Meanwhile, King Mark of Cornwall decided to stop paying taxes to his liege lord, King Anguish of Ireland. Seven years passed with no consequences before Anguish decided to take action. He sent his brother-in-law, Sir Marhaus of the Round Table, to Cornwall to collect. This raises a whole series of questions, like ‘why was Mark sending money to Anguish when they were both vassals of Arthur?’ and ‘why seven years?’ But Malory isn’t forthcoming, so, let’s just press on.
Marhaus recruited a small Irish army and took them by sea from Ireland to Cornwall. He got his siege on at good ol’ Castle Tintagil. Back in Book I, Tintagil had been the home of Gorlas and Igraine, but at this time it was Mark’s capital.
Mark called together a big counsel to figure out how to deal with Sir Marhaus’s expeditionary force. He pulled out his royal whiteboard and they brainstormed and they brainstormed, but the only idea he and his brain trust could come up with is “go to Camelot and ask our liege King Arthur for the loan of his best knight.” Set a Knight of the Round Table to catch a Knight of the Round Table, you know?
Sadly nobody actually thought this plan will work. Everyone knew that Knights of the Round Table were sworn never to fight one another. And none of the Cornish knights, the Fighting Gamecocks, were up to the challenge of facing Sir Marhaus. Young Sir Tristram thought them a bunch of cowards, maybe because he read the end of Book IV when Malory told us that Sir Marhaus would die fighting Sir Tristram.
Would young Tristram fight Marhaus and win, or shall Malory just toss another continuity error onto the pile?
King Meliodas was skeptical. “You know he’s a Knight of the Round Table, and one of the best fighters in this novel, right?”
“Yeah, whatever. I think I can take him,” replied Tristram. “I’m going to go get knighted by my uncle King Mark, and then take him on. Assuming I get your go-ahead.”
“Do what you want, you impetuous young hero you,” said Meliodas, and gave him an affectionate little father-son punch on the shoulder. “Well, my part in this narrative is over. Give me a nice funeral when I die!”
But the joke was on him, because Tristram would be out of the country when his father dies in Book X.
Tristram set out from his father’s court towards his uncle’s. Along the way he was flagged down by Famous Hebes, a courier employed by the King of France. The King of France in this part of the story was named Faramon, which is funny, because it makes no sense. Launcelot’s uncle Sir Bors was the king of France; this is well-established. And yet here we are. Faramon’s daughter, whom Tristram knew back when he was a student in France practicing his venery, had sent Famous Hebes out as a messenger. He bore a little bundle of love letters, and also a puppy. (Seriously she sent him a puppy.)
But Tristram wanted nothing to do with Princess Faramon’s-Daughter, and sent Famous Hebes back empty-handed. Not even a note! The jerk! According to Malory she eventually dies of grief, like Ettard and Hellawes before her. Feh!
Anyway, after this pointless interlude, Tristram arrived at Mark’s court. It’s unclear how he got past Marhaus’s ongoing siege. Tristram marched up to Mark, where he sat idly on his throne picking his teeth.
“I volunteer to be knighted and fight Sir Marhaus, in that order!”
Mark eyed the strange young man. “And you are?”
“Your nephew!” Tristram pointed to himself. “Tristram. Elizabeth’s boy.”
“My, aren’t you a large fellow,” said Mark. “Delicious, well-made… very well. Off you go, Sir Tristram. I knight thee.”
Mark sent a courier to Marhaus, out front. The courier explained that Mark had finally found a knight willing to fight Marhaus one on one. Marhaus was at first all excited, because he’d finally do a joust, but then he got squinty-eyed.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Is this knight the son or nephew of a king? Because I’m only interested in jousting the sons and nephews of kings.”
“I’ll go check,” said the courier, and zipped back in. He returned quickly. “They say he’s Sir Tristram de Liones, both the son and nephew of a king: King Meliodas’s son by King Mark’s sister.”
“Great, great.” Marhaus nodded. “That will do fine. I’m already looking forward to the joust. Here’s what we’ll do, we’ll hold the joust out on a little island in the quay, where no one will bother us. I’ll meet this Tristram there, we’ll joust, it will be glorious!”
Mark and his court threw a little party for Sir Tristram. It was meant as a congratulatory bon voyage thing, but it ended up more a sorry-you’re-going-to-die-fighting-Marhaus party. There was a pall over the revels. Tristram ducked out early, with his old tutor Gouvernail acting as his attendant.
There’s a brief comic interlude wherein Tristram arrived on the island but couldn’t see Marhaus there, but that was only because he was sunblind and Marhaus was in the shade. Gouvernail had to point Marhaus out to him.
“Okay, me and him are gonna joust now,” Tristram told his manservant. “I want you to go back to King Mark, Gouvernail, and tell him that I made it here safely and that I said I won’t flee or surrender. So if I lose then I die, and if I die, then I don’t want to be buried in a churchyard. Just leave me there to decompose. I’ll fight harder, knowing that my corpse will be desecrated if I lose.”
“Wouldn’t your father and stepmother appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye? Maybe your uncle, and all those people who just threw a very sad party for you?”
Tristram shrugged. “Screw them.”
“Sure, boss,” said Gouvernail. “But maybe I should wait until the joust is over, so I can tell Mark how it went?”
“No time!” cried Tristram. Then his eyes filled with tears, and he and Gouvernail shared a good sob.
Sir Marhaus saw Tristram approaching, and waved. “Hey there, kid, you’re Meliodas’s son Tristram, right? They told me you were coming out here. Listen, I’ve been giving it some thought. You’re plainly very brave, which is a shame, since I’m a remarkably badass knight. I mean, I’ve fought plenty in my day, let me tell you. I’m just going to slaughter you, and that’s not fair to you or your loved ones. You don’t want a piece of this. Go home, tell them to send an actual knight.”
“O glorious knight,” intoned Tristram. “You surely understand that I cannot do that, for I was made a knight specifically to fight you today. As the son of a king, and also the son of a queen, and also the nephew of a different king, I promise that I will fight you and in so fighting, save Cornwall from needing to pay taxes to Ireland. Truly tax amnesty is the greatest cause for which I could possibly fight! I am filled with love of my homeland (Cornwall) and pride at having been named a knight! Also, I was just now named a knight, let me stress again. I have never jousted before, but I look forward to it.”
“….okay,” Marhaus sighed. “Listen, kid, let me lay it on the line. I don’t want to just straight up murder you. I’m an experienced knight, whereas you just said you have never jousted before today. So, tell you what. I’ll spot you three hits. I have a reputation to maintain, you understand? I mean, I’m in the Round Table.”
They jousted! Malory tells us that it looked at first like Marhaus was going to win, but then, Tristram won! Didn’t see that coming, did you? Okay, probably you did. But here’s something you didn’t expect. The joust ended with Tristram swinging his sword into Marhaus’s helmeted head, and the sword slicing through the helmet and getting into Marhaus’s skull, and getting stuck in his brainpan.
Tristram tugged on his sword, but couldn’t get it out from Marhaus’s skull. Best he could manage was snapping the sword at the hilt, leaving much of the blade lodged inside Marhaus’s brain. Marhaus howled and staggered and lost the ability to speak coherently, maybe because of the metal embedded in the language centers of his brain? He lurched off, throwing away his shield and sword. Somehow he made it back to his ship.
Tristram saw Marhaus leaving. “Where are you going, sir knight? Are you running away? I don’t think that’s allowed! I know this is my first joust so I might not be completely up on the rules, but I’m under the impression you don’t get to just flee like this. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t run away if I were hurt. Like, you could cut me up into a bunch of pieces, I’d keep fighting. I’m not a guy who quits just because of a little metal lodged in my brain. Maybe some guys are quitters, but not me!”
Marhaus babbled incoherently, which Tristram took to mean he’d won.
“Well all right then,” called Tristram. “I’m just going to take your sword and shield that you dropped, okay? They have better plusses on them than my stuff.”
And then as Marhaus sailed way, Tristram collapsed. While he’d talked a good game, Tristram’s joust with Marhaus had left him bleeding from several substantial wounds. Marhaus’s opening spear-thrust in particular had really gotten him good in the side. His man Gouvernail found him and carried him back to King Mark’s castle. According to Malory, Mark then led a procession taking Tristram back to Castle Tintagil, which is funny because Mark’s castle and Castle Tintagil were the same castle. Either way, Tristram was swooning, with a nasty fever; it was not good.
Mark cried over his nephew’s body — how tragic that such a promising young knight should die on his first strange adventure! “So God me help, I would not for all my lands that me nephew died.”
Meanwhile Marhaus’s crew took his ship back to Ireland, where Marhaus staggered up to his brother-in-law and died. King Anguish wasn’t thrilled by this, but it was Anguish’s wife (Marhaus’s sister) who was the most upset. She had the sword-blade removed from Marhaus’s skull and kept it on her person as a vengeance-token. Her name: Isoud! And of course if you’re remotely familiar with the story of Tristram and Isoud, like, you know its name, you sense the import of that!
Actually, she’s the Isoud’s mother,. Malory describes Anguish’s wife Queen Isoud, and their daughter, the lovely Isoud. The lovely Isoud, the one all the operas are about, wouldn’t be introduced for another few scenes.