This book is a bloodbath.  Literally dozens of characters, some of whom we’ve seen many times over the course of Le Morte D’Arthur, are cut down during Launcelot’s two big knight-massacres.  So, okay, first there’s the big fight over Guenever.  Launcelot resists arrest, kills a bunch of dudes.  Then Arthur decides to burn Guenever at the stake again.  Last time he tried to burn her at the stake, Launcelot showed up and rescued her.  The time before that, too.  And yes, that means that King Arthur has decided to burn Guenever at the stake on three separate occasions.

Even by what I understand to be fourteenth-century-era norms, that seems excessive.  In Book XIX, we began to see that King Arthur isn’t 100% of the time the wisest and the best, eternally focused on the good and the beautiful, that he’s got a big blind spot in the form of Guenever.  In Book XX, the band-aid is ripped off!  Launcelot’s betrayal breaks Arthur.  He overnight goes from being the best king ever to a milquetoast who just sits back and cries while Sir Gawaine handles everything.

Sir Gawaine has been presented as so hot-headed and unwise in Books I through XIX.  But then, all of a sudden Sir Gawaine is the voice of reason in Arthur’s court, suggesting detente to get Guenever back.  Of course, once they do have Guenever back Gawaine flips around again.  He spends the rest of the book basically frothing at the mouth and displaying previously-unused superpowers.  It’s surprising, at first, that Sir Gawaine is able to defeat Sir Bors, Sir Lionel, Sir Ector, Sir Palomides, and all the rest of Launcelot’s Benwick faction, as Malory claims.  He defeats one a day for six months, and I think the implication is that he uses his cheaty super-strength ability; he always calls out a knight just before noon, trounces him, then does nothing for the rest of the day, apparently.

Also, once they have Guenever back, King Arthur exhibits no joy at all in her presence, suggesting, once again, that theirs was a wholly political union (necessary for Arthur to gain the Best Table Ever) and that if only Agravaine and Mordred had shut up about it Arthur would’ve turned a blind eye to the infidelity.  It’s a little odd that Arthur’s two sons, Sir Borre and Sir Mordred, are both illegitimate and from before he married Guenever.  I assumed, given the frequency with which Arthur sired illegitimate children in Book I, it was going to be a recurring thing, but instead we’re given no reason to believe he was unfaithful to his wife, despite us also being given no reason to believe he particularly cared for her.

This seems like an odd time to stop and take the pulse of the story; we’re right in the middle of the action.  In fact I’d go so far as to say this is the first Book of Le Morte D’Arthur that really ends on a cliffhanger.  Book XVI is the closet thing to a cliffhanger we’ve seen up to this point, and it just ends with Sir Bors noting that Sir Galahad will show up soon, super dramatic but not exactly exciting.


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Primary Sources: Le Mort D’Arthur, Book XX Conclusions — No Comments

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