Mark, as you hopefully recall, was the king of Cornwall. Malory implied he was Arthur’s vassal at one point in Book VIII, but in this story we get a sense that he’s neither Arthur’s vassal nor Arthur’s enemy. As this story opens, Mark worried his position had become precarious. His nephew Tristram, lover of his wife the lovely Isoud, was exiled from Cornwall, but rather than vanish as Mark had hoped, Tristram had taken up residence at Camelot. As a Knight of the Round Table, Tristram’s profile was as high as it had ever been. And of course the exile of Cornwall’s greatest knight was not a popular move for Mark, domestically speaking.
When Mark learned Tristram had joined the Round Table, he panicked a little. Mark figured it was just a matter of time before Arthur conquered Cornwall, seized its throne and the lovely Isoud, and gave them both to Sir Tristram. He sent spies to Camelot, while his wife the lovely Isoud sent other spies to bear Tristram love letters.
Finally Mark couldn’t take it any more; he had to take matters into his own hands. Together with two henchmen, Bersules and Amant, and their squires, he set out for Camelot disguised as a random guy who wasn’t the king of Cornwall.
“Here’s the plan,” Mark told Bersules and Amant as they rode. “We’re going to defeat Tristram, somehow. Maybe kill him, maybe just ruin him, I dunno. Probably kill him.”
Bersules stopped in the middle of the road. “Wait, are you saying murder?”
“Yeah murder,” snapped Mark. “I’m the villain! C’mon! Get your head in the game!”
“I didn’t realize I was signing up for murder,” said Bersules. “I’m just going to back out now, if you don’t mind…”
But Mark did mind! You can tell, because Mark cut Bersules’s head off.
“Whoa,” said Amant.
“Whoa,” said Amant’s squire.
“Whoa,” said Bersules’s squire.
“Ha,” said Mark. “I’m in charge, you hear me?” He brandished his sword at the other three.
Amant and the squires exchanged glances, and then all three drew their own swords. “We respectfully resign from your service,” they chorused.
Mark almost tried to kill all three of them at once, but he wasn’t not an idiot. They were on guard and they had him outnumbered. So he let them go, but demanded that they not warn Camelot or tell anyone he was the king of Cornwall in disguise.
Amant and the others agreed to this, probably more out of concern for Cornwall than for Mark. Mark fled while Amant and the others gave Bersules’s body a decent burial.
Some time later Mark stumbled across a knight crying in the woods.
“Unh, so unfair,” Mark muttered. “I’ve fallen into a strange adventure. Well, maybe I can turn it to my advantage somehow.”
“Ooooh,” sobbed this knight. “Oooooh, sweet Queen Margawse of Orkney. Ooooh, Lot’s wife. Oooooh, mother of Gawaine and Gaheris and grandmother of Sir Gingalin, a full-grown knight! Oooh how I wished you loved me the way you love your grandson who is roughly my age!”
It was Sir Lamorak! King Pellinore’s son and a past visitor to Mark’s court at Tintagil. He’d adventured with Tristram several times in Book VIII and Book IX. His love of Margawse was well-established, as of Book IX. For whatever reason Lamorak didn’t recognize Mark, when Mark sidled up and offered a sympathetic ear. Lamorak could tell he was Cornish from his accent, though, and launched into a wholly unrelated spiel about what a terrible country Cornwall was.
“You know they kicked out Sir Tristram? Really I shouldn’t bag on the whole nation, it’s that idiot King Mark who’s to blame, you know.”
“That Mark, he is the shamefullest king that is now living… a great enemy to all good knights… it is a pity that ever any such false knight-coward as King Mark is, should be matched with such a fair lady and as good as the lovely Isoud is.”
“Listen,” Mark said. “I haven’t been back to Cornwall in years. I know I have the accent but really all this has nothing to do with me.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Lamorak. “If I thought you were some kind of filthy pro-Mark partisan, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Mark coughed and changed the subject. “So what’s new, out in this non-Cornwall world where we both spend our time?”
“Arthur just announced the next tournament in the season,” said Lamorak. “Hunting Castle, out by Camelot. King Anguish from Ireland and Mister 100 are both expected to attend.”
Lamorak would maybe have said more, but just then Sir Dinadan rode up. Now, Sir Dinadan was Tristram’s traveling companion for much of Book IX. It was in Dinadan’s company that Tristram had left Cornwall, when Mark kicked him out. Would Dinadan recognize Mark?
“Yo, Sir Lamorak! And greetings, stranger,” said Dinadan. So, no.
“Yo,” said Lamorak.
“Yo also,” said Mark.
Dinadan did a double-take. “Is that a Cornish accent?” And he launched into a long spiel about what a lousy country Cornwall was, on account of King Mark being a terrible ruler. His spiel was, Malory tells us, about a thousandfold more than Lamorak’s. Mark looked a little green around the gills by the time he wrapped it up.
But even so, Dinadan wasn’t done! He challenged Mark to a joust, then and there, because he was so mad at Cornwall in general and wanted to take it out on somebody. Mark declined, and then Dinadan pushed him to joust with Lamorak instead, which Mark agreed to, just to shut him up.
Less than one full combat round later, Mark picked himself up off the ground.
“Ha, beaten by Sir Kay,” laughed Dinadan. “You Cornish churl.”
“That’s not Kay,” Mark protested. “You’re having fun with me. That’s Lamorak! I know who Sir Lamorak is!”
Goaded by Dinadan, Mark jousted Lamorak on foot.
“Dang, you’re terrible at this,” Lamorak said after a couple of seconds. “I feel almost guilty.” Not too guilty to pound Mark on the helmet until he fell down, though!
“Just stay down, churl,” Dinadan told him. “You don’t stand a chance against Lamorak. He’s an actual knight, whereas you’re from Cornwall. Listen, travel with me, I’ll introduce you to King Arthur, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”
“Agreed!” Mark said quickly. “That’s a promise!”
“You just promised to take me safely to Camelot! Lamorak heard it! You made a solemn oath!”
“Okay, sure, whatever.” Dinadan didn’t really care.
Mark, Lamorak and Dinadan thus set off towards Camelot together. En route they came to a bridge, guarded by a tower. In the tower lived two knights, brothers named Alein and Trian, who would challenge anyone who crossed the bridge to joust. There was another knight there, too, Sir Berluse, because Malory never introduces one knight when three will do.
Dinadan goaded Mark into agreeing to joust Trian with the ice burn “Now proffer yourself for ever ye be laid in the earth.”
I don’t get it myself, but Mark freaked. He grabbed his spear and jousts Trian until his spear broke.
“No problem!” said Trian. “That happens all the time in jousts! Fortunately I have several spare spears.”
“No! Joust over!” shouted Mark, and hid behind Lamorak.
Everyone was pretty disgusted by this shameful cowardice, but they went on into the castle anyway. Alein and Trian offered hospitality to the trio.
They had passing good cheer, said Malory… at first. Because before too long, Sir Berluse spotted Mark. Berluse, not Bersules, the guy Mark murdered before. This was a completely different guy whose name just happened to be off by one letter, Malory says. Berluse lived in the tower with Sir Alein and Sir Trian.
Malory totally forgot to mention this sooner, what with all the random digressing, but Mark had killed Berluse’s dad, execution style, back when Berluse was just a kid. So Berluse’d fled Cornwall and moved into this tower. Also, Malory announces, Sir Tor, Lamorak’s half-brother and a Knight of the Round Table, owned the tower. That’s less immediately relevant.
Berluse squealed and pointed at Mark. “It’s the dastard Mark!” he shouted. “It’s King Mark of Cornwall, the villain!”
Lamorak and Dinadan both did spit-takes. Both of them had met Mark far more recently than Berluse had, yet neither of them had recognized him.
Of course Mark had already been offered hospitality; that was a sacred bond, so they couldn’t just kick him out of the tower. It put a real pall on the evening, though. Basically everyone who wasn’t Mark huddled at one end of the tower while he sat alone at the other. Mark listened as they all talked smack about him; it was about as much fun as you’d expect.
In the morning Lamorak and Dinadan kept riding towards the tournament, and Mark followed along after them, since Dinadan had promised to take him to Arthur. Before they’d gone very far, though, Berluse and the other knights from the tower circled up and approached them.
“Mark!” cried Berluse. “Traitor! Murderer! I’ma joust you good!”
“Aw, crap,” grumbled Dinadan, because he was honor-bound to defend Mark.
Lamorak declined to have anything to do with Mark; he just stood there and watched while Dinadan disabled Berluse, Alein, and Trian. In theory it was a 3v2 matchup, Dinadan and Mark, but Mark just ran around squealing. Dinadan was a pretty solid knight, though; eventually Berluse was on the ground with a sword at his throat. Mark tried to kill him, but Dinadan didn’t let him.
Then four leagues further up the road, they encountered another knight who wanted to joust. Dinadan tried to get Mark to do it, but Mark refused, and so Dinadan had to. This other knight — secretly Berluse’s boss, Sir Tor — dehorsed Dinadan pretty easily but declined to continue the joust on foot. Dinadan secretly recognized Sir Tor but because it was a secret didn’t tell anyone.
Afterwards, Mark and Dinadan continued together towards Camelot. Malory has forgotten entirely that Sir Lamorak was supposed to be with them. As they travel, Mark insulted Dinadan for losing his fight with the mysterious knight who had secretly been Sir Tor.
“Jeez, shut up already,” said Dinadan. “Or are you and I jousting, right here and now?”
“Whoa, hey, no, no thank you,” said Mark. “I’m going to pass on the jousting. No, no jousting for me. That’s not going to be necessary. All I need from you is that you don’t tell anyone in Camelot that I’m Mark, the king of Cornwall. No jousting.”
“God, you’re awful. Shame on you that ye govern you so shamefully, you coward and murderer and cowardly murderer!”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t just get dehorsed by Sir Mysterio back there…”
And their conversation, such as it was, circled around and around. They stopped overnight at a lodge, still picking at one another. The guy at the lodge told them that they must have passed Sir Tor on the way there, and Dinadan snickered because he’d known it was Sir Tor but hadn’t said so.
As they were getting ready to put in for the night, six more knights appeared! These were guys that Dinadan knew, and who knew him, which I am pointing out specially because Sir Tristram has displayed this bad habit of forgetting he knew people. I fully expect he would introduce himself to Sir Dinadan again next time they meet. These were six knights out from Camelot: Morgan’s son Sir Uwaine (major character back in Book IV), Sir Brandiles, Sir “Big Heart” Ozanna, Uwaine’s little half-brother (same dad, different mother) Sir “Good Uwaine” Uwaine, and two of Gawaine’s brothers, Agravaine and Mordred.
“Hmm,” thoughts Dinadan. “If I can get even one of these knights to joust Mark, then chances are they’ll kill him, since he’s so incompetent. Or at least they’ll maim him. Or at the very least they’ll badly humiliate him. However it goes, I’m the winner.”
So Dinadan turned to Mark.
“Good news!” he said. “Those six knights are going to joust us!”
“What? That’s not good news! I mean, besides everything else, they have us outnumbered three to one!”
“Nah. It’s more like five to one, because I’ll take the lead guy and leave you the rest.”
But Dinadan was already off! He ran down the hill (there’s a hill) to the six knights.
“Dinadan!” cried Uwaine, who recognized him. “What’s happening? Have you seen any of the main characters, you know, Tristram or Launcelot?”
“Not lately,” said Dinadan.
“Who’s that guy you were talking to? The one cowering behind that bush over there?” asked Sir Brandiles.
“Well, he’s Cornish, and for the record I wot not his name. But I can tell you guys, man, is he ever a dick.”
Sir Griftlet wandered up (you might not remember him; he was Sir Kay’s first assistant caterer, and also the squire whose boss King Pellinore killed for no reason back in Book I, in one of Malory’s best continuity errors). “Hey, everybody,” he said. “Have you seen Sir Tristram or Sir Launcelot? Where’s Poochie?”
The knights found a handy castle nearby, where they stayed up late, drinking and swapping Launcelot stories. Eventually Dinadan noticed that Mark never came down to the party. He poked around, and found him hiding in a closet.
“What are you doing?!” Dinadan demanded.
“I’m hiding from all the knights! How did you escape them?”
“…They’re friends of mine.”
“We were drinking, talking…”
Mark fidgeted. “Who’s out there?”
“Launcelot,” lied Dinadan.
“Launcelot! Oh no!” Mark quaked in his boots. Malory wants us to understand, in case he’s been too subtle to this point: Mark was a coward and a murderer and a coward. “Are you sure it’s him?”
“Yeah. He’s wearing his shield that says PROPERTY OF MORDRED on it, that’s how you know it’s him. Now are you going to come out and join the party?”
“Let’s ride away from here,” said Mark. “Right now!”
“What? You promised! You promised that you’d escort me!”
“That was before you ran away and hid from me. That discharges all obligations. No more escorting.”
The next morning when the knights from Camelot rode off, Dinadan rode with them, leaving Mark behind.
“What was up with that Cornish coward?” someone asked Dinadan.
“Don’t waste time thinking about him. I told him Mordred was Sir Launcelot and he was all ooooh nooo!” Dinadan did a passable imitation of Mark’s quaking.
“You told him I was Launcelot?” asked Mordred.
“Well, I told him your shield was his.”
“Ah. Pity I’ve got this broken arm, which Malory didn’t mention before and won’t mention again. Otherwise I could give him a good scare.”
“I’ve got an idea,” said Sir Griftlet. “Let’s get Sir Dagonet to wear it!”
Sir Dagonet, as you have probably forgotten, was Arthur’s jester. He may or may not have been a good knight, but all he was ever called upon to do was pratfalls. He was extremely skilled at pratfalls.
“Sounds good,” said Dagonet, who had been there this whole time no way Malory is just now clumsily inserting him! Dagonet donned Mordred’s gear and waited by the road, while the other knights hid behind trees. After a little while, Mark ambled up the path. He froze in his tracks when he saw Dagonet and his PROPERTY OF MORDRED shield!
“Stop, you Cornish knight, you!” cried Dagonet in his spookiest voice. “I, Sir Launcelot, shall joust you!”
Mark squealed and fled. Everyone who wasn’t Mark had a good laugh. They chased him around for a while, banging on their shields, and laughing, until all the forest rings of the noise. Mark had no idea what’s up; as far as he knew Sir Launcelot wanted to joust him! And so he just kept zooming off.
Dagonet chased Mark, because he was not one to let a joke just drop before it’d been hammered all the way into the ground. Eventually Dinadan and his friends had to chase after Dagonet as he chased Mark. They didn’t want Dagonet to actually catch Mark and joust him, because there was an outside chance Dagonet might have gotten hurt. Then they would have had to explain it to Arthur, and boy would he be pissed! Dagonet was Arthur’s favorite comedian. According to Malory he did a set at the start of every tournament Arthur attended, and never failed to make Arthur laugh.
Mark fled through the forest until he came to a well. Everything important happened at wells, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Chilling by this well: Sir Palomides. Let me remind you that Palomides and Mark had met before more than once. Back in Book VIII, Palomides once spent a season loitering around Mark’s court at Tintagil, straight up pining after Mark’s wife, the lovely Isoud. At one point Mark gave him permission to run away with the lovely Isoud, in fact.
“Hey, stranger running at top speed, what’s your deal?” Palomides asked Mark, when he burst into the well-clearing.
“I’m running from one of the best knights, stranger!” cried Mark. Out of breath, Mark collapsed by the well.
“Bah,” said Palomides. “I believe myself to be the third-best knight around, and the statistical chances you’re running from Launcelot or Tristram are tiny. Plus I’m all limbered up; I bet I could take either of those dudes on.”
Mark weighed his options, and declined to mention that he was fleeing (as far as he knows) Sir Launcelot. Instead he hid behind Palomides, as Sir Dagonet crashed out from the underbrush.
“Yar! Spear in your neck!” shouted Palomides, and bore a spear to Dagonet, and smited him so sore that he beared himself over his horse’s tail, and nigh he had broken his neck.
“Crap crap crap crap crap.” This came from Sir Brandiles, who was right behind Sir Dagonet. “Arthur’s gonna be pissed.”
Uwaine and the others followed Brandiles out of the woods. “Crap is right,” said Uwaine. “That guy protecting Mark is tough. Everybody! Step one, we neutralize him.”
Sir Uwaine and Sir “Big Heart” both tried to joust Palomides, but both failed.
“Who is that guy, anyway?” asked Sir Griftlet. “I could just ask him I guess, but instead I’ll leap to the conclusion that it’s Sir Lamorak, because he was around a couple of chapters ago until Malory forgot about him.”
He sent a squire with a note over to Palomides, which ran “Dear Lamorak, Are You Lamorak? If Not, Are You Someone Else I Know From Camelot? Love, Griftlet.”
Palomides sent back a response.
1) Screw you. I’m not telling my name.
2) I’m not Lamorak.
3) Nor am I from Camelot.
“Jerk,” said Agravaine when he read the response. He, Griftlet, and Sir “Good Uwaine” all three tried to joust Palomides, but nothing doing; he beat all of them, too. Soon only Sir Dinadan and Sir Mordred were left, and Sir Mordred wasn’t in his armor because he’d lent it to Dagonet.
But Dinadan and Palomides didn’t joust. Instead Palomides just rode off, with Mark following him.
“Man, you kicked those guys around,” said Mark. “Who are you, pal?”
“Who are you, buddy?”
“What’s the deal, guy?”
“A jerk says what?”
Nothing. Palomides took no heed of Mark’s insults. A few miles down the road they came to a manor. Palomides called over a varlet from Mark’s entourage (Malory totally said Mark had an entourage, we just haven’t been paying attention).
“Go and run into the manor over there, and let the lady of the house know that a knight in search of the Questing Beast is around. Also ask if they’ve seen an animal that in the belly makes such a noise as it had been a thirty couple of hounds?”
Mark’s varlet ran off and did that. The lady of the house gasped when she heard the varlet’s statement and question. “Palomides? My son? Has he come back to me? He has been gone so long, questing after the Questing Beast! Won’t he come in for dinner?”
“Surely he will stay the night at least!”
And then she cried.
I should call my mother.
Mark’s varlet ran back. He told Mark that based on the lady’s questions, the knight with them must have been Sir Palomides (whom, again, Mark had met many times). Nothing came of this revelation, however; after a roadside camping-dinner, Mark lay down to sleep and Palomides rode off without him.
Sir Palomides was Muslim, as we’ve been reminded very occasionally. How is it that his mother had a nice manor house in Wales? I always assumed he’d come back with Arthur’s forces in Book V’s conquest of southern Europe, or something, not that he was native to Britain. Also, how did Palomides end up hunting the Questing Beast? It had been King Pellinore’s quest, and you’d think that upon his death (offscreen at the hands of Gawaine) it would have passed to one of his sons, Tor or Lamorak or someone. In Book IX, Palomides and Lamorak had a fight over just that, actually. But then the issue was dropped, until it came up again here. And what is up with his relationship with his mother, while we’re at it? He couldn’t come in for a cup of coffee? What kind of son was he?
Malory makes a number of confusing assertions following Palomides’s ditching of Mark. The upshot is that Sir Dinadan was separated from the main pack of knights. Also, Dinadan had decided that Sir Palomides must have been Sir Lamorak. And finally, Dinadan found Sir Palomides sitting in the forest crying (again).
Why was he crying? Because he’d just then remembered how much he pined for the lovely Isoud. “Ah! fair lady, why love I thee! For thou art fairest of all other, and yet showest thou never love to me,” Palomides cried to himself. “You don’t love me! You love Sir Tristram, my nemesis! And you’re married to that loser murderer villain, King Mark!”
Mark, meanwhile had tracked Palomides to this clearing. As Palomides started talking to himself, Mark lurked in the nearby bushes trying to figure out his next move. When he heard Palomides complain about what a murdering loser villain he was, he fretted because Dinadan knew Mark’s identity and might have told Palomides. According to Malory. Suddenly Dinadan was Sir Can Recognize Mark, which is a new thing let me tell you!
So as Dinadan approached Palomides, Mark fled. He mugged Sir Amant, whom I know I had already forgotten, so let me remind you. Amant was the henchman Mark took with him from Cornwall, who resigned from Mark’s service when Mark murdered his other henchman, back at the start of this story. I know, it seems like a lifetime ago.
Then there were maidens, says Malory. Maidens out of nowhere! Two of them. This troupe of maidens made up the lovely Isoud’s crack team of Tristram-message-deliverators. They recognized their fellow Cornish national Amant, lying there on the forest floor all mugged and without horse or armor and with a spear sticking out of him.
Amant, with his dying breath, told his story. King Mark had decided to murder Tristram! He had killed his other henchman, then he stole Amant’s stuff and murdered him, too. The two maidens immediately ran and told King Arthur.
Actually, no, first they cursed God for allowing such an evil thing to happen. Then they sprang it on Arthur. That’s actually the word Malory uses, by the way. Anon it was sprung to the king, and the queen, and to all the lords, that it was King Mark, says Malory.
Arthur was pissed. Tristram, at this point a Knight of the Round Table, feigned sorrow at the loss of Amant and Bersules. Sir Launcelot volunteered to bring Mark in.
“Dead or alive?” asked Launcelot.
“Alive,” said Arthur. “I want to talk to him.”
“Give me five minutes,” said Launcelot.
CUT TO four and a half minutes later, because Launcelot was the best you guys. Mark lay strewn out on the floor in front of Arthur’s throne, where Launcelot had thrown him.
“Mercy mercy mercy mercy mercy,” begged Mark.
“Yeah, okay,” said Arthur. “Launcelot tells me you refused to joust him.”
“I’m weak! I’m puny! I’m pathetic!” cried Mark. “Have mercy on me!”
Arthur clucked his tongue in disapproval. “Oh, Mark, Mark, Mark, what are we going to do with you?” He turned to Tristram. “He’s your uncle. What do you say? Should we execute him?”
“Oh, no,” said Tristram, waving it off. “Just ask him not to do it again. I’m sure that will be fine.”
“If you say so.” And so Arthur gave Mark a suspended sentence, for the sake of Tristram and because Mark was a fair speaker and false thereunder (you can just see Malory shaking his fist at those damn wellspoken lawyers and politicians). The end! No moral.