Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur Book I Chapters V and VI
Special double post! It’s only because chapters 5 and 6 of Book I run together without a good breakpoint, mid-conversation. There are several bits like this scattered about later in the text; I’ll deal with them on a case-by-case basis.
Anyway, Uther’s dead. Things actually start to pick up at this point, now that he’s gone. This is a good bit. It’s a bit that every Arthur story I can think of off the top of my head has. You know what’s coming. HINT: There’s a stone involved, but not just any stone. This stone has a prize inside.
We flash forward an indeterminate period of time, more than one decade, less than two. England is just falling apart without a king, you’ve got loads of warlords and their thugs and it’s a bad situation that gets steadily worse as time goes on.
Merlin and the Archbishop of Canterbury are hanging out like Gandalf and Saruman in the film version of Fellowship of the Ring, although instead of Saruman trying to get Gandalf to serve Sauron it’s the Archbishop trying to get Merlin to agree to appoint someone king and end the strife. Why Merlin’s go-ahead is needed on this project I don’t know. Merlin’s whole deal is weird. He was Uther’s advisor just prior to Uther’s death, everyone seems to know him, and he does magic.
Merlin has a plan, which involves getting as many warlords and knights together as possible, for a Christmas party at a cathedral in London. This bit is one where I’m reminded that Malory isn’t really a primary source, since he breaks kayfabe and admits that “the French book,” which is to say Chrétien de Troyes I guess? It’s been a long, long time since my freshman literature survey course, anyway, “the French book” doesn’t specify which cathedral it was. Going to church for a party sounds like loads of fun.
A bunch of knights, but not all knights, just the ones who were interested in going to church, meet up. In the churchyard someone has set up a big rock with an anvil on it, and skewering the anvil is, of course, a sword, with Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. What a shocking twist!
Which reminds me of something I’ve wondered about, which is, Arthur keeps the sword and carries it around with him for a good long while, right? It isn’t the one he gets from the Lady of the Lake (which is also called Excalibur, both of those swords get called Excalibur at points), but it’s a functional/useful/magical/+1 to hit and damage sword, right? So, while he had it, it still had this engraving on it, so did he use it as a conversation piece? Like, he held it up in such a way as to show off the engraving, and when someone inevitably asked about it, he was like, “oh, that’s a funny story,” and then he recounts the story that I was in the middle of telling you before I digressed?
But I digress. The knights are all excited about the sword in the stone, but the Archbishop rebukes them and tells them to leave it alone until after Mass. This is not an important plot point. Mass happens, and then they go in peace to serve the Lord, which is to say, they all try to pull out the stone and no one can.
“No big deal,” says the Archbishop. “The rightful king can and will pull the stone out; none of y’all are worthy to be him. So, okay, what we’ll do is, we’ll get all the knights together, not just you guys, because y’all are kind of lame it turns out. We get everyone together at, say, New Year’s, and we have a big tournament, and surely the rightful king who is able to pull out the sword shall make himself known at that point. I’m not saying that the whole sword thing is just an elaborate pretext me and Merlin came up with, and that the winner of the tournament will become king,” says the Archbishop, “but I am winking a lot.”
Then, New Year’s, all the knights come out to the tournament. There’s jousting and it’s a grand old time. Sir Ector shows up, along with his son Sir Kay, and also Arthur, who isn’t a knight (yet?). Sir Kay is just barely a knight at this point, this is his first joust, and so of course he pulls a boner and leaves his sword at the hotel. Oh, Sir Kay!
Arthur runs back to the hotel to fetch it, and of course the place is all dark and locked up with a sign that says GONE JOUSTIN’, so no luck there.
Then Arthur remembers seeing the sword in the stone at church that morning, so he goes over to the church to see if it’s still there, and it is, and he grabs it and carries it back to Kay.
Kay takes it, and recognizes it, and immediately runs off to Ector. “Check it out, Dad, I’m the king of England!”
This ruse lasts all of about thirty seconds. Ector looks askance at his son, and then Ector and Arthur and Kay go back to the church and Ector sees that yeah, the sword in the stone is no longer in the stone, and he asks Kay where he got the +1 to hit and damage sword he’s holding.
Kay says, “look, it’s the sword that used to be in the stone, see?”
And Ector is all, “do you pinky-swear you pulled it out of the stone? Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a cupcake in your eye?”
And Kay sighs and admits that no, he can’t pinky-swear such testimony. Arthur fetched it for him.
Arthur doesn’t know what the hell is going on, because no one bothered to tell him about the whole sword in the stone deal, since he isn’t a knight, and he was in too much of a rush to read the engraving, and he’s getting more than a little perturbed at this bizarre conversation between his father and his brother.
Ector turns to Arthur. “Did anyone see you pull out the sword?” asks Ector.
“No,” says Arthur. “What the hell is this about, Dad?”
“Well, see, son, you’re the king,” says Ector.
“The hell?” says Arthur. Malory phrases it “Wherefore I and for what cause?” but clearly Arthur finds the notion ludicrous.
“It’s a magic sword,” Ector explains, with I think admirable patience. He has Arthur stick the sword back in the stone so Ector can demonstrate how neither he nor Kay can pull it out, though Arthur can easily.
Ector kneels before him, and gets Kay too also, and this freaks Arthur out. Ector, since he’s just piling on the revelations, decides this is as good a time as any to tell Arthur he’s adopted.
Finding out that Ector isn’t his father, that his father was the dead rapist-king Uther, this makes Arthur pretty severely bummed. He does not know how to process this, and asks Ector for advice, but the only oar Ector will stick in is that Arthur should give Kay a job.
“Sure thing,” says Arthur, and boom, Sir Kay becomes Arthur’s PA.
They find the Archbishop and fill him in on all this, and it works out such that when the knights after the tournament show up to try their hands at pulling out the sword, Arthur is there waiting for them and demonstrates his sword-pulling prowess. The barons and lords and knights assembled don’t buy it. Arthur’s basically a kid! So they decide to come back and try again later. They come back later, can’t pull out the sword, Arthur pulls it out. This process repeats twice more, all spring, and still all the barons and the warlords refuse to accept it.
After months of sword-pulling demonstrations Arthur has accquired a cadre of knights who buy into his being the king: Ector and Kay of course, but also Ulfius and Brastias, Sir Baudwin (who doesn’t do anything as near as I can tell), and a bunch of others. No mention of Jordanus. I guess he just wasn’t as good a knight as Ulfius and Brastias.
“The French Book” is a good dodge for a man riffing on a lot of texts before him. A lot. Apparently “French” means “everything I could get my hands on.” To Malory, French fries would be pretty much anything cut up and deep fried.
The sword in the stone is in one early manuscript identified as “Clarent” a.k.a. the sword of peace. Same source calls the watery tart’s sword “Caliburn,” the sword of war. I’ve had Clarent in the background of a bunch of my games from time to time; I didn’t give it the same bonuses you’ve picked. 😉
I figure Malory maps most easily to the oldest iterations of D&D that I can think of, back when men were real men and +1 to hit and damage swords were a big deal, none of this wimpy modern +6 vicious stuff.
I agree. Malory is a straight-up AD&D analogue. The sword-in-the-sword is your standard +1 sword, as befitting the fact that it’s just sitting out there in a yard stuck in a rock. Excalibur, on the other hand, is like some crazy +5 vorpal sword. Now, I note that Malory is AD&D, not original D&D, because obviously all the texts that he
plagiarizedbased Le Morte on were original / basic D&D.
“Whoso pulleth out this sword from this sword, shall be known forthwith as Mister Two-Swords…”
Where’s the part where they turn into squirrels and sing?