Book V is a fairly short book, and it’s got a decent unity of theme: this is the story of King Arthur and his buddy, Emperor Lucius. Also, World War II! (Or at least the European theater.) (And just the western front.) (Just from 1944 on.) (Okay, it’s a bad analogy.)
Though it’s a short book, today’s entry is double-length! Some time passes between the whole Morgan le Fay thing and the events of this book. It’s not a full generation or anything, but it is long enough that Launcelot has appeared, and he’s a full-grown knight (albeit a young one) instead of the beamish boy we saw back at the start of Book IV. It’s also long enough that Arthur finally gets to throw a party commemorating a whole big span of time without invasions or strange adventures. Five years? A decade, maybe? These are Arthur’s salad days.
So Arthur throws a big tournament party, lots of jousting, knights from miles around, Guenever making eyes at Launcelot, and so on. Lots of great food; it’s well-established at this point that King Arthur is excellent at throwing parties (funerals, weddings, coronations, whatnot). And then twelve dudes appear.
You might remember these twelve dudes! They appeared way, way back in Book I, Chapter XXIII, demanding Arthur pay England’s back taxes to Rome. At the time Arthur was distracted with the whole King Pellinore, Questing Beast, Sir Griftlet thing, and sent the taxmen away without comment. The taxmen asserted they’d be back and, sure enough, here they are. They march into the big ballroom at Camelot, waving olive branches to symbolize their peaceful intent.
“What have you got there, sticks?” asks Arthur. “Are those sticks?”
“We come in the name of Lucius, Tribune of the People, Procuror of the Public Weal of Rome, Caesar Augustus Caesar of the Roman Empire,” intones the lead taxman.
“Rome, Rome, Rome…” Arthur tries to place the name. “Isn’t that over? We’re in what, the early medieval period? Or is this the Migration Period? I’m not sure of the year, but I’m pretty sure we’re out of Late Antiquity. 500? 700? 1000? Anyway, Romans haven’t been spotted around here in a coon’s age.”
“Well, that aside,” says the taxman. “His high-and-mightiness sends greetings to his good cousin the King of Britain, and commands you to recognize his authority over you by right of Julius Caesar’s conquest of these islands, and resume tax payments. Britain has been in arrears since the late King Uther Pendragon fell.”
“His death was a tragic loss to the state, as he always paid his taxes on time, and his father before him and so on. Since then payment has been, to say the least, sporadic. But we’re willing to forgive you all the back taxes owed for the last quarter-century or so, if you’ll be so kind as to fill out this paperwork and hand over a nice big gift basket of gold and jewels.”
“Hmm. I’m just saying, I’m not sure I’d be getting value for my dollar. What do my taxes pay for? Because it’s definitely not my soldiers or my roads or my school system or my Arthurian Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Housing and Arthurian Development, the Arthurian Institutes of Health, or the Arthurian Science Foundation. I mean, some of those things don’t even exist!”
“If you choose to refuse this offer of tax amnesty, which I do not recommend, then His high-and-mightiness Caesar Lucius Caesar will have no choice but to dispatch legionaries to these islands, to occupy Britain and embarrass and chastise you in front of all your serfs. We can’t have local warlord-kings just refusing to pay taxes, after all. That would set a terrible precedent.”
“After all, we’re trying to have a civilization here, can’t have civilization without taxes sent overseas to Rome. I think we can all agree on that!”
“Hmm, I said. I need to think about this.”
“Is Merlin here? Can I speak to Merlin?”
“Merlin’s out. Haven’t seen him for a while.”
“If Merlin were here I’m sure he would tell you how important taxes are.”
“Give me a little time to think about it, okay? This requires some consideration.”
“Very well. We’ll wait.” The taxmen start tapping their feet and looking pointedly at their watches.
“No, no, it’s going to take a bit. Go out into the festival, we’ll find you some decent hotel rooms.” Arthur waves them away.
As the taxmen shuffle out, grumbling about how they didn’t sign up for an extended stay in this blighted backwater, regardless of whether it’s Cow Days or whatever ridiculous paltry little barbaric festival that’s happening, as the taxmen leave one of Arthur’s knights leans over and whispers that all Arthur has to do is say the word and boom, bunch of knights will fall on those taxmen like arrows from the bow. The Romans would never find their bodies.
Arthur gets indignant at this offer, however. “I don’t like foreign auditors strolling in and claiming my country owes twenty-odd years of back taxes, I don’t like that any more than you do, but we can’t just go around murdering folks who collect taxes we don’t approve of. What are we, libertarians? C’mon. Think this through.”
So Arthur gets all his advisors and knights together, the kings who swore fealty to him and everyone, maybe Nimue, I don’t know. He sets up the ol’ royal whiteboard, and he says “pitches, pitches, let’s hear some pitches, chop chop. How do we want to handle this? I have an idea in mind but before I spring on you I want to get a sense of how you all feel about the situation, so, c’mon. C’mon. Let’s hear it. Go!”
Sir Cador of Cornwall, who hasn’t had any lines up to this point and whom I kind of doubt will have many lines after this one, asserts that it’s been some number of years since the last big fight, the battle at the start of Book IV, and everyone’s tanned and rested and ready to whoop some Roman ass, if that’s what Arthur is up for. Cador’s bucking for Round Table status, he says, and he’s way more likely to get it through distinguishing himself on the battlefield than he is by successfully navigating a strange adventure.
“That’s good!” says Arthur. “That’s good because it flows so naturally into my next announcement that I’m just going to cut the rest of the debate short, good debate guys, great meeting, here’s what I think the consensus is.” He takes out a red marker and writes CONQUER ROME on the royal whiteboard, and underlines it. “Capiche?”
Discussion Question: So Launcelot just shows up in between chapters? Gawaine gets a whole big introduction, and Tor an even bigger introduction, and Launcelot we’re just supposed to accept that he’s there now? Kind of a ripoff, Malory!