As this chapter of our tale opens, Arthur was hanging out in London, no place more specific than just ‘London,’ when along came a knight.
“Ho, knight,” said Arthur.
“Sire, I have come to recap. King Rience is making trouble,” said the knight. “He’s burning peasants and their thatch-roofed cottages left and right, it’s a bad scene.”
“Hmm, if what you say is true –”
“Are you calling me a liar?” said the knight, all indignant. “I saw it myself!”
“If what you say is true,” said Arthur, ignoring him, “then I’d better do what I do best.”
“Call all my barons and knights together,” said Arthur.
“Ooh,” said the knight. “Will there be jousting?”
“You know it!”
So Arthur gathered all of his barons and knights together at Camelot, which he’d just finished furnishing and decorating, so this war-council-for-dealing-with-Rience party was also a come-check-out-Camelot party as well as a jousting tournament (JOUSTING TOURNAMENT 3!). Everybody, simply everybody showed up, including a girl who claimed to have been sent by Lile of Avelion.
“You mean Queen Lily of Avalon?”
She came to Arthur, this girl did, wearing an enormous fur coat, and cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. Once everyone’s eyes were on her, boom, the fur coat dropped! Along with everyone’s jaws!
Under the coat this girl was not completely naked. No, she wore a sword in a scabbard, with a… let’s call it a harness. She explained that she labored under a curse; until some strong knight could pull her sword from its scabbard she couldn’t remove the harness.
“Nothing weirdly Freudian about this,” exclaimed Arthur. “I happen to be great at pulling swords from things. That’s how I became king! It’s a funny story really.”
“The knight who saves me from this incredibly thin metaphor,” said the girl, whom Malory doesn’t bother to name but I’m going name Wilma because ‘the maiden’ is just too lame to keep repeating over and over again. “The knight who saves me must be a great knight, valorous, honorable, skilled at arms, reasonably dashing.”
“You’re describing me to a tee,” said Arthur. “Also there are about a hundred and eighty knights within earshot who fit that description, am I right fellas? Camelot for life!”
The knights cheered.
“Yeah, we’re awesome,” said Arthur. “Camelot for life! Woo!”
“Anyway, I went to King Rience’s court already,” said Wilma. “He claimed to have a bunch of great and heroic knights also, but none of them could free me from this device.”
“Okay, well, I’ll give it a shot,” said Arthur, rising from his seat. “Now, just so everyone is clear on this,” he added, loudly to his assembled court, “I’m not claiming right here and now to be the best knight here. I’m just saying I’m good at pulling swords from things. And there’s a bunch of fine fine knights who tried to pull a certain other sword from a certain other thing — Kay, you know what I’m talking about — and they weren’t able. So I’m not going to be shocked if I’m not the specific knight who has been magically preselected to pull out this sword. If and when I don’t successfully pull it out, I want you all to give it a shot. Don’t think I’m going to be mad if you pull it out when I can’t. I won’t be. I am going to try first, though.”
All the knights murmured agreement. Wilma tapped her foot.
“But,” Arthur continued. “And this is a substantial but! I am confident that here at Camelot I’ve assembled the greatest knights in all of Christendom, so we’ll get this sword out, one of us –”
“Will you just pull it out already?” interrupted Wilma. “Sire. Please. Your majesty.”
So Arthur grasped the sword with both hands and gave it a tug, and it didn’t come out. “Hold on,” he said, and tried again, harder.
“Sire, it’s not –”
“One more try!” said Arthur, and got one foot up on Wilma’s hip and really threw his back into it and she cried out in pain.
“NOT SO HARD JESUS WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU THIS THING IS ATTACHED TO ME!”
“Oh, sorry,” said Arthur. “Ouch, that looks painful, ouch, sorry. Can we get her some leeches? Leeches over here?”
Wilma recovered and Arthur admitted that he was not the guy to pull this particular sword from this particular “stone.” He asked his assembled barons and knights of the Round Table to do it, because Malory forgets that the Round Table won’t get introduced until Book III.
“But fellas, look into your hearts before you try this. Do this sword-pulling with a clear conscience, no shame, no treasonous plots, no evil thoughts. Take it from me, swords in things hate evil thoughts.”
“Oh, also!” Wilma had more to say. “The knight who frees me must be a clean knight, a good knight, not a villain, not already married, no children, his parents either dead or distant because I don’t want to deal with in-laws, no one in his family should have a criminal record,” said Wilma. She listed off a bunch of other requirements for her ideal man/magically-preselected savior, and they were about what you’d expect.
A substantial fraction of Arthur’s court was, nevertheless, willing and ready to line up and try to pull the sword out. As they tried and failed, each in their turn, to pull the sword from Wilma’s “scabbard,” the hero (more or less) of this particular story entered the picture: Sir Balin, the Idiot Knight. Malory makes a case for Balin being fundamentally okay; he was this guy from Northumberland who killed another knight in a freak jousting accident a few Arthur-sponsored jousts ago, and it wouldn’t have been such a problem except the knight he killed was Arthur’s cousin (unclear whether via Uther’s family, Igraine’s family, or Ector’s family). Also he was kind of a dimwit, hence the nickname. Malory calls him “Balin le Savage,” so I’m interpreting freely here.
Sir Balin was a prisoner in Camelot, but it wasn’t exactly a maximum-security sort of setup; he was more a trustee. He was permitted into the party, for instance. When he saw all the knights lined up to try to please Wilma, he wanted to participate. He was unsure whether he ought to, though, since as a prisoner he was dressed in basically rags; he lacked all the usual baron accouterments: armor, horse, weapons, serfs, mistresses, et cetera.
Wilma was disgusted on account of none of Arthur’s knights can satisfy her, and nearly left in a huff; a dark pall fell over Camelot at their failure. Wilma was on her way out when Balin stopped her and asked to give it a go.
“You? Really?” she asked. “I mean really. Really. Look at you, you’re clearly not rich. And I’m pretty sore from all the other men trying and failing to satisfy me.”
“C’mon,” said Balin. “I’m a hell of a guy once you get to know me.”
“Well, you do have good upper-body muscular definition,” conceded Wilma.
“Manhood is concealed within man’s person,” said Balin, according to Malory. “Wink, wink. I don’t actually know what that means but it sounds good, you know?”
“All right, all right,” said Wilma. “I’ll give you a tumble. Try to draw the sword out. Take it!” And she presented herself to him.
Balin grasped the sword, and Wilma gasped. He drew it slowly and smoothly from its scabbard. She sighed in contentment as her restraints fell off of her.
“Hmm,” he said, looking at it. “This is a nice sword.”
“You’ve won me!” cried Wilma, a little put out that Balin seemed more interested in the sword than in her newly-freed self.
“Mmm-hmm,” said Balin. “Still checking out this sword. Is this a mother-of-pearl inlay?”
“Okay, you’ve managed to completely break the mood,” said Wilma, as she put on some clothes. “So never mind. Just give me the sword back and I’ll be on my way. Maybe hit up the knights at Benwick, see if they’re more fun.”
“What? No!” said Balin. “I won this sword fair and square! I’m keeping it.”
“Yeah, well, smooth move on your part,” said Wilma. “Because the sword is, I don’t know, cursed or something. Yeah, that’s right. Cursed! You’ll kill your best friend or brother or something with it! It’ll ruin your life! All because you treated me badly and refused to give me the sword! It’s going to happen! Don’t think it won’t!”
“Pshaw,” said Balin.
“You’ll be sorry,” said Wilma. “I didn’t even want the sword. I was just trying to do you a favor by taking it off your hands. You’ll see. You’ll be sorry.”
And she stormed out.
“Well that was odd,” said Sir Balin, the Idiot Knight. “It’s as if she wanted something else from me but wouldn’t come right out and say it.”
Arthur, who witnessed this whole exchange, sputtered a bit.
“So,” Balin continued, “now that I have this nice new sword I guess I’ll be taking a horse and some armor and going off and having a strange adventure now.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Arthur. “I don’t know where you got that idea. You were a prisoner, and then just now you demonstrated with magic yourself to be a worthy knight, full of virtue and so on. Those are two completely different and conflicting reasons for me to want to keep you around, and they don’t cancel each other out. Are you mad?”
“No, I’m not mad at you, sire,” said Balin.
“You misunderstood my question,” said Arthur.
“I’m not angry with you, sire,” Balin corrected himself.
“Mmm.” King Arthur spent a moment just staring at Sir Balin. “You know what? You can go, I’ve decided. I don’t want to keep a brave and virtuous knight like you against your will,” said Arthur.
“Oh, God bless your majesty!” said Balin.
“Go on, get out of here!” Arthur shooed him away. “Come back soon. Go. Don’t forget to write. Leave. You’ll always be welcome here. Get lost.”
So Balin loaded up a horse and prepared to ride off. Malory says that as he did, the rest of Arthur’s court erupts into argument over whether Balin was a witch or just really stupid. It’s true! Their debate was interrupted, however, by the appearance of another rider. This one needed no introduction: it was the Lady of the Lake. You remember her. Sure you do. She greeted Arthur, and Arthur greeted her.
“How are tricks?”
“Same old, same old. You?”
“About like you’d expect,” said Arthur. “We’re working on coming up with a plan for this whole Rience situation. That’s why all this jousting is going on in the background, which we’re skipping over.”
“Oh, we haven’t even gotten to the jousting-heavy parts yet,” the Lady of the Lake assured him. “Anyway, you remember how last time we met you promised me a favor?”
“Nope,” said Arthur.
“Sure you do,” said the Lady of the Lake. “It was when I gave you Excalibur.”
“Excalibur?” asked Arthur. “I have no memory of that. Is there such a thing as an Excalibur?” (I do not know why Malory has Arthur do this.)
“It’s the magic sword you’ve got at your belt right now,” said the Lady of the Lake, and pointed.
“Oh, that. Right. Right. It’s all coming back to me now. So you came to get that autograph after all?”
“I want a severed head,” said the Lady of the Lake. “Not just any head!” she added, forestalling Arthur’s next gambit. “There was a guy who just now pulled a sword from a girl’s… clothing.”
“I want his head. Or her head. Either one. I wouldn’t say no to both,” the Lady of the Lake said. “He killed my brother. Also she was responsible for my father’s death. So, both of them are in my bad books.” Malory never gets around to supplying us with the backstory on this, except for a bit a couple of paragraphs down.
“Hmm, well,” said Arthur. “I’m not really prepared to decapitate either of them right this second. The one already left and the other is all fired up for some kind of adventure. Sure I can’t tempt you with an autograph? Or, oh, how about an illegitimate child?”
“No dice,” said the Lady.
Balin came back into the hall, ready to make his last goodbyes to Arthur and the court. He saw the Lady of the Lake, and then everything turned all slo-mo and red tint, because the Lady of the Lake killed Balin’s mother, and Balin spent three years hunting for her. (See? It raises more questions than it answers.)
“Who’s that and what’s she talking to Arthur about?” Balin asked a nearby lady-in-waiting.
“That’s the Lady of the Lake and she wants you dead,” explained the lady-in-waiting.
“Not if I kill her first!” Balin screamed, and charges forward and lopped the Lady of the Lake’s head off with his new magic sword.
Everyone shrieked! Court in general uproar! A dozen knights with swords pointed at Balin leaped to Arthur’s defense! Arthur started shouting at Balin. “Alas for shame what the hell dude! You murdered a guest in my court! That is not cool!“
“She was bad,” Balin said, as if that explained everything.
“I don’t care what your excuse is,” said Arthur. “Get out. Go. You’re banished from my court. Now I’m going to have to take down the sign that says how my court has never had any guest get murdered. That I do not forgive.” Arthur was all bereft over the Lady’s death.
“Do you want us to execute him, sire?” asked a knight.
“No, I’m too bereft,” said Arthur. “Just make sure he goes.”
“I’m going, I’m going, jeez, you’d think I killed someone who wasn’t evil or something,” said Balin. He grabbed the Lady of the Lake’s severed head and dashed off to his squire, and the two of them mounted up and ride off.
“Okay, now, squire,” said Balin.
“I was actually thinking of getting out of the squiring business,” said the squire. “Being your squire doesn’t seem like a great career path.”
“Squire, take this severed head and ride back with it to my hometown and tell everyone how I killed the Lady of the Lake. Also let them know I’m out of prison.”
“Should I tell them how Arthur banished you?”
“Use your judgement. Now, I’m going to go find King Rience and kill him. That’ll get me back in Arthur’s good graces or nothing will.”
“I kind of suspect nothing will,” said the squire.
“We’ll meet again, squire, when they’re throwing a sorry-we-banished-you, welcome-back-Sir-Balin party at Camelot!” said Balin, ever the optimist. Also ever dumber than a sack of hammers.
Meanwhile, Arthur put together a great funeral for the Lady of the Lake. It was a really nice funeral. One thing Arthur was good at was funerals.
At the funeral Malory introduces one of King Arthur’s best knights whom he hasn’t mentioned before, but don’t take that to mean that the guy wasn’t awesome: Sir Lanceor. Lanceor was the son of Anguish, the king of Ireland, whom you might remember was part of Team Lot & Mister 100 in Book I. However, good Sir Lanceor swore fealty to Arthur and joined the Round Table (which, again, hasn’t been set up yet; it doesn’t get set up until Book III). He was a solid knight, good at what he did, and the word Malory used to describe him is orgulous, a vocabulary word meaning some blend of haughty and proud and distinguished and arrogant and accomplished.
Lanceor had taken it personally that Balin was the one who got the sword from Wilma and her chastity-scabbard. He’d liked Wilma’s spunk, and he spent the whole of the Lady of the Lake’s funeral grumbling about it. As soon as the ceremonies are over he approached Arthur.
“Sire,” he said. “I beg your permission to hunt down that wretch Balin and execute him for his dreadful crimes.”
“You know what? You do that. You kill him right proper,” said Arthur. “I cannot express how mad I am at that guy. He should be dead, and you’re just the knight to do it.”
Lanceor thanked Arthur and made ready to ride after Balin. He left just as Merlin came in.
“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Arthur. “For once I’m in a situation where I need a crazy soothsayer advising me, another damn strange adventure, you know how I hate those things, and you were nowhere to be found!”
“Did I miss anything?” asked Merlin. “It sounds like I missed something.”
“Only a strange adventure! All this magic witchery crap has been happening! There was this girl with this sort of sword-in-an-I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it, and Balin, the trustee, pulled it out, and Wilma left angry because Balin didn’t want to sleep with her, and then the Lady of the Lake showed up and wanted them both dead, and then Balin murdered her! Balin killed the Lady of the Lake right in front of me!”
“Listen,” said Merlin. “The girl who was cursed to wear the sword-in-the-chastity-belt…”
“Wilma, I can assure you fellows, she was a wicked maiden. Worst ever.”
“See, the thing about Wilma is this. She has, or had, a brother,” explained Merlin.
“I’m not connecting the dots here,” said Arthur.
“It gets better!” Merlin assured him. “She had a brother who was a good knight, and she also had a boyfriend who was pretty skeevy, and the brother went after the boyfriend to leave her alone, and what with one thing and another the brother was standing over the boyfriend’s mangled corpse.” You might think this ties into the complex web of backstory between Wilma, Balin, and the Lady of the Lake, but you’d think wrong. Just when you expect Malory to zig, he zags!
“Oh,” said Arthur. “That explains everything! Wait, no, it explains nothing.”
“I’m telling a story here,” said Merlin. “Give it a little time to unspool.”
Arthur shuddered. “Fine.”
“Anyway, this black-hearted maiden did the worst thing, which is side with her lover over her brother, big no-no, and she went to the most powerful woman available for help: Queen Lile of Avalon, and begged the magic queen to assist her in defeating her brother.”
“Whoa,” said Arthur. “A ruling queen helping a woman work against the patriarchal system? Sounds dangerously protofeminist!”
“Damn right!” agreed Merlin. “We’ve got some literally medieval views on gender roles, and even the most proto- of protofeminists are dangerous and subversive witches.”
“Yes, of course.”
“So Queen Lile gave her a magical sword and told her that only a knight destined to murder a brother with it could pull it from its sheathe. Wilma was under the mistaken impression that the brother in question would be her own; Lile’s tricky that way. Armed with the sword, so to speak, Wilma has visited all the various courts in hopes to recruiting someone to do it. She can’t tell the knights the truth of the story, so frames it as a curse. Hence the chastity belt angle. She was up to no good the whole time, I swear.”
“Man,” said Arthur. “That’s, wow. Man. When I say I hate strange adventures this is exactly what I’m talking about.”
“I wish she hadn’t come to your court, but she did, so, water under the bridge.” Merlin shrugged in a what can you do? sort of way. “Now Sir Balin is out there with a sword destined to kill someone’s brother, which is a shame, because while Balin is as stupid as toast he’s also a powerful knight, and with a magic sword he’ll be pretty well unstoppable.”
“Hmm.” Arthur and debated whether or not to mention sending Lanceor after Balin.
“It’s also a shame,” said Merlin, “inasmuch as Balin’s motivation is to honor you and get back in your good graces. Too bad he’s doomed, he’s not really a bad guy. Plus, again, he’s unstoppable in combat. Doubly so with the magic sword.”
“On a completely unrelated note, do you know if Sir Lanceor has any brothers or sisters?”