When last we left off, Arthur was king, not everyone accepted him as king, and this guy Rience in the north of Wales was making trouble. Arthur’s hanging out in London as Book II opens, and along comes a knight.
“Ho, knight,” says Arthur.
“Sire, I have come to recap. King Rience is making trouble,” says the knight. “He’s burning peasants and their thatch-roofed cottages left and right, it’s a bad scene.”
“Hmm, if what you say is true –”
“Are you calling me a liar?” says the knight, all indignant. “I saw it myself!”
“If what you say is true,” says Arthur, ignoring him, “then I’d better do what I do best.”
“Call all my barons and knights together,” says Arthur.
“Ooh,” says the knight. “Will there be jousting?”
“You know it,” says Arthur.
So Arthur does this, he gets all of his barons and knights together at Camelot, which he’s just finished furnishing and decorating, so this war-council-for-dealing-with-Rience party is also a come-check-out-Camelot party. Everybody shows up, including a girl who claims to have been sent by Lile of Avelion.
“You mean Queen Lily of Avalon?”
“I do not.”
She comes to Arthur, this girl does, wearing an enormous fur coat, and clears her throat to get everyone’s attention and once everyone’s eyes are on her, boom, the fur coat drops! Along with everyone’s jaws!
Under the coat this girl was not completely naked. No, she’s wearing a sword in a scabbard, with a… let’s call it a harness. She explains that she’s laboring under a curse; until some strong knight can pull her sword from its scabbard she can’t remove the harness.
“Nothing weirdly Freudian about this,” says Arthur. “I happen to be great at pulling swords from things, that’s how I became king, it’s a funny story really.”
“The knight who saves me from this incredibly thin metaphor,” says the girl, whom Malory doesn’t bother to name but I’m going name Wilma because ‘the maiden’ is just lame to keep repeating. “The knight who saves me must be a great knight, valorous, honorable, skilled at arms, reasonably dashing.”
“You’re describing me to a tee,” says Arthur. “Also there are about a hundred and eighty knights within earshot who fit that description, am I right fellas? Camelot for life!”
The knights cheer.
“Yeah, we’re awesome,” says Arthur. “Camelot for life! Woo!”
“Anyway, I went to King Rience’s court already,” says Wilma. “He claimed to have a bunch of great and heroic knights also, but none of them could free me from this device.”
“Okay, well, I’ll give it a shot,” says Arthur. “Now, just so everyone is clear on this,” he adds, loudly to his assembled court, “I’m not claiming right here and now to be the best knight here. I’m just saying I’m good at pulling swords from things. And there’s a bunch of fine fine knights who tried to pull a certain other sword from a certain other thing — Kay, you know what I’m talking about — and they weren’t able. So I’m not going to be shocked if I’m not the specific knight who has been magically preselected to pull out this sword. If and when I don’t successfully pull it out, I want you all to give it a shot. Don’t think I’m going to be mad if you pull it out when I can’t. I won’t be. I am going to try first, though.”
All the knights nod and murmur agreement. Wilma taps her foot.
“But,” Arthur continues. “And this is a substantial but! I am confident that here at Camelot I’ve assembled the greatest knights in all of Christendom, so we’ll get this sword out, one of us –”
“Will you just pull it out already?” interrupts Wilma. “Sire. Please. Your majesty.”
So Arthur takes the sword in his hands and gives it a tug, and it doesn’t come out. “Hold on,” he says, and tries again, harder.
“Sire, it’s not –”
“One more try!” says Arthur, and gets one foot up on Wilma’s hip and really throws his back into it and she cries out in pain.
“NOT SO HARD JESUS WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU THIS THING IS ATTACHED TO ME!”
“Oh, sorry,” says Arthur. “Ouch, that looks painful, ouch, sorry. Can we get her some leeches? Leeches over here?”
Wilma recovers and Arthur admits that he’s not the guy to pull this particular sword from this particular “stone,” and asks his assembled barons and knights of the Round Table to do it. (Malory forgets that the Round Table doesn’t get introduced until Book III.)
“But fellas, look into your hearts before you try this. Do this sword-pulling with a clear conscience, no shame, no treasonous plots, no evil thoughts. Take it from me, swords in things hate evil thoughts.”
“Oh, also! The knight who frees me must be a clean knight, a good knight, not a villain, not already married, no children, his parents either dead or distant because I don’t want to deal with in-laws, no one in his family should have a criminal record,” says Wilma. She lists off a bunch of other requirements for her ideal man/magically-preselected savior, and they’re about what you’d expect.
A substantial fraction of Arthur’s court is, nevertheless, willing and ready to line up and try to pull the sword out.