Arthur, King in Malory's le Morte
Malory gives us a complex man, our soon to be once and future king. Unlike many
medieval Arthurian stories, Malory gives us a real individual - central to our story, not a
backdrop, two dimensional king. We will find all the greatness that a man can achieve and all
the human frailties. In the early chapters, we do not find a king but a youth with the
potential for greatness, potential that must be molded by the events and trials that confront
him. The early chapters also give us a man that could be a true tyrant if not ruled by the
counsel of better men - ruthless against his enemies to the point that Merlin must rebuke
uncaringly harsh enough to ride a horse to death in pursuit of a hare during a
hunt; and even
though young, a blatant womanizer. We can even say that he has no attention for detail or
desire for the truth as we shall see as we progress in our study. Malory gives us a medieval
king, noble, all powerful, ruthless, determined, and occasionally capricious.
At Arthur's birth, Merlin controls the strings that place him in the care
of Ector. Unlike some of the other legend plots, Malory does not present Uther as resisting
Merlin's plans but as an active participant, interviewing Ector and rewarding him. At his
birth, Merlin takes the young Arthur out by the postern gate unchristened and
him in Ector's household where Arthur will grow up believing himself to be Ector's
youngest son. Malory does not provide us with knowledge of Arthur's upbringing and does
not give the impression that Merlin was one of Arthur's tutors as the more modern T.H.
White story does.
The Sword in the Stone
As Arthur nears manhood, the moment arrives in which Merlin must act or see the
land taken by one of the many warring kings. With the Archbishop of Canterbury's assistance,
he draws all the potential rivals and the young Arthur to London at Christmastime. Mysteriously,
during mass, the magic sword in the stone appears in the churchyard and the stage is set. But
the legend of Arthur drawing the swor leaves us with many character issues about our young Arthur. The
newly knighted Kay manages to leave his sword behind when the tournament is about to begin. He
sends Arthur, his younger brother and page, to retrieve it and Arthur diligently sets off. But
no one is at the residence and Arthur must seek another sword. He remembers the sword in the
courtyard and with no witnesses pulls it forth and runs to give it to Kay. This very act
presents us with several dilemmas. Kay knows what the sword represents, so where was Arthur
when its appearance was manifested? Was he not at mass with his family and all the nobles? Why
does he not know what the sword represents? In addition, is Malory inferring to us that Arthur
is also illiterate? For the story tells us that written on the block in gold letters is the phrase
"Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all
England". Not knowing the significance of the sword or noticing /reading its purpose,
is Arthur thus willing to steal or as many young people would say, 'to borrow' what
must have been a very valuable sword? These are questions of character and environment that we
will need to address as the story continues. This sword is not Excalibur but the sword achieved
by miracle and will fail Arthur in his battle with Pellinore.
Incest, Birthright, and the Murder of Innocence
Once his status as rightful king is established through the assay of the magic
sword, we must consider the events concerning his birthrights. Ector does not tell Arthur that
he is Uther's legitimate son. He tells him that Merlin delivered Arthur to him at
Uther's commandment. To a confused young man, this may have led to the conviction that
he was an unwanted bastard. At the Pentecostal feast at Carlion, the many kings rebuke
Arthur's gifts and fifteen days later Merlin arrives and tells the kings that Arthur
is Uther's and Igraine's son and no bastard; but again Arthur is not present. He
comes out of his tower with his men and meets with the kings. After hard words on both sides,
the kings depart in wrath. Some of Arthur's hardness and strength are made evident; for
even though still untried in battle, he declares that the kings will accept and bow before him.
The question we must ask is why does Arthur not know of the facts of his birth? Merlin is his
chief councilor and Ulfius who was with Uther when he begat Arthur is one of the men close to
the young king.
We must wait until after the war with the eleven kings before Malory provides
Arthur with full knowledge of his parentage; and we can possibly assume that Malory waited
until this point in his narrative to insure an alibi for the incestuous act of our young king.
Morgawse arrives with her sons at Carlion where Arthur has set up court. Arthur desires the
beautiful wife of his rival Lot and arranges a tryst. We can understand how this could happen
for Arthur has an earlier affair with Lionors and of his claims of love for Guenever. During
the month of her stay, she becomes pregnant with Mordred and sets the stage for Arthur's
After she departs, Arthur's dreams are troubled, so he escapes the confines
of his fortress and ventures out to seek adventure and answers. During his adventure with
Pellinore and the Questing Beast, Merlin appears in several disguises and tells Arthur that
God is displeased with him for sleeping with his sister and getting a child on her that will
destroy his realm. Arthur is greatly troubled and confronts Ulfius and Ector when he returns.
Igraine is sent for and accused by Ulfius of being the cause of Arthur's war; for if she
had acknowledged Arthur during Uther's life, he would not have had the troubles he did.
Igraine claims the innocence of womanhood, stating that Arthur was taken from her at birth
and she knew not of his life and throws the accusation back at Ulfius who deflects it onto
Merlin. Merlin merely introduces Arthur to his mother. To the medieval mind of Malory and
others, the act of incest would have been an unforgivable sin.
Malory gives us an Arthur unaware of his parentage that innocently sleeps with a
half-sister; and yet that lack of knowledge does not free him from the punishment of God and
the future death and destruction of his realm.
Malory inserts a chapter at this point that can only be an addition from one of
the medieval religious redactions of the legends - the murder of the May Day born babes.
Arthur learns from Merlin that Mordred will be born on May Day (interesting that this is
the Celtic Festival of Beltaine) and decrees that all males born on this date will be taken.
He places the babes in a ship and set it a loose on the sea. The ship wreaks on the coast
and Mordred is cast up on the shore where he is rescued and raised by a good man until he
is fourteen. Whether Arthur tried to eliminate his incestuous son is unknown but this plot
line seems poorly introduced, a tag on to clean up loose ends, or the standard medieval
saint's life where the virtue and strength of the saint overcomes the evil irreligious
tyrant, Arthur. Malory has continued to show us that fate can not be avoided and Arthur
will meet his end because of his incestuous act.
The Story of Balin and the War With Rience
Arthur returns to London where he hears of the invasion of King Rience. He
summons all of his lords and knights to come to Camelot to prepare for war. Here we see
some of the ambivalence of his character. For Malory presents a man of changing moods. He
has just released Balin from prison having locked him away for six months for the death of
a cousin of Arthur's (and prisons were places of hunger, filth, and torture in those days).
He had to be convinced by a number of his nobles before he relented. He shows his strength and
personal secureness and yet his modesty when he assays to draw the sword of the damsel. When
he fails, he does not flinch from any personal insecurity but has all of his knights assay,
believing that if he could not draw it, surely one of his knights could, for he had the very
best in all the lands. When it is Balin that succeeds, he is taciturn in his mood, feeling
that he had wronged Balin and wishing to make amends for his failure to see Balin's true
When confronted by Lady Lile's request that he turn over the damosel or Balin,
he decides he can not, even though he is indebted to her. And for all of his support of Balin,
he is equally furious with him when Balin murders the Lady before his eyes, banishing him
from court forever. With rich honors, he buries the lady and submits to sending Lanceor after
Balin to punish him. Perhaps Balin can see the true nature of his king, for he believes that
if he can kill or capture Rience, Arthur will forgive him. Balin is deeply sorrowful when he
kills Lanceor knowing that such an act puts him further from Arthur's graces. But Balin
is right, for when his brother and him capture and deliver Rience to Arthur's justice,
Arthur is ready to forgive.
Arthur is a true warrior in his own rights. During the ensuing battle against
Nero and Lot, the king is ever amongst the fray, doing marvelous deeds in his own right. And
he is a merciful king that strives to heal his land. For he buries his disloyal kings with high
honors in rich tombs set beside his own place in St. Stephen's at Camelot.
Finally, we see a king that can judge men but can not fathom women. Yes, he is
young, probably not more than eighteen, but he has had an affair with Lionors, fallen in love
with Guenever, shortly later slept with the first beautiful woman that crossed his path -
his own half-sister Morgawse, failed to see the falseness in the Damosel of the Sword,
failed to honor his word to the Lady of the Lake, and finally, putting great trust in his
half-sister Morgan le Fay by placing the care of Excalibur and its scabbard into her hands.
Arthur Takes a Wife and Sets Up the Table Round
Arthur seeks Merlin's advice because his nobles will not let him have peace.
With the realm still unsettled, they wish Arthur to marry and have sons. Arthur is still in
love with Guenever and over Merlin's objections, Merlin arranges the marriage with
Leodegrance. The wedding party arrives in London and is warmly greeted by Arthur who is
happy with his bride and enthused with her dowry, the Table Round and its complement of
an hundred knights. He arranges the wedding and coronation and sets Merlin to the task of
filling out the numbers of the knights of the Round Table. At the wedding feast, the
adventure of the White Hart begins and its culmination leads to the oath to be sworn each
year by the knights at the Pentecost feast.
The War With the Five Kings
We arrive at the inexperienced king. Finally having put down the rebellion of
the great men that opposed his kingship, Arthur settles into his new marriage believing he
will have peace. But the land is attacked by five kings whose identify would lead us to believe
that we have the annual spring time raids of Saxons and Irish raiders. This time, instead of
the regular disjointed attacks by small raiding parties, the enemy has united in common cause
and invaded the lands in the region of the wall or northeast beyond the Humber. Arthur rushes
to the region taking his new wife, sending summons to Pellinore and his other nobles to join
him. Camp is made beyond the Humber and Arthur fails to insure the security of the camp. Whether
this is due to lack of intelligence about the enemy (remember that Merlin in the past provided
such information and he is now buried beneath the great stone in Cornwall) or ignoring the
advice from Kay and others, he is unprepared when the enemy overruns the camp during the
night. Barely escaping with his life, Arthur, Guenever, and a small band of his knights
retreat toward the Humber. But the river is still swollen by the spring rains and they must
turn and fight. Fortunately, Malory has the five kings come riding unescorted just at that
moment. With the courage of Kay, Arthur's group defeats the kings. This gives Arthur time to find a transport to send the
queen with a proper escort across the Humber to safety while he heads toward a rallying point
to gather his remaining forces.
In the morning, the enemy is disorganized due to the loss of their leaders and
Arthur is able with his smaller force to attack and destroy them. Malory claims that the
entire enemy force is annihilated and uses his usual incredulous numbers of enemy dead -
thirty thousand (more likely in the hundreds). Malory states that Arthur lost eight knights
of the Round Table and two hundred men, a small loss for such a terrible blunder. Arthur
endows an abbey to commemorate his victory and named it the Abbey of La Beale Adventure.
He returns with Pellinore to Camelot to hold a counsel to replace the eight knights.
Betrayal and Plots
Remember that we have previously pointed out Arthur's failure to
understand women. To be continued...