In which Sir Gawaine dies
Mordred was still working on getting Guenever out of her tower when a messenger brought him word: Arthur, Gawaine, and their troops were landing at Dover. Turns out Mordred was a little overly pessimistic regarding Arthur’s survival! Mordred was okay with this, though, because he had the common people on his side. Apparently the decades of incessant war soured the peasantry of England-Logris-Britain on King Arthur?
Malory’s position is that peasants are idiots and the common man isn’t fit to determine who should rule him. He whines “Lo ye all Englishmen, see ye not what a mischief here was! for he that was the most king and knight of the world, and most loved the fellowship of noble knights, and by him they were all upholden, now might not these Englishmen hold them content with him. Lo thus was the old custom and usage of this land; and also men say that we of this land have not yet lost nor forgotten that custom and usage. Alas, this is a great default of us Englishmen, for there may no thing please us no term.” Also he calls the pro-Mordred peasants new-fangle.
At Dover, Arthur’s fleet tried to land, but Mordred’s army met him on the beach. While back in Benwick, King Arthur had been content to lie back in his tent and cry during most of the fighting, this time he led the charges! It was a whole bloodbath, D-Day kind of thing, with great boats and small and dozens of barons getting killed and so on. I don’t want to go into detail, and neither does Malory, for once. Through the sheer power of King Arthur’s courage and knightliness, the invading/returning army drove off the defending/usurping army. Mordred himself fled into the countryside.
Afterwards, all of Arthur’s men got to work setting up the funerary arrangements for the casualties. Arthur noticed he hadn’t seen Gawaine for most of the battle, and poked around. Eventually he found Gawaine in the bottom of a boat, lying more than half dead.
“Alas,” said Arthur. He recognized Gawaine was dying, and sat down to stay with him until he died. “I know we never really got along, but after literally every knight I liked more died or betrayed me, you were my favorite. By default, you were my favorite!”
“Oh, Uncle Sire,” moaned Gawaine. “I’m pretty sure I’m dying.”
“Yes, I know. I just said that.”
“I blame Launcelot.” Gawaine coughed up a little blood. “He wounded me pretty badly back in Benwick, so, you know, I wasn’t all healed up for this battle.”
“Oh, Launcelot!” moaned Gawaine. Yes, it’s weird, but he was dying, so cut him a little slack. “I forgive you! Uncle Sire, can I have a pen and paper to write Launcelot a good-bye note?”
Arthur happened, implausibly enough, to have some ink and such on hand.
“Dearest Launcelot,” wrote Gawaine. “Apologies for the weak handwriting; I’m dying from that time you smashed by skull in, and that other time you smashed my skull in. I suppose I should just dictate this. Too late now. Launcelot, please come to England and rescue Arthur from Mordred, who is in rebellion, and also he tried to marry Guenever. She’s holed up in the Tower of London, which is okay. That’s not important. What’s important is that my half-brother Mordred is a bad guy. So come to England, and see my tomb, and also help Arthur defeat Mordred. All my love, Gawaine.”
Arthur sent the letter to Benwick, but didn’t wait for Launcelot’s reinforcements that might or might not come. Instead he pulled a page from his old Book I playbook, and attacked Mordred’s camp super early. Mordred and his men scattered! Then they regrouped, and then Arthur and Mordred fought a protracted series of inconclusive battles.
Some time later, they made a deal, Arthur and Mordred did, because neither of them were eager to keep fighting forever. They agreed to a big final battle in a month, at a predetermined time, with both sides lined up and ready. It’s a jousting tournament. Basically they agreed to hold a jousting tournament.
Interesting side note: Mordred’s supporters were a mix of the ones Arthur didn’t like enough to invade Benwick with, and the ones that supported Launcelot over Arthur, but not enough to actually rise up in rebellion.
On the eve of this planned joust/battle with Mordred, Arthur dreamed a wonderful dream. He sat in a chair on a scaffold!
It gets better. The scaffold was all connected to this big wheel assembly, and it slowly turned. As it turned, Arthur’s chair tilted up, steeper and steeper, until it was horizontal and Arthur fell out of it, into the black moat below. Bonus: the moat was full of foul and horrible spiders, that ate him!
Indeed, yes, a wonderful dream. Arthur woke with a shout, but fell asleep again quickly. This second dream was arguably more pleasant: he found himself in an airy, well-lit space, seated comfortably with a cool drink, chatting with Sir Gawaine while several dozen maidens — all the women whose illegitimate children Gawaine sired, in life — attended them.
“Being dead is pretty sweet, Uncle Sire,” Gawaine said. “I got all these babes, God turns out to be a swell guy…”
“So the ghosts of your former lovers are, what, your heavenly wives and concubines?”
Gawaine shrugged. “Or they’re purely ethereal constructs created to serve my whims. Doesn’t really matter.”
Arthur sighed. “That’s great. With you dead, I forget sometimes how you’re the worst.”
“Anyway, because God and Jesus both like you, They gave me permission to visit you like this, and warn you about Mordred.”
“Little late for that!”
“No no, I mean, this battle you have planned tomorrow, it’s not going to go well. If you kill Mordred without Launcelot, you’ll end up dead. You need to delay, until Sir Launcelot shows up.”
“I don’t think Launcelot’s coming. It’s been a month with no word back.”
“But I sent a letter! Give him another month!”
Then Sir Gawaine and all the ladies vanished.
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