After a few minutes Bedivere and Lucan found them. They hauled Arthur and Mordred’s body to the nearest shelter, an abandoned chapel. Within, they took a quick inventory: Bedivere wounded, Lucan badly wounded, Arthur very badly wounded, and Mordred dead. Lucan and Arthur both needed to lie down for a bit.
From outside the chapel they heard shouts. Arthur sent Lucan out to see what’s happening; Lucan came back in a moment later reporting that scavengers were looting the hundred and sixty thousand corpses.
“We should get out of here,” said Arthur. “But instead I think I’m going to die. Let my last words be these: ‘darn it, Launcelot, where were you?'” And he keeled over.
“C’mon, let’s get the king’s body out of here,” said Sir Bedivere. “Those looters are going to be coming through here soon.”
Lucan and Bedivere picked up Arthur, and did I mention before that Lucan was badly wounded and needed a lie-down? Because the effort of standing up, followed by picking up Arthur’s body, turned out to be too much for Sir Lucan’s heart, which gave out. Lucan collapsed, dropping Arthur as he fell dead to the chapel floor.
The shock was enough to rouse Arthur, who, it turns out, had not been a hundred percent dead. “Waugh!” cried Arthur.
“Sorry, sire!” said Bedivere. Then he noticed his brother had just died. “Waugh!”
“Calm down, Bedivere.” Arthur may have lacked the strength to sit up, but he was still king. “If I wasn’t dying, you can bet I’d be giving Lucan a stirring eulogy. He’s been with me since Book I. Now you’re the last one I have. I’m dying, so I need you to do some magic for me.”
Bedivere blinked. “Magic, sire?”
“Take Excalibur, my magical sword, and carry it out to the beach, and throw it into the ocean.”
“Sire, has your brain been damaged?”
“You heard me. Then come back here, and hurry, because I don’t have much time left.”
Bedivere gingerly took Excalibur, and stumbled out of the chapel, intent on obeying Arthur’s bizarre commands. He made it only halfway to the water, though, before he had a thought along the lines of Hey, Arthur is clearly dying and probably he’s crazy from the head wound and Excalibur is a magic sword and also it’s all jeweled and golden. So basically instead of throwing the sword into the sea, he hid it.
Back in the chapel, Bedivere cooed as he approached the dying king. “Hey, sire, buddy, hey, how are you doing, buddy?”
Arthur took a ragged breath before speaking. “You threw Excalibur into the water?”
“You bet I did!”
“Good, good. What did you see happen?”
Bedivere blinked. He was not expecting this. “It sank? Into the water?”
“Bedivere!” Arthur barked. “You didn’t throw the sword away at all, did you?”
“Go back and do it again! And do it right!”
So Bedivere went and fetched Excalibur and took it down to the beach, and then, again, he held it and weighed it in his hand and thought about how pretty and valuable it was, and rather than cast it into the sea he hid it again.
Back to the chapel. “Done, sire!”
Bedivere had composed a good lie this time. “There was, like, a flash of light? And angels, and maybe the Grail? Or Merlin? Something magick-y definitely happened.”
Arthur just glared at him. “I’m extremely disappointed in you, Bedivere.”
“This is why you’ve never been a major character up to this point.”
“If you screw this up a third time I don’t care that I’m as weak as tissue paper, I swear I will kill you with my bare hands.”
“Now go, and obey my command! Throw away Excalibur!”
So for a third time, Bedivere left to dispose of Excalibur. And this third time he psyched himself up, wound up, and pitched the sword out into the ocean.
Where — and you probably picked this up already somewhere via cultural osmosis — an arm reached up out of the water and neatly caught it, before lowering back down into the wine-dark sea.
Bedivere’s jaw dropped. Of all the things he was expecting, that wasn’t one of them. He rushed back into the chapel.
“Sire! It was amazing! An arm came up from nowhere and caught it!”
“Finally,” said Arthur. “I can’t believe we’ve wasted all this time. Now come on, help me up. I’ve got to get down to the beach.”
Down on the beach, to Bedivere’s shock, a boat had landed. Arthur didn’t seem at all surprised to see it. He let Bedivere lead him down to the gangplank, then took a few unsteady steps forward alone, letting his sister Morgan le Fay catch him as he collapsed. Bedivere was stunned to see Morgan le Fay and several other ladies on deck, but Arthur had expected them.
“Sire!” called Bedivere, as the magic barge’s gangplank retracted all by itself and Arthur, up on deck, lay down with his head in Morgan’s lap. “Sire! What will happen to me? I’m the last Knight of the Round Table!”
“You’re on your own, Bedivere,” said Arthur. “You and England both. We’re going to Avalon, where I’ll recuperate, and…”
At this point Morgan let out a very loud sob, which completely drowned out the tail end of Arthur’s sentence. The other ladies aboard the boat — Nimue, the Queen of Northgalis, and the Queen of the Waste Land — likewise sobbed and cried and carried on, as the barge drifted out to sea and vanishes into the mist. (NIMUE BATS CLEANUP 9! Okay this one is a little bit of a stretch but c’mon, work with me here.)
“Well, hell,” muttered Bedivere, and wandered off.
At this point in the narrative Malory admits to some confusion. There are different stories about what happens here, he says, and this is Malory’s synthesis of several sources. What Malory claims happens is this. Bedivere wandered aimlessly down the beach until he came to a small chapel and hermitage, where a lone hermit had just finished covering over a grave. This hermit was actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Mordred drove off back at the start of Book XXI.
“Ahoy, your Grace!” said Bedivere, because he recognized the archbishop.
“Greetings, sir knight,” said the archbishop, because he was a classy guy. The archbishop explained that he’d just finished burying a mysterious dead body dropped off by four witches in a magic barge. They gave him a hundred candles and a stack of coins, to pay for the funeral, but they didn’t stay for the ceremony.
“Alas, that was my lord King Arthur, that here lieth buried, then. I saw him with the witches before,” said Bedivere.
“If you say so,” said the archbishop. “You’re welcome to join me as a hermit, by the way.”
“Great!” Bedivere abandoned his armor and wore the gray robes of a hermit, and lived that way for the rest of his life.
Frankly Malory isn’t sure whether there’s supposed to be doubt as to whether the body the Archbishop buries is intended, unambiguously, to be Arthur’s. Maybe the women who dropped the corpse off were different women! Maybe the body they dropped off wasn’t the right corpse! Maybe King Arthur will return in Britain’s hour of greatest need! Maybe a lot of things. Malory doesn’t know and has no opinion about the whole once and future king stuff.
He does know one thing for sure, though, which is that news of Arthur’s death eventually reached Guenever. She spent this almost this whole Book holed up in the Tower of London, and now everybody was dead. Everybody except Launcelot, but he never showed up, so screw him, I guess. Guenever came out of the tower eventually, but rather than return to Camelot, she traveled to Almsbury to become a nun. And, Malory assures us, she was a great nun. As nuns go Guenever was the best. She won all the nunning awards.