Malory begins Book III by laying out a few vital points he feels we need to be reminded of, before he can tell us the tale of Arthur’s courtship of, and wedding to, Guenever. Spoiler alert: it is about the least romantic courtship and wedding you can imagine.
Just in case you missed the previous volume, I’ll recap Malory’s recap, like so:
1) Arthur is a young and unmarried king.
2) When he became king, a bunch of folks — Team Lot & Mister 100, for instance — refused to accept his authority because they didn’t know he was Uther’s son.
3) Merlin (and Igraine, Arthur’s mother, who doesn’t show up again I don’t think) eventually got around to telling everyone about how Arthur was Uther’s son.
4) Arthur is under the impression that Merlin is a wise dude whose advice should be followed. At times you get the sense Arthur doesn’t go to the bathroom without Merlin’s go-ahead. Other times, less so.
Got all that? Great!
One day, as our story opens, Arthur came to Merlin. “I’ve got a new project I want to get started. Tell me what you think of this.”
“It’ll all end in tears,” said Merlin. “But go ahead.”
“Okay, so, really it’s the guys putting me up to this.” Arthur cleared his throat nervously. “They’re all the time ragging on me about how I only have illegitimate children and mistresses, and not a wife and legitimate kids like a king oughta. I was kind of thinking I’d just keep a stable of mistresses…”
“No, no, you need to marry!” Merlin scolded Arthur. “Put this mistress-stabling idea out of your head. Guy like you, king of England, magic swords, madcap killing machine, you’ll be… well, not a great husband, but…”
“I like mistresses! I won’t apologize for that! But okay. No more mistresses. Instead, a wife and total fidelity to her.”
“So I need to marry a lady. Let’s see, I’ll need to get a hall, a new suit, a priest…” Arthur ticked the items off on his fingers.
“And a wife,” said Merlin. “You have to marry some specific woman. Do you have one in mind?”
“Oh, yeah, right!” Arthur had almost forgotten. “I do have a lady in mind, actually. By my reckoning she’s the best lady: Guenever the valiant. You remember her? Princess of Cameliard? King Leodegrance’s daughter?”
Merlin grunted. “Her?”
Arthur ignored him. “Apparently my so-called biological father Uther gave Leodegrance a really high-end table, years back. I’m hoping I can get him to throw it in alongside the daughter. Kind of a dowry sort of thing?”
“Really? Her?” asked Merlin again. Merlin actually constructed the Round Table, we learn in a story much much later in Le Morte D’Arthur, but somehow Uther ended up with it.
“Yes!” said Arthur. “She’s valiant and it’ll tighten up ties with Cameliard and North Wales, which is important if I ever want to not be at war. Plus a great table. I admit I don’t know Guenever very well, but she seemed all right.”
Merlin sighed, heavily. “I can see your mind is made up. I’ve been putting together this report, the Top Fifty Reasons Arthur Should Marry Someone, Anyone, Who Isn’t Guenever, complete with plenty of photos of other fair and valiant ladies, but I’m too late.”
“You bet my mind is made up!” said Arthur. “Famously valiant, peace in the west, my father’s old table, and when we met that one time she was nice enough.”
“So now you’re going to marry her.”
“Then listen up. Yours will be a cold, loveless marriage. No children shall issue. And also Guenever will cheat on you with Sir Launcelot.”
“La la la I’m not listening!” cried Arthur, and plugged his ears up. “Besides half your predictions are crazy nonsense anyhow! I don’t feel obliged to pay attention them.”
“Fine, fine,” said Merlin. “All right, we’ll do it your way. Here’s what we do. I take some of your knights with me to Cameliard, where King Leodegrance is, and I’ll set it all up.”
In Cameliard, Merlin met with Leodegrance, and told him about Arthur’s interest in his daughter.
Leodegrance couldn’t have been happier. “Arthur the king of all England and Britain and Logris wants to marry my daughter? Sign me up! He’s the Most Eligible Bachelor in Britain! I can’t wait to welcome that MEBIB into the family! Should I sign my kingdom over to him?”
“Okay, okay, calm down, hold onto your horses,” said Merlin.
“I know, I know.” Leodegrance shook his head sadly. “He’s already king of all England, what would he want with the throne of Cameliard…”
“You can keep the throne,” said Merlin. “But there is one piece of furniture Arthur’s interested in.”
“Merle, I know it’s medieval times, but my daughter is not literally a piece of furniture.” Leodegrance laughed. “No,” he said with a chuckle, “I’ll send him the Round Table.”
“Great,” said Merlin. “That’s what I came here for.”
“I’m not using it myself,” said Leodegrance. “It seats one hundred and fifty, and I’ve only got a hundred knights left alive since the Rience affair back in Book I.”
“Enh, we’ll take your knights, too,” said Merlin. “Can’t have too many knights.”
Merlin loaded up the Round Table and Guenever (who pretty clearly had zero say in this whole affair, most valiant lady in England or no) and the hundred knights and hauled the whole kit and caboodle back to London, because Malory can’t keep straight whether Arthur lives in London, Caerlaeon, or Camelot. He phoned ahead, so Arthur knew that he was getting not just Guenever and a table, but also a hundred extra knights.
Arthur’s glee knew no bounds. He was excited about receiving, in order of importance, the following: the Round Table, a hundred knights, the Round Table again (it’s such an awesome table), and Guenever. Arthur called his court in London (or Camelot or wherever he was) together for a major address.
“Everybody,” he said. “Everybody, listen up. There’s a woman coming, her name is Guenever. I am seriously excited about her, she’s famous for being valiant, and that one time we met she seemed nice enough, when I rescued her Dad from Rience back in the day. Now I know, many of you are, like me, going to be disappointed that I’m no longer sleeping with a bunch of mistresses, but we’ve all got to make sacrifices for Britain, people. Or for Logris. England. Same place, I’m told. Plus, did I mention how valiant she is? Smart as a whip and better-looking.”
Nods, murmurs of agreement.
“Also, and this is not to undercut the Guenever thing, we are also getting the most awesome table ever!”
Cheers! Rousing applause! Prolonged, stormy enthusiasm! “Table! Table! Table!” they chanted.
Arthur set up to throw himself a lavish wedding, using his funeral-arranging prowess. Meanwhile he had a special task for Merlin.
“Merlin,” he said. “We need fifty more knights to sit at this table, so, go out, find fifty awesome knights, the best ever, ones who earn the Merlin stamp of approval.”
Merlin went out and found all the knights he could, but only twenty-eight knights made the cut. England/Logris/Britain just didn’t have enough good knights any more. Maybe they’d all died in the horrible massacres which were the war against Team Lot & Mister 100.
So, the Round Table seated 150 or 50 or 30, because these twenty-eight knights left just two empty seats. Is this a number that included Arthur & Ulfius & Brastias & Kay & so on? Am I supposed to go back and count all the knights who have already been mentioned, who would be in Arthur’s court, and would I find out that those guys plus twenty-eight more equals forty-eight? Why is it that Leodegrance would have 100/128ths of all the virtuous knights in England? Malory does not always show his work when it comes to these kinds of mathematical demonstrations.
Anyway, all but two of the seats at the Round Table were filled, somehow, and everybody’s buddy the Archbishop of Canterbury came by and blessed everything in sight. Afterwards Merlin found a pretext to get everybody else out of the room, and then he “discovered” that the seats around the Round Table had been emblazoned with knights’ names in golden writing. Two seats were empty and thus unlabeled.
In the midst of the Round Table seating, young prince Gawaine showed up. He’d been mentioned a couple of times already, but only at this point does he enter the narrative directly.
“Gawaine!” Arthur was not unhappy to see him. “My nephew by Lot and Margawse! You’ve grown up into a fine young man, and I should know, as I’m a fine young man myself.”
“Yeah, whatever, greetings.” Gawaine didn’t waste time with pleasantries. “Uncle Sire, I need a favor, so I’m cashing in my blood-relatives-deserve-special-treatment card.”
“No problem,” said Arthur. “I owe you, what with your father dying while making war with me, and your half-brother being my son who got drowned in a tragic accident I arranged for some reason, and everything.”
“I want to be a knight!” said Gawaine. “Make me a knight!”
“Really? Is that all? Sword!”
Someone handed Arthur a sword. He gave Gawaine a quick shoulder-tap. “Arise, Sir Gawaine! And don’t call me Uncle Sire, okay?”