We open with King Arthur and his prisoner-guest, King Mark, relaxing one fine day in Camelot. Birds sing. Relative humidity is low. Flowers blossom.
“So Mark,” said Arthur, sipping lemonade.
“I’d like a gift from you.” Arthur took another sip of lemonade. “But I’m not telling you what it is until you promise to give it to me, because that is a fun game.”
“Anything you say, sire!” said Mark. Mark knew which side of the bread his butter was on. “You’re the liege, I’m the vassal, after all!”
“That’s right. Anyway. You know your wife’s lover Tristram? I’ve decided I want you and him to go back to Cornwall. And you need to be nicer to him. A good lord unto Sir Tristram, for he is a man of great honour. By which I mean he’s a tremendous, tremendous dick, but really good at jousting. Let him see his friends, you know the one I mean, and cherish him for my sake.“
Mark swallowed. “Well, okay, sire. You’re the king. I guess I have to. Because you, the king, are ordering me to.”
“Great, so we’re in agreement. Awesome. Swear on this book that you’ll obey me.” And Arthur produced a book! Is it a bible? Enh, doesn’t matter; it was a book. Books were rare and precious.
Mark swore on this book, in front of Arthur and everyone. He and Tristram shook hands. But there was a little thought bubble over Mark’s head about how he intended to break this oath and imprison Tristram first chance he got.
Sir Launcelot, Sir Lamorak, and Sir Dinadan pulled Arthur over for a quick sidebar.
“This is a bad plan, sire,” said Launcelot.
“Mark is just going to break his oath and imprison Tristram first chance he gets,” said Dinadan. “And apparently I’m his friend and am thus against that.”
“The man is a snake; you can’t trust him,” said Lamorak.
Launcelot brought it home. “You’re going to get Tristram killed!”
“Fellas, fellas. This is what Tristram wants. And it’s cool. It’s cool,” Arthur assured them. “I made Mark swear on a book. On a book, you guys!”
Launcelot just shook his head. He walked over to Mark. “Mark,” he said and gripped the man by the bicep. “Listen, I know you’re a terrible person. Just a horrible human being. You are the worst and I hate you. But know this! If you break your oath and do any kind of mischief to Tristram, I’m going to find out about it. And you know, I’m a pretty good jouster. I have a little bit of a reputation. And I’ll see to it you have cause to regret your actions.”
“Yeah, I overheard what you were telling Arthur a second ago,” said Mark. He smiled a wide false smile. “And hey now, Launcelot, I swore on a book. That is a sacred oath and frankly I’m a little offended you think I might go back on that.”
“A, you have no honor, and B, you admitted you came to Camelot explicitly to murder Tristram. I don’t think I’m out of line here,” said Launcelot.
But Mark threw up his hands, all scandalized, and marched off, all stiff wounded pride.
“Ready to go?” Tristram asked him. “Let’s go see your wife so I can have sex with her!” And they were off! Scene over! No moral!
New scene! One day about a week after Mark and Tristram left Camelot, a knight and a squire arrived. The squire, notably, looked like someone who had no business being a knight or hanging around with knights. Malory is entirely nonspecific as to what provokes this reaction. Maybe he was wearing an ironic t-shirt.
“Hail, sire,” said the knight. “I respectfully demand you make my squire a knight.”
“What? What is this? Who is he? Who are you?” I don’t think Arthur’d had his coffee yet.
Lamorak knew him. “It’s my brother Sir Aglovale!” Aglovale and Lamorak high-fived. Lamorak was also there, guys. “Eldest son of my father the late King Pellinore!”
Arthur had some coffee. “I thought your oldest brother was Sir Tor?”
“He doesn’t really count as his mother was a sexy milkmaid and wasn’t married to our father,” explained Lamorak.
“Indeed yes,” said Aglovale, who indeed it is. “And I have brought our youngest brother, Percivale, to become a knight.”
Arthur stroked his beard. “Hmm. Hmm. I get that Pellinore was a good man, for some lame Merlin definition of good. The same kind of definition we use when we say Tristram is good, that jerk. But this kid here doesn’t really seem like knight material. What does that t-shirt even mean?”
“Aw, c’mon sire,” chorused Lamorak and Aglovale. “All the rest of us are knights: us, Tor, our other brother who we have never mentioned before and will never mention again, Sir Dornar… Percivale would feel left out!”
“Oh, fine,” said Arthur. “Sword!”
Someone hands Arthur a sword.
“I knight thee, Sir Percivale de Galis,” said Arthur as he gave Percivale the tap. “Try not to get yourself killed, okay?”
Arthur threw a big celebratory dinner, as per the usual for a new knight. All the attending knights were seated in accordance with their current jousting rankings, which is apparently how Arthur liked it. Arthur was up front, with Launcelot at his right hand. Next to them were Lamorak and other top-tier knights, then Gawaine’s brothers. Then on down through the middle ranks, ending up with the mean knights who weren’t very good, and then at the very, very end they sat Percivale, who’d never participated in a tournament.
Then a miracle happened! A mute woman declared that Percivale should take a seat at the Round Table, specifically the Siege Perilous! This is a big dramatic thing that Malory totally steps on, though maybe I’m being too hard on him. The story goes that one of Guenever’s ladies-in-waiting, highborn, had born mute and hadn’t spoken even a single word her whole life. This lady stood up in the middle of dinner and recited her spiel. Afterwards she confessed to a priest (I guess because she was mute she’d never had a chance to do confession). Then she died, her work done.
But before she died: “Fair knight, take here thy siege, for that siege appertaineth to thee and to none other.” Siege still means seat, in case you’ve forgotten, and there’d been an empty seat (the “Siege Perilous“) at the Round Table ever since back in Book III when Merlin first set it all up.
So Percivale sat down at the Round Table. Arthur and everyone marveled at this miracle: Sir Percivale sat in a chair and didn’t die! You might think that finally we’re getting to the Grail Quest, but no. Not only that, but Malory fails to acknowledge Percivale’s chair-sitting achievement later on, when the time comes. Scene over! No moral!
New scene! Lamorak still pined for Queen Margawse, although by my math she must have been at least twenty years older than Lamorak and probably more like thirty-plus. Which didn’t make the pairing impossible, but you’d think folks would have remarked on the age disparity. Sir Gawaine, Margawse’s son and a contemporary of Lamorak’s older brother Tor, resented Lamorak for any number of reasons, and so one day he arranged for the knight’s death.
His plan was fiendishly simple and subtle: basically it consisted of ambushing Lamorak with a sword. Let me walk you through it.
First, Gawaine arranged for his mother to visit Camelot, and to relocate to a castle nearby.
Second, Gawaine waited for Sir Lamorak, who pined for Queen Margawse, to call on her.
Third, Gawaine sent his little brother Sir Gaheris to burst in on them while they were being all adulterous, and kill Lamorak with a sword.
Parts one and two of this plan went off without a hitch, but when Gaheris burst in on his mother and her lover, well, what with one thing and another… Lamorak ended up covered in blood, which was good. That was a first step towards victory. Sadly, though, Gaheris got confused and murdered the wrong person in the bed.
“Oh crap,” said Gaheris, that dolorous knight.
“The hell?” cried Lamorak. “Gaheris? Is that you? You just killed your mother? Why did you just kill your mother? What is happening? Aren’t you on the Round Table?”
“Crap crap crap…”
“I mean, you could have burst in and killed me, I guess, you’d at least have a leg to stand on there, but…”
“Well I hope you’ve learned your lesson!” Gaheris doubled down on the matricide. “It’s a real shame, but, you know, your father killed my father. That’s why I had to kill your lover. That it was my mother: icing on the cake. You shouldn’t lust after someone’s mother. That’s why she had to die! It’s not right.”
“Not right?” Lamorak seemed (understandably) incredulous that Gaheris was going for the moral high ground. “First off, my father didn’t kill your father. Forget what Malory said at the time, in Book II. I’m claiming now that it was the late Sir Balin, called Mister Two-Swords, who slew him.”
“That can’t be right,” said Gaheris. “Because then we would have been in the wrong when Gawaine and I avenged our father’s death and murdered your father back. Listen, I’m overcome with weariness, and also you’re naked and in bed and not armed and armored like me, so let’s call off the joust to the death we were probably going to do. Just stay away from my mother in the future, is all I ask.”
“Stay away from your mother,” repeated Lamorak. “Whom you just murdered.”
So Lamorak fled! I mean, wouldn’t you? Scene over! The moral is, don’t murder your mother, or man will your face ever be red afterwards.
New scene! Camelot was all abuzz with scuttlebutt: Sir Gaheris had murdered his mother and blamed Sir Lamorak for it! The general opinion wasn’t so much pro-Gaheris as it was anti-Lamorak. Nobody much liked Lamorak except for his very closest friends, it turned out. Arthur, one of those friends, sat down with Sir Launcelot to hold a little confab about it.
“People are upset,” observed Arthur.
“Yeah. It’s a shame. Sir Lamorak is a good guy,” said Launcelot. “I don’t know why people hate him. Me included! I hate him. If he ever shows his face here at Camelot again, I’d feel obliged to ride off in a huff and never come back.”
“Really. Tristram feels the same way, he told me.”
“Hmm,” said Arthur. “On the one hand, I could come out in favor of Lamorak. That would cost me your service, and Tristram’s, and I suppose Gawaine and all his brothers too, but I’d keep Lamorak.”
Launcelot scoffed. “You think Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, Gareth, and Mordred will let Lamorak alone? His days are numbered, boss.”
“Hmm. If I’m out Lamorak either way, it’s a question of alienating everybody versus not alienating everybody… what to do, what to do…”
Paragon of wisdom that Arthur was, he eventually condemned Lamorak. Scene over! The moral is, don’t assume King Arthur isn’t an astute student of realpolitik!
New scene! Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine, two of Sir Gawaine’s brothers, rode along on their adventures. They came across Sir Dalan, a new character who should not be confused with Sir Dinadan or Sir Dinas or Sir Darras or Sir Daname or Sir Dirant or Sir Dinant. A lot of Malory’s names have some similar phonemes in them, is what I’m saying.
Dalan had been fleeing across the landscape, on account of Pitiless Bruce was chasing him. Pitiless Bruce! Sir Gawaine’s nemesis!
“Well, sure, we’ll help you out,” said Mordred. “I’m Mordred and this is my brother Agravaine, and over there is Sir… okay, I forget his name, but he’s another Knight of the Round Table. We didn’t mention before because he just kind of wandered up the road a second ago.”
The knight whose name they’d forgotten turns out to be Sir Dinadan, Tristram’s erstwhile victim/sidekick. Tristram had just gone off to Cornwall and left him behind, so Dinadan was on his way to visit Sir Palomides, Tristram’s best frenemy, and update him on Tristram’s latest activities.
“You guys got this one,” Dinadan told Mordred and Agravaine. “I’m just going to keep going.”
But then! Before Dinadan could leave, enter Pitiless Bruce! He twirled his handlebar mustache (Malory does not specify that Pitiless Bruce had a handlebar mustache, as such, but I defy you to picture him without one)! And then he challenged Dalan to a joust.
“Tag me in!” cried Mordred. Mordred and Pitiless Bruce jousted. Pitiless Bruce dehorsed him easily.
“Now that he’s out of the way, Dalan, you and I…”
But Agravaine interrupted. “Now tag me in!” he cries. Dalan tagged him in, and then Agravaine and Pitiless Bruce jousted. Once again, Pitiless Bruce dehorsed his opponent easily.
“Oh, fine, jeez, why do I ever even…” Sir Dinadan grumbled about it, but he too rallied to to Dalan’s defense. This time it was Pitiless Bruce who was humiliatingly easily dehorsed. While Mordred and Agravaine slowly rose to their feet, Pitiless Bruce fled on foot.
“Well, that was pointless,” said Dinadan. “I’ll just be going now.”
“Hold on, you’re, what’s your name? You’re that one guy.”
“I am, yeah. Sir Dinadan,” said Dinadan.
Mordred snapped his fingers. “Right! Hey, you’re friends with Sir Lamorak, right?”
“I guess,” said Dinadan. “I mean, we went on a couple of strange adventures together. When Percivale was knighted I was there in the crowd scenes, congratulating him and his brother Lamorak, and getting all buddy-buddy. Lamorak is closer to Sir Palomides, though. I’m pretty much Tristram’s sidekick, so that keeps me busy.”
“Still, we hate Lamorak,” said Mordred.
“So we’re your enemies, just on general principle,” said Agravaine.
Dinadan scowled. “Guys, I don’t wanna…” But Dalan interrupted Dinadan.
“Hold the phone,” Dalan said. “Did you say you’re Sir Dinadan?”
Dinadan sighed. “…Yeah?” He could tell something bad was coming.
“Sir Dinadan killed my father!” cried Dalan.
“I guess that’s possible,” mused Dinadan. “I’ve killed a bunch of dudes.”
“Upon my father’s honor, we must joust! I demand a full-on to-the-death joust!”
For once Malory spares us the blow-by-blow: to make the shorter tale, he says, Sir Dinadan smote him off his horse, that his neck was nigh broken. And in the same wise he smote Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine.
Spoiler alert: once Mordred and Agravaine go fully to the Dark Side, they would supposedly murder Dinadan as payback for this event, which is why Malory is bothering to include it, though it makes for a lifeless and dull narrative. Also Malory forgets about it. But in any case, on this occasion Dinadan came out on top. After the bouts, he rode on until he came to a castle wherein Sir Palomides had been recuperating from his injuries. Dinadan told Palomides all about how Tristram had forgiven Mark, how Mark’d promised to be nicer from now on, and how they’d left for Cornwall together.
“Dang it,” said Palomides. “Tristram is going to seduce the lovely Isoud, I just know it. I suppose if someone has to have an affair with the woman I love and it can’t be me, it may as well be Tristram, though.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Dinadan. Scene over! No moral!
New scene! Remember how the lovely Isoud had sent a pair of maidens to Camelot with letters? You don’t? Well, believe me when I say it happened. Malory doesn’t remember it any better than you do, though, because in this scene there’s just the one maiden operative in the lovely Isoud’s Camelot spy corps, Gretel.
See, Gretel had been running letters back and forth from Camelot this whole time, with the help of Knight of the Round Table and occasional Tristram sidekick Sir Fergus. Letters from Tristram to Arthur, Tristram to Launcelot, the lovely Isoud to Arthur, the lovely Isoud to Guenever, the whole schmear. From Malory’s syntax I dunno whether Isoud sent letters to Launcelot, or letters to Guenever about Launcelot. Both seem equally plausible.
“Dear Tristram,” wrote Launcelot. “Blah blah jousting, blah blah knightliness, blah blah secret affairs. Beware King Fox, by whom I mean Mark! Do you like that sick burn I just thought up? Fox. Ha!”
“Dear Launcelot,” wrote Tristram back. “Blah blah jousting, blah blah courtly love, blah blah more jousting. Thanks for the tip! That is indeed one sick burn!”
When Gretel arrived in Cornwall with letters for the lovely Isoud, Isoud took them but didn’t want to bother with actually reading them. “Bottom-line it for me.”
“They’re well,” Gretel said. “And happy for you both, with regards to your adultery.”
“Oh lovely! Our adultery is indeed pretty amazing and joyous!”
Gretel had letters for Mark, too.
“Where’d you get these letters? I didn’t authorize you to fetch letters!” He was all suspicious, on account of his wife was cheating on him. Malory presents Mark as a remarkably terrible person, because you have you have to get up early if you’re going to be less likable than Sir Tristram. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to feel for him at times, you know?
Gretel shrugged. “Tristram and the lovely Isoud had me do a mail run.”
“Dear Mark,” Mark read. “Blah blah blah, jeez this goes on for pages, one king to another, blah blah, you better not try anything, blah blah, swore on a book. Love, Arthur.”
“Well, that’s sweet,” said Gretel.
“Dear Mark,” Mark read. “Blah blah blah, what Arthur said, blah blah jousting, blah blah questing, blah blah strange adventures. Love, Launcelot. PS No fair accusing Tristram of treason.”
“Do you want to send a reply?” asked Gretel.
“No!” Mark shooed Gretel away. Then he changed his mind and drafted a letter. Rather than entrust it to Gretel, he summoned one of his varlets.
“Varlet, take this letter to Arthur, immediately. Arthurian eyes only!” Mark pressed a sealed letter into the varlet’s hand.
The varlet rode by secret ways to Wales, and Arthur’s secondary palace there at Caerlaeon, where he found Arthur and handed over the letter.
Arthur wasted no time ripping it open — he loved to get mail! The letter was very short.
“Arthur,” he read. “Pay attention to your knights and wife. Signed, someone whose wife is cheating on him and knows the signs.”
“Huh,” said Arthur. “Huh very much huh.”
Ominous! But nothing comes of it, ever. Malory gets himself right back out of that Arthur-realizes-Launcelot-and-Guenever-are-having-an-affair corner. Arthur’d already had someone draw dire connections between his wife and one or more of his knights — specifically Morgan le Fay, his estranged sister. Back at the end of Book IX, Sir Tristram appeared at a jousting tournament with a shield from Morgan, which shield had a nutty editorial cartoon on it. You remember this. Arthur was no idiot; he knew neither Morgan nor Mark had his best interests at heart. So he showed the letter to Guenever, and called it a piece of nonsense from his enemy Mark, who had negative credibility.
When Guenever read the note, though, she freaked out big time. She passed it over to Launcelot, who read it and likewise freaked out. Guenever and Launcelot were way more upset about this note than Arthur was. Arthur didn’t care at all; he’d already gone back to the royal pinball machine.
Launcelot, though, Launcelot went down to the knight barracks (here Malory explained briefly that Camelot totally had a knight barracks where all the knights bunked together) and stretched out on his bed and took a nap, that’s how angry he was. (LAUNCELOT NAP 3!)
While he slept, he clutched that note to his chest, like you see cartoon characters do. Naturally this attracted the attention of Sir Dinadan, fresh back to Camelot from his visit with Palomides. Dinadan’s curiosity piqued, he snatched the note up and read it. But he was simply baffled, because he had zero context.
Later, Launcelot stood staring grimly out a window, rolling and unrolling the note, shaking his head and scowling. Sir Dinadan approached him and asks what was up. “Discover your heart to me: forsooth ye wot I owe you good will, howbeit I am a poor knight and a servitor unto you and to all good knights.”
“Dude, what’s troubling you?”
“I can trust you, I suppose,” said Launcelot. He filled Dinadan in on the situation.
“So, you and Guenever, huh? None of my business. But I can tell you Mark is a total asshole,” Dinadan said, once he understands. “Here’s what we do: revenge novelty song.”
“What?” asked Launcelot.
“What?” I also ask, reading this. But no, Dinadan was totally serious. He sat down and composes a satirical song about Mark and what a dick he was, and taught it to a harper he knew whose name by the way was Eliot. Eliot in turn taught the novelty song to a bunch of other harpers, and they went all over the place, into Wales and into Cornwall, to sing the lay that Sir Dinadan made… which was the worst lay that ever harper sang.
King Mark, he sucks, he suck suck suck suck sucks!
He is the guy who sucks, oh yes, he sucks!
That dolt, King Mark, I hate him so so much!
He shouldn’t be loved no nobody loves him nope,
(Malory specifies that it wasn’t a good novelty song.)