionel was Sir Launcelot’s younger brother unless he was his cousin (Malory contradicts himself a lot).
“You four scout ahead, get to the Roman camp, find Caesar Lucius, and tell him to turn around and go home and stop killing people, all right?”
“What if he doesn’t want to go home?”
“If he doesn’t want to go home, that’s all right, we can deal with that by defeating him in battle. I figure that’s inevitable. But really make an effort trying to talk him out of just randomly killing French peasants, guys. That’s priority one.”
“As King of France, I appreciate that, Arthur ol’ buddy,” said Bors.
Gawaine & Bors & Bedivere & Lionel rode forth. They brought along some more soldiers for good measure, just in case. It wasn’t actually all that far, perhaps because Malory had never been to France. He looked at a map and figured it was probably about the same size as the Isle of Wight, is my guess. So after only an hour or two of unhurried riding they arrived at a lovely French meadow near the Benwick border. There were green trees and silken tents, bright colors; it was very idyllic for an army camp. More like a Renaissance Fair than not. Lucius’s pavilion stood out, of course, as the biggest and the nicest and the most golden. It had the big Imperial eagle on it, too.
“Two of us should go talk to Lucius, and the other two hang back with the soldiers in case he tries something,” Bors said. “As King of France, obviously I should be one of the pair that goes to talk to him.”
“Not it,” said Sir Lionel.
“Not it,” said Bedivere.
“…Dang,” said Gawaine.
So Sir Gawaine and King Bors marched boldly into the Imperial camp, waving olive branches of truce. They were allowed into Lucius’s tent, where Bors laid out Arthur’s demands to Caesar Lucius Caesar Augustus Caesar (no actual relation to Julius Caesar or to Octavian, Caesar Augustus).
“Hmm.” Lucius made a show of thinking Arthur’s demands over. “Hmm, you say he wants me to surrender my claims to this part of Europe and return home? Hmm. Hmm. Is that a good deal for me? Hmm. Got to think this one over carefully. What do you think, men?”
Lucius’s men shouted something unintelligible in Italian. He laughed.
“Yeah, what they said!” cried Lucius. “You go back and tell Arthur that I’ll face him gladly in battle, me and my enormous army! I’ll have him on bended knee, swearing fealty to the Eternal City!”
Lucius’s men shouted some more. Gawaine wasn’t sure what they were saying but he was pretty sure it was a) about him and b) unflattering.
“Christ!” screamed Gawaine. He just couldn’t take it any more. “You guys are dicks! I’ve had it up to here with your constant insults! I’ll kill you all myself! All the guys you’ve killed up to this point have been French! And the French suck! I’m from the North! You haven’t had to face an English-style cavalry charge! I’ll kill you all!”
Bors smacked his forehead, because he was the King of France and didn’t care for Gawaine’s casual French-bashing. Then he told Lucius that Arthur and his men could successfully fight essentially everyone in the North combined at once. Lucius shouldn’t expect to get off easy.
The Romans got all quiet at this point, as Gawaine’s and Bors’s threats sank in. Things were getting tense! Then one of them, Sir Gainus, slowly applauded.
“Very nice,” he said, slow-clapping. “Very nice. Britons are mad for the boasting, we can all see that. I wonder whether they are all hat and no cowboy, or just mostly hat and very little cowboy…”
“I’ll show you hat!” cried Gawaine, and quick-drew his sword and smashed Gainus right in his smug face.
SMASH CUT to Sir Gawaine and King Bors at a dead run, fleeing towards Lionel and Bedivere with the entire Roman Empire chasing them.
So the lesson here is, don’t ask Sir Gawaine to be your spokesknight. This is, I think, the third time a knight had unexpectedly killed a member of a royal retinue, visitor to court, while under an explicit or implicit flag of truce. Balin killed the Lady of the Lake, and then later Sir Garlon. It’s also another example of Gawaine managing to kill a guy in a single massive blow to the head, circumventing normal jousting procedure. From what I’ve reluctantly picked up off the Internet, Gawaine’s traditionally interpreted as having a hair-trigger murderous rage thing going on. Say the wrong thing to him, and he’d be liable to flip out and kill you in a single blow. Again, it seems like a perpetual chorus of scowling matrons constantly judging him would have been a good thing, under the circumstances. I don’t know why Malory promised us that and then just dropped it.
Bors and Gawaine reached to their little camp just as the Romans caught up to them, and there was a big ol’ fight. The highlight reel of this battle shows a Roman, Caliburn of Pavie, killing a bunch of Arthur’s soldiers before getting slain by Bors. Also Sir Feldenak, another Roman, tried to kill Gawaine in vengeance for Gawaine’s assault on Sir Gainus earlier, but Gawaine saw him coming and pulled his patented single-massive-blow-to-the-skull finishing move, taking Feldenak out. Eventually, suffering heavy losses, the Romans retreated.
Unfortunately after the Romans pulled back, they regrouped toot sweet. Just as Gawaine and the others thought they were safe, the Romans hit Gawaine’s camp hard, taking a bunch of the surviving soldiers prisoner and scattering the knights. Gawaine panicked, because he was sure King Arthur would blame him for this, and probably kick him off the Round Table and how could he possibly go home to the Orkneys with that kind of shame? His solution was to draw his sword, Galatine. Galatine, Malory says now, is another sword from the same set as Excalibur, that the Lady of the Lake had. How Gawaine ended up with it Malory doesn’t explain, nor does this particular magic sword ever come up again.
Gawaine drew Galatine. He grabbed a couple of soldiers and led a daring commando raid into the enemy lines, motivated by fearful panic. Everyone was fighting everyone, it was a mess, and Gawaine ended up down to maybe five hit points, which is not many. He sent a soldier to run back to Arthur. “Tell him that the Romans have attacked and unless Arthur sends reinforcements ASAP we’ll all be taken prisoner! And in no way is it my fault!”
When he got the message, Arthur wasted no time in mobilizing a strike force. He swung down into the skirmish at the last minute, driving most of the Romans back to their camp and capturing a big ol’ pile of prisoners. Nobody important on Arthur’s side was killed — no named characters except for Gawaine had been injured, even, though they’d lost some number of soldiers. Roman causalities of course were in the thousands or tens of thousands. It’s almost as though the author of the story were subtly pulling for one side over the other.
After he’d spent an appropriate amount of time visiting the injured soldiers, by which I mean Gawaine, Arthur authorized an extra liquor ration and dispatched Sir Cador and young Sir Launcelot to escort their various prisoners to the city of Paris for safekeeping. Unfortunately Caesar Lucius had spies scattered throughout France; he learned almost immediately that Arthur had sent a large column of prisoners up to Paris with a relatively light guard.
So next morning, Cador and Launcelot led this column back. They passed through the forest, probably the Ardennes, where Launcelot sent some knights ahead to scout.
They came back, shaking their heads sadly. “You aren’t going to like this, boss.”
“It’s pretty bad.”
“I counted thirty thousand, and Bob here counted thirty thousand so probably sixty thousand.”
Cador let out a low whistle. “Dang. That’s something like fifty thousand more troops than we can really handle.”
Launcelot snorted. “Nonsense! To me, men!” he yelled. “To me!”
And Launcelot rode out with everyone he can muster, his troops, some nearby unattached troops, possibly some French peasants, grand total of about ten thousand, which seems implausibly high. But hey, somehow Lucius had been marching around with six times that!
Launcelot plus ten thousand versus sixty thousand turned out to not be a very even fight. Maybe it was because the Romans didn’t have much in the way of significant named characters on their side during this battle, and maybe it was because Launcelot was an atrocious Mary Sue, and maybe it was because someone wrote down “sixty thousand” when they meant to write down “six hundred,” but one way or another, the Romans were soon hip-deep in corpses. The King of Lyly, dead! Lord Aladuke, dead! Lord Herawd, dead! Lord Heringdale, oh, you better believe he didn’t make it.
Launcelot was just so noble and manly and awesome that no one could withstand him. This was his first major combat, and he performed superlatively. Most of the Romans fled rather than fight him; it was a grand day for King Arthur’s side. Afterwards Arthur came out to congratulate his men on their victory, and they formed a sort of receiving line, with Arthur going down and shaking hands and getting his picture taken with each one. “You guys are great, great job, you get all the honor. As far as kings go I am super lucky to have you knights, Arthur the Super Lucky King, that’s what they ought to call me, because you fella did great.”
“Thank you, sire,” said Cador. “But to be fair a) Launcelot defeated like fifty thousand guys by himself, and b) we did lose Sir Beryl, Sir Morris, and Sir Maurel. That’s two good knights dead; a terrible loss to our side.”
“Two great men? You listed off three names.”
“So I did.”
“Alas for all this death! Darn it anyway.” Arthur wept, for the loss of Sir Morris and the loss of Sir Maurel, and also he felt bad for Sir Beryl’s widow, orphans and/or mistresses. “Now you listen, Launcelot, I know you got lucky today, outnumbered six to one and still victorious, but if you’re in a situation like that, feel free to retreat, okay? I’d prefer a live knight who can fight another day to a dead knight I’m forced to venerate as a heroic martyr.”
“Pshaw,” said Launcelot. “You surrender or retreat even once, then boom, you’re a surrenderer or a retreater or both. Once you’ve embarrassed yourself like that you’ll never have a perfect record. I’ve got to be perfect. I’ve got to be the best. I’ve got to be perfect.”
“If I’m not the best I’m nothing. I’ve got to be perfect…”
Launcelot snapped to attention. “What? Sorry, sire, I was off in my own little world there.”
Caesar Lucius heard about how his attempt to rescue a column of prisoners backfired when ten thousand of Arthur’s troops (counting everyone they could pull together at the last minute) defeated twenty percent of Lucius’s entire expeditionary force. Several of his advisors suggested that it was not too late to just go back home to Rome and forget about this whole “collecting taxes from Arthurian England-Logris-Britain” business, but Lucius decided to double down. “It’s your shameful talk of retreat and surrender that are the true tragedy this day, not the pointless deaths of thousands and thousands of my soldiers! Surrender and retreat are not options!” I’d like to say Malory draws a parallel between Lucius’s attitude and Launcelot’s, but I doubt it’s intentional.
Lucius fired his advisors and got a new guy, Sir Leomie, and together they concocted a remarkably ill-conceived battle strategy. Arthur heard about it, through an espionage operation so compelling Malory barely admits it existed, and he mounted a counterstrategy.
Leomie and Lucius had the plan to sally forth into the vale of Sessoine, there to ambush and destroy Arthur’s host. But when they arrived, they discovered that Arthur’s host had already spread out and taken defensive positions in a ring around the vale. Arthur himself was up front, looking all steely and tossing Excalibur from one hand to the other.
“No, we are not surrendering!” Lucius cried, before Leomie or anyone else could suggest it. “We’re Romans, for Christ’s sake! We can stomp these idiot Britons! Roma is the head of the universal world! Roma! Roma! Blow the horns!”
So the Roman buglers bugled a charge, and blah blah blah there was an enormous battle.
1) Arthur killed a giant. First he cut off the giant’s legs just above the knee, then he quipped about how the giant has been cut down to size, and then Arthur beheaded him.
2) All the knights of the Round Table (Sir Gawaine explicitly included, Malory assures us) fought valiantly and killed generals and so on.
3) Eventually Arthur managed to get to Lucius and kill him.
With Lucius dead, the Romans threw down their weapons and fled. The Knights of the Round Table heroically ran the fleeing soldiers down and killed them! All told about half of Lucius’s troops going into the battle were slain, and the other hundred thousand ran all the way back to Italy. Arthur had all the dead bodies treated systematically: looted, mass grave. Looted, mass grave. Looted, mass grave. The troops on his side got nice funerals, and all the wounded got piles of leeches and salves and surgery and so on.
While searching the battlefield, Arthur found alongside Lucius’s dead body the following corpses: seventeen pagan kings, two Christian kings, the Sultan of Syria, and sixty Roman senators. He had all these bodies packed up in lead casks, and found some surviving senators.
“Take these eighty-one corpses to, I don’t know, whoever’s in charge now that Lucius is dead. Take these bodies to him, and you tell him, I’m going to head on down to Rome from here. If whoever the new head honcho is, if he wants to try to collect taxes from me? Tell him I’m him sending these bodies as my payment, and when I arrive in Rome I’ll be expecting some change back. This tax payment should cover me, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, France, hell, toss in Benwick, too. The whole kit and kaboodle. All tax payments we ever need to make to Rome for the rest of history, capiche?”
The senators gulped and nodded and organized a wagon train and took all the corpses back to Rome, where they explained everything to the Senate.
“I think we’re best off disregarding Arthur’s tax situation, just writing it off and closing that account,” was their advice to the Senate.
Arthur marched from northern France to southern France to northern Italy. Everywhere he went, folks surrendered and offered him prizes and so on. No more violence happens until he reached Tuscany. In Tuscany there was a city-state that wouldn’t just roll over. The city-state wasn’t named, nor was its king named. Arthur called in a specialist for this city, a guy named Sir Florence — Malory is clear on this, Florence was the name of the knight King Arthur calls upon to deal with the unnamed Tuscan city-state, no fair just assuming Malory misunderstood something and we’re talking about Florence, Italy.
Anyway, Arthur sent Sir Florence out to secure enough food that his army could keep the siege up on the unnamed Tuscan city-state that in no way should be assumed to be Florence just because there’s a guy named Florence involved no way did Malory misunderstand or misremember anything you guys. Florence brought along four more knights, including Sir Gawaine; their job was to go into the next forest over, grab all the cattle they can, and bring it back to Arthur’s camp.
It was an overnight trip, getting to the cattle. As he lay out in the Italian meadow with Florence, Sir Wisshard (the worst name), Sir Clegis, and Sir Cleremond, Gawaine decided, on the spur of the moment, screw cattle rustling. As soon as everyone else had fallen asleep he armored up, mounted his horse, and rode off to have some funtime Italian strange adventures.