Book VIII, aside from being one of the longest books so far, presents some hurdles. It starts with the timeline: I think it’s safe to assume that Book I happens before Book II happens before Book III happens before Book IV happens before Book V, and while Books VI and VII could happen in either order, they both take place after Book V. Book VIII, though, has some problems. In the era of Tristram’s birth, Malory asserts that Arthur is the king over a bunch of subsidiary kings, “all of the lordships unto Rome.” Arthur conquers the western remnants of the Roman Empire in Book V, so Book VIII would seem to be set entirely after that. But after the tale of Tristram’s birth, we flash ahead fifteen or twenty years to Tristram as a young adult; how long is Arthur’s reign supposed to be? And it’s not until Chapter XIX or so of Book VIII that the folks in Camelot become apprised of Tristram’s situation regarding the lovely Isoud, so why is it they’re talking about the two of them as early as Book I? Tristram actually guest-stars in Book VII, at the big celebratory tournament where Sir Prettyboy wears a mood tabard; is Book VII set during Chapter XIX of Book VIII? Sir Turquine is also present at that tournament, and he dies in Book VI; are Books VI through VIII all happening at the same time? When Launcelot fights Sir Frol at the end of Book VIII, is that during his Book VI wanderjahr? Can we assume that Howel’s wife is already dead and also already avenged by the time Tristram arrives in Brittany?
So that’s a whole big mess. Then there’s the problem of this Book having three different female characters named Isoud. There’s Queen Isoud of Ireland, her daughter the lovely Isoud, and the entirely unrelated Isoud the White. Is Tristram like Superman, except that he’s hopelessly enmeshed with the name Isoud, instead of being destined to special relationships with folks who have the initials LL (Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Lori Lemaris, Linda Lee, Lyla Lerrol… incidentally one of these names and relationships is not like the other which makes me wonder if Superman writers in the 1950s were trying to signal something they couldn’t be explicit about thanks to the Comics Code?). Generally Malory can’t be bothered to provide names for his female characters, a tendency which reaches its zenith in Book VI when Launcelot asks Sir Phelot’s wife for her husband’s name instead of her own name. So it’s great that this Book includes five named female characters; I just wish they had five different names. And the woman with the most agency I daresay, Sally Segwarides, doesn’t get a name from Malory.
I dunno. One thing I’ll say for this Book is that it keeps to a fairly straightforward throughline; it’s all about Tristram and his many strange adventures. The only part where Malory gets sidetracked is at the very end, when he spends a couple of chapters telling us about Lamorak’s horseback ride from the Isle of Servage back to Camelot, after Malory forgets that he’d been calling it an island and starts calling it the valley of Servage.
You’ve got Tristram’s birth, his childhood, his first strange adventure, his meeting with the lovely Isoud, his affair with Sir Segwarides’ wife Sally Segwarides, his trip back to Ireland to pick up the lovely Isoud, his quaffing a love potion, his reluctant return to Cornwall to see his beloved wedded off to King Mark, his affair with the lovely Isoud that he does a lousy job at concealing, his eventual escape from Cornwall just ahead of a lynch mob, his arrival in Brittany and meteoric rise there, and finally his marriage to Isoud the White and their ill-fated honeymoon on Servage. It’s a pretty straightforward narrative! And you may think we’re done with Tristram now, what with this book being over — as we finished with Balin, Tor, Uwaine, and Gareth before him. But you’d think wrong. There is so much more Tristram to tell. We don’t pick up with the grail story until Book XII, and that carries us through until the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom. But no, frankly the story of Tristram is like a whole separate romance wedged in the middle of Le Morte D’Arthur, and we’re not really even halfway through it.
Oh, also, man I can’t believe I forgot this: Tristram is a jerk. It’s hard to pin him down, because on the one hand he tries to do right by his uncle Mark, and on the other hand he has an affair with Sally after plighting troth with the lovely Isoud, he chases down Sir Palamides after their joust so as to extort extra concessions from him, and even if you give him a pass on Sir Nabon (played by Brian Blessed), he straight up murders Sir Nabon Junior. Also his shabby treatment of Isoud the White: man, either go all the way with her or just don’t marry her. Second base and stopping like that? Tawdry. Tristram you jerk!