This particular Tale of Launcelot is a little involved. It’s not quite of the same tenor as the other strange adventures recounted here in Book VI. Also, Malory is bad about marrying his antecedents and his referents, so I might get something wrong. I’m pretty sure I’ve untangled it all, but still. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
We open in the middle of nowhere. Enter Launcelot, from stage left! Enter a dog, from stage right! The dog barked to attract Launcelot’s attention. She snuffled around, exactly the way a well-trained hunting brachet did when she was trying to lead you to a wounded deer. Naturally this provoked some interest from Launcelot; deer were good eating. He chased after the dog: over hill, over dale, through a marsh, over a rickety bridge, and into a decrepit old manor house out in the even-more-middle of nowhere.
Inside the manor were zero wounded deer. Instead, Launcelot found the corpse of a knight! He was fit and hale and healthy-looking, other than the big stab wound that killed him. The dog turned back to Launcelot, as if expecting Launcelot to repair her master, but Launcelot just petted the dog sadly. Nothing he could do.
He was on his way back out when a weeping matron, Dame Hellawes, accosted him. This was her manor, and according to her sobs Launcelot had ruined her.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” said Launcelot. “I just got here.”
“I definitely did not kill this guy, I promise on Guenever’s honor.”
“I’m mean, I’m very sorry at your loss, but…”
“Woe! Woe! Woe! Oh, I know, I know it wasn’t you who slew my beloved husband, Sir Gilbert the Bastard. That was an ironic nickname; he was the sweetest of men. I cried out in my grief at you, but I just got carried away. The villain who did that terrible deed is sorely wounded, and will die soon I think. I didn’t catch his name. I know it’s not you. I’m just full of shock and sorrow.”
“Again, very sorry at your loss,” said Launcelot. This whole scene made him hella uncomfortable. He quickly excused himself and got out of there. Back over the rickety bridge, back through the marsh, over dale, over hill, and he was back where he started when he saw a damosel waving him down.
“Sir Launcelot!” she cried.
“How did you recognize me? I’m still wearing Kay’s gear.”
“Doesn’t matter. You don’t know me but I know you. Rather, I know of you. I beg your help, in the manner that damosels are permitted to beg help from knights.”
“My brother! He is sorely wounded and requires medical attention.”
“Earlier today he met that foul villain, Sir Gilbert the Bastard, on the field of battle and defeated him fairly.”
“But Gilbert’s wife, a fell witch, cursed him to die of his wounds, that his bleeding could never be staunched until a knight ventured into the Chapel Perilous and retrieved a sword and a bloody cloth, which latter item must be used as a bandage –“
Launcelot scratched his head. “The who in the what now?”
“And in that cloth my brother must be swaddled, for the curse to be broken.” The damsel threw up her hands. “And the sword also is involved somehow. I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s an interesting story, surely, but… I’m trying to come up with a polite way to decline…”
“Please, Sir Launcelot! My brother, Sir Meliot of Logris, needs your help!”
Launcelot perked up. “Oh, this is for Meliot? Nimue’s cousin? Last seen back in Book III surrendering her to King Pellinore?”
“Yeah, same guy. Nimue’s also my cousin. We aren’t close.”
“Well, crap,” said Launcelot. “I know Meliot, he’s in the Round Table. Plus he’s related to Nimue and she’s got crazy magic powers. Reluctantly, I’m obliged to help him out.”
“Oh, how lovely! The Chapel Perilous is just up the road a ways. I’ll wait here.”
“Go on. Speed away. I’m sure you can do it! If you can’t, no one can!”
Launcelot would have preferred not to get involved with this one, but he felt obliged! And he set off, soon reaching the Chapel Perilous.
The name makes me wonder whether the Grail is involved, or perhaps it’s connected to Castle Corbin, the location where Sir Balin struck the dolorous stroke. But no, it’s just a very similar cursed locale. The Chapel Perilous stood in a craggy, weathered place. Maybe once a castle, but by the time Launcelot visited only a half-ruined chapel remained. Someone put up a fence around it, making a sort of motley churchyard, with a gate that creaked in the wind, and even when the wind was still. Nothing grew there; all the grass was brown and scraggly and long-dead. The churchyard was littered with old shields, tarnished and forgotten.
Launcelot feared no evil, so he stomped right in. He eyed the shields as he passed them, recognizing many as the shields of fine knights he’d known in tournaments over the years. The knights matching these shields were ones he had lost touch with, but he wished them no ill.
Therefore he was surprised when their undead forms clawed their way out of the ground, under the shields, which they picked up and heft. The zombie-knights, thirty of them, surrounded Launcelot, swords drawn, armor blackened and shields tarnished, eyes cold and dead. Malory says they grinned and gnashed at Launcelot, which sounds very toothy.
In for a penny, in for a pound, figured Sir Launcelot du Lake. He drew his own sword and prepared to fight thirty zombies. To his surprise, though, they parted around him, opening a way into the Chapel Perilous. They said nothing, but circled around, goading him forward into the small half-ruined structure.
Launcelot entered the Chapel Perilous. The only light came from a single dim oil lamp. In the blackness, Launcelot could just barely make out a corpse wrapped in a silk shroud. He crept up, and used his sword to cut off a piece of the shroud. He was thrown to the floor as the ground shuddered beneath him! For a moment it seemed the Chapel Perilous would collapse with him inside! But no, it settled down, and Launcelot got back up. He turned to leave, and spotted something he hadn’t seen before: a magic sword, laid across the dead knight’s chest. Launcelot grabbed the sword and hied it out of there.
The zombie knights outside were waiting for him, of course, and when he emerged they spoke to him in grim unison. “Knight, Sir Launcelot, lay that sword from thee or else thou shalt die.”
“Whether that I live or die, with no great word get ye it again, therefore fight for it an ye list.”
“What?” asked the zombie knights.
“You’ll take my sword from my cold dead hands! Raaaah!” bellowed Launcelot, and charged the black-clad death knights.
To his surprise and considerable relief, they melted away as he ran through them, vanishing like smoke.
“Well, that’s cool,” said Launcelot. He paused to collect himself, there outside the churchyard.
“Excuse me,” said Hellawes. “Sir Launcelot?”
Launcelot did not see her approaching, and startled. “What? How did you get here? I last saw you crying over your late husband’s body, in the previous chapter!”
“Sir Launcelot, leave that sword behind thee, or thou wilt die for it.”
“Hmmm.” Launcelot’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, hey, good for you,” said Hellawes. “If you had surrendered the sword just now, you’d have never seen your precious Lady Guenever again.”
“We’re just good friends,” Launcelot said reflexively. “Wait, what? What are you talking about? I’d be a fool to just toss this obviously magical sword aside, especially if it meant also losing Guenever.”
“Now, gentle knight, I require thee to kiss me but once.”
“What? What is this about? Who are you, really?”
“Kiss now, answers later.”
“No!” Launcelot tried to be polite, but Hellawes was getting on his nerves. “No, I’ve made certain promises to a certain lady. There will be zero kissing of random damosels by me today.”
“Well, good knight, if you had kissed me then you’d have dropped dead, so good for you.”
“Alas! Now I am undone,” cried Hellawes. “This wasn’t even a trap for you, but for Sir Gawaine.”
“I had an affair with Gawaine, and, well, the upshot of it is that he and my husband good Sir Gilbert fought, and Sir Gilbert lost a hand. That’s Gilbert’s body in the chapel.”
“Wait, what? Didn’t I see Sir Gilbert’s body in a different location last chapter? Did you carry it over here?”
“Oh, Sir Launcelot. Now I tell thee I have loved thee for seven years, but there may be no woman has thy love save Queen Guenever.”
“Everything you say just raises further questions. We never met before today! Also, Guenever and I are just friends.”
“I had a plan, you know. I was going to kill you, and take your body, and treat it with herbs and embalming fluids, and animate you as my zombie love-slave. I guess that won’t happen, now. I got all this poison lipstick for nothing.”
“Jesu preserve me from your subtle crafts!” Launcelot was, understandably, pretty well skeeved out. “I’m out of here!”
Launcelot mounted his horse and rode off. Hellawes, Malory claimed, died of grief within a fortnight.
Launcelot returned to Sir Meliot’s sister, who was thrilled to see him returned alive and intact with the bloody shroud and the magic sword. She led him into Meliot’s castle, where Meliot lay slowly bleeding to death, thanks to Hellawes’s dark magic. With the sister’s coaching, Launcelot touched the sword to the wound then wiped it with the bloody cloth (which sounds unhygienic but what do I know?); Meliot instantly recovered!
He leaped to his feet and thanked Launcelot, and invited him to stay for supper. Probably they shared a laugh about Sir Launcelot still wearing Sir Kay’s gear.
It was a nice supper, but in the morning Launcelot had to move on. “I’ll see you back in Camelot at Pentecost, okay? I know Pentecost is coming up, but there’s time to squeeze in one or two more strange adventures before then, I think. I’ll see you at the big party.”
And Lancelot rode off. Thus ends the Tale of Launcelot and Meliot, which for what it’s worth is maybe the most overtly supernatural non-Grail-related story in all of Le Morte D’Arthur.