Later Arthur came home from the campaign he’d been waging against Claudas, the foe of Ban and Bors last mentioned way way back in Book I. To celebrate his victory, Arthur threw a party, as was his habit. He invited everyone in his kingdom, the inhabitants of Castle Corbin included. Which is funny, since Castle Corbin explicitly wasn’t part of his kingdom when Launcelot visited it, but whatever. Elaine, out in Castle Corbin, heard about this party, and figured it would be a terrific opportunity to bring baby Galahad to Camelot. There she could introduce him to his father, and so on. A dutiful daughter, she asked her father for permission to make the trip.
“Well, okay,” said Pellam. “But I don’t want anyone in Camelot thinking we’re poor. So you get dressed up really fancy, all right?”
“You’re the best!”
Brisen, who had taken on the position of Elaine’s lady-in-waiting and/or Galahad’s governess, oversaw the makeover. By the end of a montage, Elaine was apparelled unto the purpose that there was never no lady more richlier beseen! We’re talking gold cloth, and sequins, and body glitter, and jewels just everywhere.
She, Brisen, nine of her besties, and an escort of twenty knights on one hundred horses all rode together from Corbin to Camelot. There Elaine’s style and expensive clothes made her the toast of the gala, the belle of the ball; she bowled over Arthur and Guenever.
In fact, Arthur and Guenever were so impressed that Arthur ordered everyone to drop whatever they were doing. He lined all his knights up in the throne room, so that he could introduce Elaine personally to each of them in turn. There was Sir Tristram, and Sir Bleoberis, and Sir Gawaine, and already my eyes are glazing over so let’s all be thankful that Malory trails off with “and many more that I will not rehearse.“
Sir Launcelot, when he saw her, got all pale and trembly and conspicuous: he recollected about how he’d slept with her and then threatened to kill her and then run away when she claimed she was pregnant. And now she showed up with an infant son and she was looking incredible in her Brisen-approved new wardrobe!
Elaine responded much the same way, because she was mad with puppy-love for Launcelot. Picture Alison Brie making her most doe-like doe eyes at Joel McHale (or don’t, if like 99% of humanity you weren’t a fan of Community). There he stood, just staring at her and not saying anything. It was enough to make a girl scream and run to hide in a closet. Elaine smiled a fixed smile, and turned to Brisen standing next to her.
“Brisen,” she said through bared teeth, “Launcelot is really freaking me out.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, your enchantress is on the case,” Brisen whispered. “How about tonight you and he sleep together? Would you like that?”
“Oh my yes!” squeaked Elaine.
“I’ll figure something out.”
Guenever observed the Launcelot-Elaine interaction, and one thing we can agree about Malory’s depiction of Guenever is that she was not an idiot. She figured out pretty much instantly that despite Launcelot’s earlier assertions about witchcraft, Elaine had the hots for Launcelot and bare minimum Launcelot felt deeply conflicted about it. So when the time came Guenever took Elaine by the hand and paid her a whole series of tremendous put-down-compliments, like how Elaine’s dress disguised her worst physical features, and how her haircut hid those awful ears, and how serene she looked when she didn’t smile, which concealed her ugly teeth… that kind of thing, but way more subtle than I’m portraying it.
Elaine, too, recognized Guenever as her primary romantic rival, and entreated with her in a superficially pleasant but secretly hateful manner.
That evening, Guenever invited Elaine to sleep in the room directly across the hall from Guenever’s, and of course Elaine couldn’t refuse her. Then Guenever sidled over to Launcelot and demanded that he stay with her overnight, as he did sometimes, what with their decades-long affair.
“If you don’t, I’ll assume you’re sleeping with Elaine instead, ha ha,” said Guenever. “Seriously, show up or else.”
“It was witchery, I told you,” insisted Launcelot.
“Just come when I call, or there’ll be trouble, that’s all I’m saying.”
Brisen heard all this, thanks to clairaudience, and wasted no time filling in Elaine.
“Oh nooooo!” Elaine wailed. “But I can’t sleep with Launcelot now! And you said that I could! You saaaaaaaid!”
“Calm down, child,” said Brisen. “Your Aunty Brisen will fix everything, don’t you worry. I’ll simply disguise myself as one of Guenever’s handmaidens and fetch him nominally for Guenever, but really I’ll lead him to your bed.”
“Oh, okay,” said Elaine. “For all the world I love not so much as I do Sir Launcelot.“
That night, as she promised, Brisen used what looks like the same magic Merlin used way way back in the beginning of Book I, and disguised herself as one of Guenever’s handmaidens. She sneaked up to Launcelot’s cot inside the knights’ barracks, and woke him.
“Psst! Sir Launcelot!”
“My lady, Queen Guenever, lieth and awaiteth you!“
“Awesome,” said Launcelot. He’d been waiting for this, and has his long nightshirt and sword all ready. He’d just been taking a quick nap, was all (LAUNCELOT NAP 4!).
Launcelot never went anywhere without his sword; the one time he would break this practice (in Book XX) it would go poorly for him.
Brisen led Launcelot by the hand through the darkened castle, arriving across the hall from Guenever’s room. If Launcelot thought it odd that Guenever had moved across the hall, he didn’t comment on it. Then Brisen led him into Elaine’s bedroom, and right to Elaine’s bed. Once he’d climbed into bed, she left.
Elaine and Launcelot were alone together! And Elaine was thrilled! And Launcelot (who was not an idiot and realized in a few seconds that Elaine was not Guenever) was likewise pretty thrilled, because Elaine was hot and super into him and naked and right there. I think.
Malory’s actually weirdly ambiguous about this: he weened that he had had another in his arms, is what he says. “To ween” means to incorrectly suppose something, but who is “another?” Maybe that means Launcelot understood he had another (i.e. someone who isn’t Guenever) in bed with him, and therefore is not presented as being mind-controlled or mistaken or anything. Or maybe it means that as far as Launcelot understood it, he had another person besides Elaine in bed with him (i.e. Guenever), and he was just unable to distinguish between Guenever (who must be getting up there in years) and still-a-teenager Elaine. Unlike their first encounter, here there’s no indication that Brisen disguised Elaine even slightly, or that Launcelot’s senses were impaired. The first time I read it, it seemed clear to me that Launcelot knew he was sleeping with Elaine, but upon further reflection I’m unsure.
Meanwhile, Guenever sent her actual handmaiden, the one that Brisen impersonated, to fetch Launcelot. The maiden sneaked into the knights’ barracks, as she had many times before, but inside: no Launcelot. She rushed back to her lady’s chamber, and told Guenever.
“Alas, where is that false knight become?” Guenever asked, rhetorically. She freaked out, and considered waking the whole castle to search for Launcelot, but that seemed like a nonstarter, what with their affair being nominally a secret. So instead she just tossed and turned in her bed, and didn’t sleep at all, for hours.
Right across the hall, Launcelot and Elaine fell asleep in one anothers’ arms after their lengthy and athletic lovemaking. And here’s something Malory bets you didn’t know about Launcelot: he talked in his sleep. Not just that, he talked in his sleep loudly and at length, mostly about his affair with Guenever. You’d think that would have gotten him into trouble at some point before this.
His talking didn’t wake Elaine, but Guenever, already awake across the hall, heard him. In a flash she realized that Launcelot was in bed with Elaine, the very thing she had tried to prevent! She was nigh wood which is an idiom that we don’t use any more and also out of her mind which is an idiom we do use still! I believe “nigh wood” means that she responded so strongly she reminded one mind of a wooden puppet making hugely exaggerated emotional displays for a Punch & Judy show, but that’s just a guess.
Guenever let out a sort of groan of anguish, which Malory variously calls a cough and a hemming.
Guenever’s noise woke Launcelot up, and in a flash he either realized that he’d just slept with Elaine and not Guenever, or (and I think this makes a lot more sense) he was suddenly overcome with crippling guilt over having yielded to the temptation of an eager naked teen girl. In either case, he leaped up out of bed and rushed into the hallway, where Guenever stood waiting for him.
“Get out of here, false traitor knight,” Guenever said, before Launcelot could even try to explain himself. “Never abide in my court, and avoid my chamber. You are not so hardy, you awful man, that you’ll survive appearing in my line of sight ever again. That’s right, I just threatened you, Sir Launcelot, with violence. That’s how upset I am! I am upset!”
Launcelot didn’t try to defend himself; he just collapsed sobbing. As Guenever turned her back on him, he picked himself up and jumped out the nearest window.
Fortunately he fell only a single story, into a garden full of nice soft grass!
Unfortunately he missed the grass and landed in a big thorny rosebush!
Poor Sir Launcelot, bleeding from the heart and also from a lot of minor cuts and thorn-scratches, stumbled away from Camelot in his nightshirt, clutching his sword. He moved out into the woods and became a hermit. There his hair grew long, and over the course of a few years he got all crazy-insane.
But Malory has more to say about the moments after Launcelot commenced his exile and prolonged madness.
“This is all your fault,” Guenever told Elaine.
“Oh, come on!” Elaine protested Guenever’s assertion. “I mean, come on. You have a husband — King Arthur — and yet you selfishly claim Launcelot as your special man-friend in addition to Arthur! So you have two men, and I have zero, despite losing my virginity to Launcelot and having his son! How is that fair? At least I can take comfort in the knowledge that one day Baby Galahad shall be in his time the best knight of the world.”
Guenever didn’t care. “Sun comes up, you and your whole entourage are out of Camelot, you hear me? You leave, you never come back. Also, as Queen of England, I forbid you to seek out Launcelot while he’s off in the woods being crazy.”
“Like I would,” Elaine said. “He’s gone crazy! Which is your fault!” She stifled a sob. “I just love him so much. Alas!“
“Alas!” agreed Guenever, and for a moment they were just two women pining together for the same man.