Book XVIII is all about Guenever and Launcelot squabbling. Malory is pretty clearly on Launcelot’s side throughout their arguments, but I have to say neither party really comes across as all that great. Guenever gets annoyed when Launcelot does things for other women that he won’t do for her, like wear her favor in a tournament. Launcelot gets annoyed when Guenever complains. Guenever exiles Launcelot from England in a fit of rage. Launcelot ignores the exile and instead goes up the road to chill with Sir Brastias for a while.
Into this mire of emotion we thrust Sir Mador, who just wants to avenge Sir Patrice, and Elaine le Blank, aka the Maid of Astolat, aka the Lady of Shalott. Mador’s accusation of Guenever is pretty nonsensical, when you think about it. What did he think, that she poisoned every apple and then conspired to arrange for Patrice to be the only one to eat an apple? Did she poison an apple, or maybe all the apples, without knowing which knight would end up eating it and exploding, just because she thought it’d be fun to watch a knight die in agony? If Guenever had Patrice singled out, how on earth did she arrange for him to get the poisoned apple?
Malory’s also unclear as to why all the knights assume Mador’s in the right. It might be that they’re anti-Guenever, because they know she’s cheating on their king. It might be that, like Bors, they consider it inappropriate to participate when they’re material witnesses. It might be that they agree with Mador’s line of reasoning, whatever it is, and believe her to be guilty. Of course that raises the issues related to the underlying rationales for trial-by-judicial-champion. On the one hand, God will intervene on the side of justice and thus the morally correct knight will win, right? But surely the knights realize that even with right on his side, some loser like Sir Gawaine isn’t going to lose to Sir Launcelot, no matter how unjust Launcelot’s cause. So presumably God’s intervention includes the selection of the fighters, which raises the question of free will, and already I feel like I’ve gone too far down this particular rabbit hole.
The storyline does end with Nimue coming in to clean up, which is always nice to see. That’s the best thing I can say about it: it’s enough of a mess that Nimue comes in at the end to clean it up.
The other story in the chapter is the tale of the Maid of Astolat. As presented in Le Morte D’Arthur, it’s pretty weak. “Once upon a time there was a girl who was into Launcelot. He rebuffed her. She died of grief, possibly a virgin, possibly after they had sex.” Other versions of the story bring in magic curses and Elaine living in isolation and she and Launcelot never actually meeting until after she’s dead, oh the tragic angst of it!
Launcelot’s refusal to give Elaine the time of day on the one hand makes perfect sense. Just because someone is into you doesn’t mean you’re obliged to be into them. If they do nice things for you, like nurse you back to health after you foolishly pull your stitches, that doesn’t entitle them to sex. On the other hand, that’s me as a modern talking; I’m unsure that’s a perspective that Malory and his intended 14th-century audience would share. Perhaps, in the same way that a knight who rescues a damosel from a dragon is entitled to marry her and get half her father’s kingdom and so on, a damosel who nurses an injured knight back to health is entitled to marry him.
There’s also the question of Launcelot accepting her red sleeve, when they first met, and possibly also makeouts and R-rated “everything but” activities. When he’s called on it, his only defense is that he’d been incognito at the time and he hadn’t thought anyone would ever find out. Pretty weak, Launcelot.
Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!
Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*
Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*
Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*
King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.
Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*
Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.
Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.
Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.
Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.
Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.
Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in Book XVII.
Sir Patrice, ate a poisoned apple intended for Sir Gawaine, in Book XVIII.
Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies. Gawaine-related deaths: 5 of 12.