Much like the triptych in Book III, we’re going to follow each knight separately. We start with Sir Gawaine, as his story is easily the most involved. Gawaine and his damosel, Trixie (as usual I do not want to keep typing “the damosel”) rode northwards. On the far side of the Forest of Arroy they arrived at a big old country house, inhabited by an elderly knight.
Gawaine called to him. “Hey, any strange adventures around here? Trixie said there were strange adventures up this road!”
“It’s getting late,” the old knight said. “Get some sleep, and I’ll take you to a strange adventure in the morning.”
Next morning, the old knight dropped Gawaine and Trixie off at a decrepit country shrine, an old stone cross. Sir Gawaine found the scene dull, and wanted to ride on, but Trixie shushed him and told him to just chill for a while.
A while later, a sobbing knight wandered up to the shrine.
“Ho, knight!” called Gawaine.
“Oh, God bless you, stranger! You are doubtless my salvation!” cried the other knight.
“Um, okay. God bless you too, knight.”
“No, no, good knight,” sighed the crying knight. “I’m way too unhappy to be blessed.”
Gawaine looked to Trixie for guidance, but she just shrugged. Gawaine sidled backwards away from that dude. But then: craziness! Ten guys bubbled up from nowhere to attack the unhappy knight! The unhappy knight wielded a magic spear! Thunk, down went these ten knights, one right after the other! But they were merely stunned! They were coming at him again, all at once this time!
Sir Gawaine and Trixie just watched. Maybe eating some popcorn?
The knight with the magic spear was too depressed to resist their coordinated assault! They pulled him down from his horse and they tied him up like a pig, then carried him off.
“Man, there’s something you don’t see every day, huh?” Gawaine said to Trixie.
“Good sir knight,” Trixie said, “maybe your strange adventure compels you to assist that unhappy knight.”
“Mmm, I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think I’ll rescue him. You saw how he quit fighting back. I think he wanted to get tied up like that, and who am I to interfere?”
“Are you sure you’re with the Round Table?”
“What’s your point?”
“I’m not calling you a coward, but I’m not not calling you a coward. In fact I’d say I’m thinking it pretty loudly.”
As Gawaine and Trixie bickered, more players came onto the scene: another knight and… Peter! Peter the dwarf, everybody! Big hand for Peter! Neither Peter nor his knight friend wore helmets, though they were both otherwise fully armed and armored. Peter and his friend were actually completely unrelated to the sad guy with the magic spear and his ten enemies. Instead they’d shown up to fight a duel over a girl. That is, Peter loved the girl, this other knight loved the girl, and so they all three came out to the old shrine to settle it all with a fight.
However, neither Peter nor his friend were actually eager to fight, so when they saw Gawaine standing around they decided to put off jousting and instead put the question to him: who gets the girl?
“Uh…” Gawaine considered. “Which do you prefer?” he asks her.
“Oh!” The girl hadn’t thought about it. “Peter, I guess. Yeah, Peter. He has a name.”
“So what we do is, we stand you in the middle of the field, and we put Peter and the other guy at opposite ends of the field, and they both call you, and whichever one you like more, that’ll be the one you go to,” said Gawaine.
“That’s how it works for dogs,” Trixie observed. “The girl can go with the one she says she wants.”
But Gawaine insisted, so they went through the motions of setting up the competition. As Trixie had predicted, the girl chose Peter, and they ran off to live happily ever after. The other knight went off kicking at the dust and cursing.
“Well, that was a pointless interlude,” said Trixie.
“Can we go now?”
And then, after a break, two more knights showed up! These guys were armed and armored and plainly meant business. They rode right up on Gawaine and Trixie, demanding a joust. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, but Sir Gawaine was at least able to talk them into jousting him one at a time. While he fought the first knight, the second one sidled up to Trixie.
“Hey, hot teen girl,” he said. “How about you ditch this guy, Sir Gawaine of the Round Table, yeah, I know who he is and I’m not impressed. How about you ditch him and come be my lady?”
“Hmm, okay,” said Trixie. “Gawaine’s a lousy knight anyway, he refused to rescue that guy who was outnumbered ten to one.”
So Trixie ran off with the second knight, as the first knight and Gawaine did battle for a good long while. Afterwards the knight was like, hey, Gawaine, you’re all right, come back to my place for dinner.
Gawaine didn’t immediately notice that Trixie had run off. After dinner he asked the knight about the sad guy with the magic spear.
“Ah, you mean Sir Pellas the Good,” said his host, whose name is Sir Carados (no relation to King Carados from Book I). “Very good knight. Loves a lady named Ettard.”
“He’s a great knight, the best, he could easily beat ten men if he weren’t so depressed.”
“Now we had a joust out here not too long ago, a big three-day joust? Winner got a circlet of gold and a high-end sword, and of course Pellas won, best of five hundred.”
“So he gets the circlet, and he gives it to Ettard! And he declares she’s the best; he’ll fight anyone who say otherwise.”
“That’s a great story,” said Gawaine. “But we need to get going…”
“I’ve got more story!”
“This Pellas sounds very sweet,” said Gawaine.
“What you don’t know, though, is that Ettard was not into Pellas at all. I don’t know why. She liked lots of men, but zero of those men were Pellas.”
“Oh, I see.”
“All the other maidens at the tournament were extremely jealous of her, for Pellas could have had his pick of any of them. But he wanted Ettard, and she treated him with scorn, refused his circlet, and went back to her castle.”
“Pellas followed her, plighting troth the whole time, swearing never to leave her…”
“I’m not going to get out of here without hearing this whole story, huh?”
“Long story short, he’s a crazy lovesick stalker, she keeps refusing him and sending her knights off to defeat him, and then he’ll let himself get captured by them.”
“Yeah, I saw that,” Gawaine said. “He totally let himself get captured! They tied him up to his horse’s belly.”
“Heh!” Carados snickered. “He was lucky then. Usually they tie him up so his face is directly under the horse’s tail.”
“Whenever they capture him, Ettard’s knights take Pellas back to Ettard’s castle, where she chews him out and tells him to get out of her lands. He puts up with it because it’s his only chance to see her. Then she tosses him in a ditch outside her castle.”
“Man just can’t take a hint,” says Gawaine. He turned to the empty chair next to him. “So, Trixie, is it my strange adventure quest to unite Pellas and Ettard?”
At this point Gawaine noticed that Trixie had dumped him hours before, halfway through the last chapter.
“Oh. Shoot,” said Gawaine. “Shoot. Well, okay. I guess it’s my quest to unite them. I’m working without a playbook here. Can you direct me to Pellas?”
Carados could, in fact, point Gawaine towards the ditch where Pellas would inevitably end up after he was captured.
Gawaine wasted no more time in going there and finding the man! “Ho, Sir Pellas!”
“I remember you,” said Pellas. “You were the one who didn’t help me!”
“Yeah, but I’m helping you now. My name is Sir Gawaine and I’m here to help. So what’s the trouble?”
Pellas launched into another telling of his failed romancing of Ettard, the tourney, the beatings, the scorn, and so on.
“And every time I fight her knights, and demonstrate my devotion to her…”
“Check check,” said Gawaine. “I get it. I get it.”
“There are so many tales of chivalrous knights overcoming obstacles to win a lady’s love, surely my story is just one many.”
“Yeah, okay.” Gawaine thought for a second. “So I’ll get you your lady, Pellas. I swear to you on my father King Lot’s grave and my uncle King Arthur’s Round Table, of which I am a knight did I mention I’m a knight of the Round Table and Arthur is my uncle?”
“No, but that’s awesome! If your uncle is King Arthur then surely I can trust you.”
“Yeah, you can definitely trust me. Here’s what we do. You give me your horse and armor and everything. I’ll ride up to her castle and make out like I killed you and took your stuff, and I’m there to demand her love. She’ll realize she loved you, but you’re dead. She’ll cry, wah wah wah, and then, boom, you pop up alive again! She’ll be so happy she’ll marry you on the spot. This plan is utterly foolproof! It can’t fail!”
Fun exercise for the reader: guess which part of Gawaine’s plan would fail first!
Gawaine swore a solemn oath to Sir Pellas, Pellas swore a solemn oath to Sir Gawaine; everyone was swearing solemn oaths. They swapped horses and gear, as Gawaine had suggested. I guess they’re the same size since Gawaine fit into Pellas’s armor without trouble. Gawaine mounted Pellas’s horse, and rode to Lady Ettard’s castle.
On her front porch, Ettard sipped some iced tea and enjoyed the afternoon, until she saw a man dressed exactly like Pellas riding up on Pellas’s horse with Pellas’s helmet. Assuming, of course, that it was Pellas himself, she rose to her feet, went inside, barred the door, and glared down at him from a second-story window.
“Avast, what light through yonder window breaks?” Gawaine called up to Ettard from the courtyard.
“What? Go away!”
“I’m not Pellas!”
“I said I’m not Pellas! I am another knight that have slain Sir Pellas! We had a whole joust, I defeated him, my name is, uh, my name is something besides Pellas!”
Sharp thinking, Gawaine.
Ettard demanded Gawaine take off his helmet before she would speak to him further, and when she saw that he wasn’t Sir Pellas, really and truly, she squealed with delight! She invited him inside, practically dragged him in. She sat down on his lap and started purring about how much she had hated Sir Pellas and how thrilled she was he had finally died! The man just couldn’t take a hint, and when she’d stopped hinting he couldn’t take that either. It had gotten to the point where she almost felt sorry for the man but pity is not reason to marry a knight you hate…
“And now you, Sir Knight, you have slain the man who has haunted me, and come to claim your reward. And you shall have it, oh yes, such delights as I may grant you,” she concluded. Snuggling up to a man in platemail can’t be easy, but Ettard managed it. “I shall be your woman and do anything that might please you!”
“Cool!” said Gawaine. Gawaine’s plan definitely did not include Ettard throwing herself at him like this, but on the other hand, hey, she was a a pretty lady overly offering him sexual gratification. It was distracting.
Then Gawaine compounded his error, by identifying himself as a knight of the Round Table, Sir Gawaine, and name-dropping King Arthur and how King Arthur was his uncle.
Ettard squealed with delight, it’s as though she’d always wanted to marry a nephew of King Arthur’s.
Sir Gawaine: just the worst knight. He remembered that he wasn’t there to sleep with Ettard, that in fact he had sworn multiple solemn oaths to Pellas. He tried desperately to rectify the situation: he came up with another plan right there on the spot. It was not a very good plan.
“Oh Ettard,” he said, “I, I cannot plight my troth at you, for, I am in a real lousy situation vis-a-vis a totally different and not-imaginary lady friend.”
“Aw, poor sweet Gawaine,” Ettard cooed. “Poor sweet Pellas-killing Gawaine.”
“I love her, see, and she doesn’t love me…”
“That foolish woman!” cried Ettard. “She’s plainly not good enough for you. Perhaps marrying me will take your mind off her?”
“No, no, I’m definitely way into her,” said Gawaine. “But you can help me maybe in a way that doesn’t involve you and me doing the boyfriend-girlfriend kissy-face stuff. Will you promise to help me win her love?”
“By the faith of my body, my fabulous and entirely-at-your-disposal body, I so swear!” cried Ettard.
“Okay, great,” said Gawaine. “Now: shocking twist! The story I was telling about the knight who loved the lady, and you promised to get the lady to love the knight, in that story, see, the people aren’t who you think. The lady isn’t just some random damosel from Camelot, no, no, see, the lady is you! You were the lady all along!”
But before Gawaine could fire off the second half of his revelation, which is where he would explain that the knight in his story wasn’t Gawaine himself, but the secretly-not-dead Pellas… Well, Ettard had his armor off…. and then he lost track of what he was talking about…. and what with one thing and another he failed to mention it later.
Sir Gawaine: just the worst.
A day or two later, we turn back to Sir Pellas. He’d been restless and sleepless for days, ever since Sir Gawaine and he had sworn their solemn oaths. Gawaine had been supposed to come back and report to him about the success of Operation CONDOR, which is the codename that Gawaine had come up with for his “tell Ettard Pellas is dead and then when she cries about how she shouldn’t have forsworn him reveal the truth” plan. CONDOR’s timetable’d had Gawaine back within 24 hours, and here it had been a long weekend. Pellas was going nuts, imagining what might be happening, and, in utter defiance of all reason, what he imagined to be going on between Gawaine and Ettard was precisely correct. Exactly 100% right.
So he up and headed out to Ettard’s castle to look for them. By the castle, Pellas spotted several tents out in the yard. One tent, all Ettard’s men. Second tent, all Ettard’s ladies-in-waiting. Third tent, jackpot. Ettard and Gawaine, lying together, “either clipping other in arms,” as Malory puts it. Pellas lost it, sobbed, and ran off into the woods.
But then, before he’d gone more than a half-mile or so, though, he changed his mind and he spun around and went back to the tent, with the plan of MURDER GAWAINE fomenting in his head.
But then, when he reached to the tent, he considered just killing Gawaine in his sleep, and decided that it wouldn’t be the full knightly thing to do. Pellas the Good couldn’t kill a guy without waking him up and explaining in exacting detail why. So he left, again.
But then, he thought better of it, and turned around and went back to kill them after all.
But then, he remembered that he’d sworn solemn oaths to Gawaine, and just because Gawaine had broken his oaths didn’t give Pellas leave to break his, and besides he really didn’t want to murder Ettard. So he pulled his sword out and set it down, laid across the bed on top of Gawaine and Ettard, without waking them. Then he went away for realsies this time. He went all the way back to his camp — did Malory not mention Pellas had a camp? He had a camp — and he told his merry men (see note w/r/t camp) that he was going to go lie down and not eat or drink until he died.
“Once I’m dead you can have all my stuff except for the silver service platter with cover. I want you to cut out my heart, put it on the platter, cover it, and deliver that to Lady Ettard.”
Back at Ettard’s, man did Gawaine have some explaining to do. When Ettard woke, she not only recognized Pellas’s sword, she immediately deduced that he wasn’t dead and that Gawaine had been in some kind of cahoots with Pellas. And furthermore Ettard realized (she was a sharp cookie) Gawaine had just quit his quest and trysted with her as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
“You are just the worst knight!” she cried. I imagine her throwing things at the time. “You and Pellas cooked up this little scheme and then you double crossed him argh what kind of knight are you you give all knights a bad name! All ladies and damosels may beware by you and me!“
Gawaine frantically pulled on his armor and grabbed his stuff before fleeing. “You’re not going to tell Guenever about this, are you?”
She threw more crockery at him.
“Jeez! What is it with ladies! This strange adventure sucks! I quit!”
He did, too. Sir Gawaine stomped off into the woods and just lay low in the Forest of Arroy for the rest of his strange adventure year. He was a quitter.
Malory does not do a good job of putting Gawaine in a positive light.