Lugodoc's Guide to
Malory's Le Morte Darthur

The Arthurian bible known as Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur) was written by Sir Thomas Malory (Member of Parliament for Warwickshire) in prison, and finished in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (1469). It was printed sixteen years later around the end of the 30 year long civil Wars of the Roses, by William Caxton, in 1485 (MCCCCLXXXV).

Published as 21 books containing a total of 507 chapters and over 300,000 words, it is credited as being the first printed airport novel in the English language. The stories collected herein do not always neatly fit into the books, which often end in the middle of a dramatic exposition, rather like the old TV Batman cliffhanger endings.

This puny skeleton of the original vast, bloated text has been mainly arranged in stories, rather than by books and chapters. Some stories (such as the prologues) are presented out of original order, and in chronological order, for clarity. There are frequent plot, name and spelling inconsistencies and paradoxes. This author has taken the liberty of tidying these up, drawing attention to only a few of the most interesting.

Take the following trivial but typical example. In book 2 Merlin states that Basdemagus is Arthur's cousin; in book 4 Sir Bagdemagus finds Merlin under a rock and eventually becomes a knight of the Round Table. In book 6 Launcelot fights at joust for King Bagdemagus and they are friends, yet by book 10 Bagdemagus hates Launcelot for no reason that is ever explained. In book 13 Sir Bagdemagus is sorely wounded by an otherworldly white knight, and barely survives. His tomb is found in book 17, his death at the hands of Sir Gawaine never being described, only referred to, and yet he is alive again advising Launcelot as a friend in book 20.

More crucially, King Pellam of Listeneise is wounded by Sir Balin with his own Spear of Longinus in book 2, and his (un-named) castle mostly destroyed. He becomes a (probably "the") Maimed King. In book 13 he is referred to once as King Pescheour - the Fisher King. In book 11, 15-20 years later, we meet the curiously similar King Pelles "of the foreign country", his spear-wound received magically on Solomon's boat is hardly mentioned and his castle (called Corbin, Carbonek or Adventurous) seems perfectly intact. His spear is called the Spear of Vengeance, and he has the Sangreal and a magic sword too. Pelles is referred to once as the Maimed King, suggesting he and Pellam are the same person, but because of one reference in book 17 where both appear briefly together, this author has assumed that Pellam and Pelles are two different Kings.

Curiously, the deaths of King Pellinore and much later his son Sir Lamorak (and several other characters such as Bagdemagus) at the hands of Sir Gawaine are never described, only referred to in conversation as having happened. It is as if Gawaine were being scapegoated, and used to mop up any unexplained deaths.

This author believes that Malory was trying very, very, VERY hard to shoehorn dozens of previously only semi-connected European legends and folk-tales into one huge, throbbing best-seller, and never expected it to come under the scrutiny of a pedant such as Lugodoc.

The stories which deal the least with King Arthur himself or the main threads of Arthurian lore have been pruned the most viciously (irrelevant Euro-hero Sir Tristram dominates 4 of the biggest books !).

To help reveal the form of the original text, this author has divided it into four main cycles, although there is considerable leakage between them. For example, elements of the Sangreal and of Arthur's death are introduced as early as book 2.

The Four Cycles

The Early Years - books 1to 4 - Arthur's birth, the establishment of his court, and the begetting of his son Mordred by his half sister Margawse. Sir Balin deals the Dolorous Stroke on the Maimed King, and Merlin is lost. Stories in chronological order, spanning about 20-25 years.

The Middle Years - books 5 to 12 - beginning around 15 to 20 years after the end of book 4, and spanning about 25 years. By far the biggest section, containing many interlinked stories, including Arthur's conquest of Rome, and the sagas of Launcelot, Tristram, Palomides and many others, with loads of jousts. Galahad is conceived, born and comes of age, and the Sangreal is introduced.

The Quest for the Sangreal - books 13 to 17 - beginning immediately after book 12 in AD 487 and spanning about five years. The scattering of the Round Table knights and their various adventures in the wilderness on the heavily metaphorical quest. Its achievement by Galahad, Percivale and Bors at Castle Corbin, and the Maimed King is healed.

Le Morte Darthur - books 18 to 21 - beginning immediately after book 17 and spanning eight years. The events surrounding the destruction of the Round Table and the death of Arthur through the adultery of his queen Guenever with his champion Launcelot and the treachery of his son, the pretender Mordred.

The Early Years

book 1 - The Prologues (originally in books 13 & 17). The rape of Igraine by King Uther. Arthur is born, fostered by Sir Ector and draws the Sword in the Stone. His coronation and his first three battles (Carlion, Bedegraine and Cameliard). He receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. By his half-sister Margawse he unknowingly begets Mordred who is then lost at sea.

book 2 - The adventures of Balin: his part in Arthur's fourth battle (Terrabil, in which most of Arthur's main enemies are defeated and his grip on the kingship of Britain is made secure) and how he deals the Dolorous Stroke to King Pellam, who becomes the Maimed King. The deaths of Balin and his brother Balan.

book 3 - The wedding of Arthur and Guenever and the adventure of Gawaine, Gaheris and Tor. Pellinore brings Nimue to court. The Knights of the Round Table are first sworn in.

book 4 - Merlin's entombment by Nimue. Arthur's fifth battle (Humber) and Morgan le Fay's various magical attacks with Merlin safely out of the way. The adventures of Gawaine, Uwaine and Marhaus with The Goddess. Baby Mordred is lost at sea.

15-20 years un-chronicled, during which Gawaine slays Pellinore.

Mordred is found and Launcelot arrives from France, and both join the Round Table.

The Middle Years

book 5 - Arthur's 6th battle - his conquest of Rome. Launcelot appears.

book 6 - The adventures of Launcelot.

book 7 - The adventures of Gareth: his conquest of the Red Knight as Beaumains and his marriage to Dame Lionesse.

book 8 - The adventures of Tristram: his birth, coming of age and slaying of Marhaus. King Mark's marriage to La Beale Isoud in Cornwall and Tristram's marriage to Isoud la Blanche Mains in Brittany. His rivalry with Palomides for the love of La Beale Isoud and his friendship with Lamorak on the Isle of Servage.

book 9 - The adventures of Breunor le Noire: his shield quest as La Cote Male Taile. Tristram returns to Cornwall, goes mad, gets better and is banished for ten years. The jousts at the Castle of the Maidens and at the Castle of the Hard Rock.

book 10 - The biggest single book, sprawling with odd tales including the continuing rivalries between Tristram and Palomides, and Gawaine and Lamorak, the treachery of King Mark and the adventures of Launcelot, Dinadan and knights galore. More jousts at Surluse and Lonazep.

book 11 - Mention of Arthur's 7th battle, in France. Elaine rapes Launcelot and begets Galahad. Bors meets Baby Galahad and has a Sangreal adventure at Castle Corbin. Elaine does Launcelot again at Camelot and he goes mad.

book 12 - After several years lost and mad (possibly the entire youth of his son) Launcelot is cured of his madness by the Sangreal and becomes the Chevalier Mal Fet in exile. Eventually he returns to Camelot as Galahad comes of age at 15.

The Quest for the Sangreal

book 13 - Galahad joins the Round Table and it breaks up to pursue the Sangreal. He learns the story of Joseph of Aramathie and his magic shield.

book 14 - Percivale's temptation in the wilderness.

book 15 - Launcelot's failure on the quest.

book 16 - Bors' temptation in the wilderness, his estrangement from his brother Lionel, and his meeting with Percivale.

book 17 - Galahad, Bors, Percivale and his sister board King Solomon's magic boat, find the Sword of David and recount its long, twisted history. Percivale's sister dies giving blood. The remaining holy trio achieve the Sangreal and heal the Maimed King at Castle Corbin. They sail to Sarras, Galahad and Percivale die there, and Bors returns to Camelot.

Le Morte Darthur

book 18 - After more than a quarter of a century Launcelot and Guenever's adultery starts to become problematical. Guenever is accused of murder and Launcelot saves her from being burned at the stake for the first time. He unwillingly causes the death of the Fair Maiden of Astolat.

book 19 - Sir Meliagrance kidnaps Guenever for lust, accuses her of sexual treason and Launcelot kills him, saving her from being burned at the stake for the second time. He cures Sir Urre by laying-on-of-hands.

book 20 - It all goes pear-shaped as Agravaine finally catches Launcelot and Guenever at it, Arthur sentences her for treason, Launcelot rescues her from being burnt at the stake (for the third and last time) and Arthur lays siege to his castle (his eighth battle) until the pope intervenes. Guenever returns to Arthur and Launcelot returns to France with his kin. Arthur pursues Launcelot to France and Gawaine and Launcelot fight but Arthur receives news from England that forces him to return home.

book 21 - Mordred seizes his chance to usurp. Arthur returns and defeats him at Dover (where Gawaine dies, his ninth battle) and Barham Down (his tenth battle). Father and son finally slay one another near Salisbury, Arthur's eleventh and last battle.

the structure of this guide

The original 21 book structure has been kept (mostly) but the chapter structure is all Lugodoc's. The book and chapter titles have also been added by this humble re-chronicler, with grovelling apologies to Malory.

To help make sense of it all there is an Arthurian Time Line - carefully assembled from the clues in the text and indexed by cycle, book, event and year.

Lugodoc has also cobbled together a Who's Who of the main characters, and also a What's What and a Where's Where, to help novices navigate the seething, turgid waters of Arthuriana.

For those interested, Lugodoc's own unfocused musings are collected together here.

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