“It is like reading jousting fanfic by the world’s worst jousting fanfic writer.” — Brant Casavant
“Have fun. I’d sooner listen to an audiobook of the worst parts of the Silmarillion read by Ben Stein.” — Chris Vaughn
“Le Morte d’Arthur:original Arthurian romances::Zach Snyder’s Watchmen:Alan Moore’s Watchmen” — Michael “Matt” Grasso
And we’re off! Here’s a little bit about Le Morte D’Arthur, mostly cribbed from Wikipedia and the preface to the edition I’m reading.
Thomas Malory wrote The Whole Book of King Arthur & of His Noble Knights of the Round Table (his editor changed the title to something a little more catchy) sometime around 1460, give or take a decade. He didn’t create the story; Le Morte D’Arthur is a compilation and translation into English of variety of French texts (hence Matt Grasso’s comment above). Beyond that, no one is completely sure who Malory was: there are records of several men by that name. The most popular contender is an MP turned petty criminal, in and out of prison in the 1450s (and thus the best documented, by prison records). But we’re not here to learn about Thomas Malory! We’re here to learn about Arthur!
As I wrote above, Malory is writing a summary of a bunch of other medieval romances, which makes him really a secondary or tertiary source, not a primary source. On the other hand, the other medieval romances are more obscure, don’t form a generally accepted canon, and I’ve already gotten tired of trying to explain this. ON TO THE STORY OF ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS! IT WILL BE AWESOME I AM SURE!
Book I, Chapter I! Which starts well before Arthur is born!
At the beginning we’ve got the King of England, Uther Pendragon, who rules all of England we’re told, and there’s also this guy the Duke of Tintagil, who lives in Cornwall, which I thought was part of England but apparently not, since he and Uther are at war for a while.
Uther contacts the Duke of Tintagil, says to come over and they’ll have a nice civilized sit-down like reasonable people. Says to bring along the Duke’s wife, Igraine, who Uther hears has a good head on her shoulders.
So Igraine and her husband show up, and Uther starts putting the moves on her, toot sweet. Igraine won’t have any of that; she goes to her husband and says listen, this peace talk has been a ruse! Uther just wants to get into my pants!
The Duke and Igraine agree, screw that, and they ride back home to Cornwall. Uther finds out about this, he’s pissed beyond reason.
Based on this (Malory does not give us a lot to go on) I’m envisioning Uther as a Zap Brannigan type. Maybe Igraine smiles nervously and nods and sends him off, with a rose between his teeth, to a love-nest bedchamber featuring scented oils and also a life-sized portrait of Uther in nude recline. We don’t get that level of detail, though. Malory doesn’t give much detail, or any, actually. I’m interpreting pretty freely here.
Anyhow, Uther is pissed, and he calls in his cabinet, and tells him about it, and they nod and look grim and agree that there’s nothing to be done but to issue an ultimatum. Either Uther gets to sleep with Igraine, or he invades Cornwall.
Naturally Igraine and her husband are not down with this, so Uther tells them to decorate themselves with stuffing and garnish because he’s going to eat them. The Duke of Tintagil gathers up all the stuffing and garnish that he can and puts half of it in Castle Tintagil with Igraine, and takes the other half to his other castle a little ways up the road, Castle Terrabil. Castle Terrabil, we’re assured by Mallory, isn’t a bad castle at all, not terrible, it has some very nice doorways and gates in it.
So Uther invades Cornwall and lays siege to the two castles. When they don’t crumple immediately, Uther responds by throwing a childlike tantrum; he’s mad about the whole thing and especially how he hasn’t gotten to sleep with Igraine even though he wants to.
He tells one of his knights, Sir Ulfius, about his frustration, and Sir Ulfius volunteers to go fetch Merlin, who’ll know how to make Uther feel better.
Interestingly Merlin is not given any kind of explanation, unlike all the other characters so far. Malory tells us that Uther is the king, that Igraine is the duchess of Cornwall whom everyone agrees has a good head on her shoulders, that Ulfius is a noble knight, but Merlin, we’re just supposed to already know who Merlin is. The word “wizard” does not come up. He’s just Merlin, you know?
Anyway, Ulfius goes off to find Merlin, and given that Merlin’s a wizard, naturally bumps into him basically immediately. Merlin has disguised himself as a beggar for some reason. He’s hanging around right nearby, and he stops Ulfius and says whoa, where are you off to in such a hurry? Are you looking for someone? Hmm? Someone who’s name starts with an M?
Beat it, says Ulfius, because he’s on official business for the Patriarchy.
Merlin’s thus robbed of his dramatic reveal but ploughs on regardless: he outs himself as Merlin, says that he knows Ulfius is looking for him, and adds that he’ll be happy to give Uther what he wants, provided Uther gives Merlin what Merlin wants, which will be good for Uther too, because then Uther will get what Uther wants and what Merlin wants is good for Uther also.
Yeah, okay, says Ulfius. He’s sure that Uther will give Merlin whatever, assuming it’s not something crazy.
Good enough! says Merlin. And they go find Uther.
Discussion Points (I will toss these in whenever I feel like it):
1) There’s a lot of economy of storytelling here, and not a lot of detail. We’re left to imagine what Uther trying to seduce Igraine looked like, for instance. There’s very little characterization so far, too. On the other hand I’m on chapter 1 out of 243.
2) Uther is a jackass, man, trying to lure in Igraine under false flag of peace talks, then throwing a big ol’ fit when she rebuffs him. We don’t get any info as to why he’s so all-fired to sleep with this particular duchess, either.
3) The bit where Ulfius is searching for Merlin and Merlin, disguised as a beggar, comes up and tries to do a cool thing where he’s like “but I am Merlin!” completely misfires on Merlin in a way that, since there’s so little detail, I’m free to imagine as adorable. Poor Merlin! Will nothing go right for him?