Book IV is kind of all over the place. It’s the first book that isn’t mostly concerned with laying pipe and setting stuff up for the future; at no point does Merlin show up, utter a dire prophecy, and scribble something down in golden marker. That’s kind of ironic, because in some divisions of Le Morte D’Arthur Books I through IV are grouped together as a sort of “Arthur: Year One.” That grouping also puts Book V all on its own, and I don’t think Book V stands alone especially well, either, so, I dunno. Anyway, there’s still plenty of fores getting shadowed: Pellinore’s jackassery results in a whole big Paladin the-oath-and-the-measure my-honor-is-my-life thing that I’m pretty sure comes up again! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first story in Book IV is the story of how Merlin gets written out. It’s not overly long, and you could boil it down to “Merlin met a girl named Nimue and taught her magic. Nimue tricked Merlin into going into a magic cave and sealed him up inside” without losing much. That shorter version of the story I knew already. Probably I picked it up from old Matt Wagner comics about Jack Kirby’s the Demon. So I assumed that Nimue was going to turn out to be wicked, much as I had assumed at one point that Merlin was a good guy. But it turns out that just as Merlin is equal parts wise old man and braying jackass, so too is Nimue layered. She’s more or less on the side of good, what with her saving Arthur’s life during his joust with Accolon, and fixing Gawaine’s strange adventure after Gawaine messed it up, and so on. So good for her! The part about how Pellas may or may not be bewitched into loving her, less clearly an altruistic move. Nevertheless, I vastly prefer Nimue to Merlin. She has much more agency than your average Arthurian damosel.
The second story in the book, the story of how Arthur puts down one more rebellion, is so dull and forgettable that I started writing this post having forgotten about it entirely. The only good bit in the whole piece is the part where the knights are gearing up to fight, and Kay points out that it’s five on three, or five on four counting Gawaine, and Gawaine says he doesn’t like the five on three odds. And that bit is a bit that I’m interpolating slightly; I think my read of the exchange is textually supported, but I wouldn’t call it a clear and evident joke at Gawaine’s expense of Malory’s part. Also: after Arthur consults with him regarding who to promote to the Round Table, Pellinore more or less disappears from the rest of the novel. So that’s something! He’s not my favorite character.
The third story in Book IV is the story of Morgan le Fay’s elaborate plot to kill Arthur and how it backfires on her. Less thrilling, this story. Either Morgan stage-managed the initial strange adventure with the silk ship and the twelve maidens, in which case why did Uriens survive it (since her plan required him to die), or else she didn’t, in which case how did she know that Arthur would end up in Damas’s gaol and Accolon chilling with Ontzlake and so on? Why place Mildred in Damas’s service if Morgan already had Excalibur and its magic scabbard? If the only thing Mildred needed to do was pass the fake Excalibur and scabbard to Arthur, she could have done that just by tossing them to him at the start of his joust with Accolon. It’s riddled with plot holes that I struggle to easily explain away.
For that matter, why is it that when Morgan goes back to Gore, Arthur just leaves her alone for years? Heck, Uriens continues to stay at Camelot, a knight of the Round Table; you’d think he and Arthur would team up to pacify this vassalage of Arthur’s and its open revolt! And Morgan’s motivation is barely sketched in; she’s jealous of Arthur. Does that mean she wants to act against the patriarchal system (which is how I read it) or is it a more personal thing (as Malory seems to imply in places)? The bit where she throws a guy down a well for announcing his intention to throw his cheating wife down a well: am I not supposed to be rooting for her there? Mildred’s death: I suppose that technically it’s a villain getting hoisted on her own petard, but I couldn’t read it without thinking Arthur comes across as a bully. Mildred is just some random peasant woman, dude. There’s nothing heroic about making her put on a cursed magic coat at swordpoint. And this is coming for a guy who likes Arthur.
The treatment of women in general is just jarring. When Morgan le Fay announces that women should be able to sleep with whomever, and throws Sir Manassen’s attacker down the well, we’re not meant to be rooting for her. We’re supposed to be thinking “man, what an insane and uppity woman this is! How vile, that she attempt to rebel against the rightfully-guided patriarchal system embodied by Arthur!” Her impossible, uphill battle against sexism is why I imagine Leslie Knope when I visualize Morgan. Put Leslie Knope in Arthurian Britain, and boom, you’ve got Morgan le Fay.
Anyway. The third story fades into the fourth story pretty smoothly, the story of how Uwaine and Gawaine go off on a strange adventure with Sir Marhaus. Gawaine’s reasoning for leaving the court with Uwaine is, I think, an actual joke by Malory at Gawaine’s expense, which is just more support for my read of his dialogue with Kay back during the second story. The parts with Uwaine and Marhaus make for a solid and nonsensical fairy tale, full of giants and jousts and the bit where Uwaine talks the guys assaulting Castle Of-the-Rock down from 102 to 2 combatants. Gawaine’s story is a tremendous snafu on every level, though. I love that Gawaine himself gets frustrated and ragequits halfway through! Then Nimue has to come in and tie it all up as best she can. That’s pretty good. The story of Gawaine & Ettard & Pellas & Nimue is my favorite story in Le Morte D’Arthur so far. My favorite up to this point, by the by, was the bit where Pellinore steals King Arthur’s horse (Arthur is just having such a miserable day in that one, I can sympathize).