Le Morte d'Arthur

11. The Morte d'Arthur



So Sir Gawain lay healing of the grim wound which Sir Launcelot had given him, and there was peace between the two armies, when there came messengers from Britain bearing letters for King Arthur; and more evil news than they brought might not well be, for they told how Sir Mordred had usurped his uncle's realm. First, he had caused it to be noised abroad that King Arthur was slain in battle with Sir Launcelot, and, since there be many ever ready to believe any idle rumour and eager for any change, it had been no hard task for Sir Mordred to call the lords to a Parliament and persuade them to make him king. But the Queen could not be brought to believe that her lord was dead, so she took refuge in the Tower of London from Sir Mordred's violence, nor was she to be induced to leave her strong refuge for aught that Mordred could promise or threaten.

This was the news that came to Arthur as he lay encamped about Sir Launcelot's castle of Benwick. Forthwith he bade his host make ready to move, and when they had reached the coast, they embarked and made sail to reach Britain with all possible speed.

Sir Mordred, on his part, had heard of their sailing, and hasted to get together a great army. It was grievous to see how many a stout knight held by Mordred, ay, even many whom Arthur himself had raised to honour and fortune; for it is the nature of men to be fickle. Thus it was that, when Arthur drew near to Dover, he found Mordred with a mighty host, waiting to oppose his landing. Then there was a great sea-fight, those of Mordred's party going out in boats, great and small, to board King Arthur's ships and slay him and his men or ever they should come to land. Right valiantly did King Arthur bear him, as was his wont, and boldly his followers fought in his cause, so that at last they drove off their enemies and landed at Dover in spite of Mordred and his array. For that time Mordred fled, and King Arthur bade those of his party bury the slain and tend the wounded.

So as they passed from ship to ship, salving and binding the hurts of the men, they came at last upon Sir Gawain, where he lay at the bottom of a boat, wounded to the death, for he had received a great blow on the wound that Sir Launcelot had given him. They bore him to his tent, and his uncle, the King, came to him, sorrowing beyond measure. "Methinks," said the King, "my joy on earth is done; for never have I loved any men as I have loved you, my nephew, and Sir Launcelot. Sir Launcelot I have lost, and now I see you on your death-bed." "My King," said Sir Gawain, "my hour is come, and I have got my death at Sir Launcelot's hand; for I am smitten on the wound he gave me. And rightly am I served, for of my willfulness and stubbornness comes this unhappy war. I pray you, my uncle, raise me in your arms and let me write to Sir Launcelot before I die."

Thus, then, Sir Gawain wrote: "To Sir Launcelot, the noblest of all knights, I, Gawain, send greeting before I die. For I am smitten on the wound ye gave me before your castle of Benwick in France, and I bid all men bear witness that I sought my own death and that ye are innocent of it. I pray you, by our friendship of old, come again into Britain, and when ye look upon my tomb, pray for Gawain of Orkney. Farewell."

So Sir Gawain died and was buried in the Chapel at Dover.



The day after the battle at Dover, King Arthur and his host pursued Sir Mordred to Barham Down where again there was a great battle fought, with much slaughter on both sides; but, in the end, Arthur was victorious, and Mordred fled to Canterbury.

Now, by this time, many that Mordred had cheated by his lying reports, had drawn unto King Arthur, to whom at heart they had ever been loyal, knowing him for a true and noble king and hating themselves for having been deceived by such a false usurper as Sir Mordred. Then when he found that he was being deserted, Sir Mordred withdrew to the far West, for there men knew less of what had happened, and so he might still find some to believe in him and support him; and being without conscience, he even called to his aid the heathen hosts that his uncle, King Arthur, had driven from the land, in the good years when Launcelot was of the Round Table.

King Arthur followed ever after; for in his heart was bitter anger against the false nephew who had wrought woe upon him and all his realm. At the last, when Mordred could flee no further, the two hosts were drawn up near the shore of the great western sea; and it was the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

That night, as King Arthur slept, he thought that Sir Gawain stood before him, looking just as he did in life, and said to him: "My uncle and my King, God in his great love has suffered me to come unto you, to warn you that in no wise ye fight on the morrow; for if ye do, ye shall be slain, and with you the most part of the people on both sides. Make ye, therefore, treaty for a month, and within that time, Sir Launcelot shall come to you with all his knights, and ye shall overthrow the traitor and all that hold with him." Therewith, Sir Gawain vanished. Immediately, the King awoke and called to him the best and wisest of his knights, the two brethren, Sir Lucan the Butler and Sir Bedivere, and others, to whom he told his dream. Then all were agreed that, on any terms whatsoever, a treaty should be made with Sir Mordred, even as Sir Gawain had said; and, with the dawn, messengers went to the camp of the enemy, to call Sir Mordred to a conference. So it was determined that the meeting should take place in the sight of both armies, in an open space between the two camps, and that King Arthur and Mordred should each be accompanied by fourteen knights. Little enough faith had either in the other, so when they set forth to the meeting, they bade their hosts join battle if ever they saw a sword drawn. Thus they went to the conference.

Now as they talked, it befell that an adder, coming out of a bush hard by, stung a knight in the foot; and he, seeing the snake, drew his sword to kill it and thought no harm thereby. But on the instant that the sword flashed, the trumpets blared on both sides and the two hosts rushed to battle. Never was there fought a fight of such bitter enmity; for brother fought with brother, and comrade with comrade, and fiercely they cut and thrust, with many a bitter word between; while King Arthur himself, his heart hot within him, rode through and through the battle, seeking the traitor Mordred. So they fought all day, till at last the evening fell. Then Arthur, looking around him, saw of his valiant knights but two left, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere, and these sore wounded; and there, over against him, by a great heap of the dead, stood Sir Mordred, the cause of all this ruin. Thereupon the King, his heart nigh broken with grief for the loss of his true knights, cried with a loud voice: "Traitor! now is thy doom upon thee!" and with his spear gripped in both hands, he rushed upon Sir Mordred and smote him that the weapon stood out a fathom behind. And Sir Mordred knew that he had his death-wound. With all the might that he had, he thrust him up the spear to the haft and, with his sword, struck King Arthur upon the head, that the steel pierced the helmet and bit into the head; then he fell back, stark and dead.

Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere went to the King where he lay, swooning from the blow, and bore him to a little chapel on the sea-shore. As they laid him on the ground, Sir Lucan fell dead beside the King, and Arthur, coming to himself, found but Sir Bedivere alive beside him.



So King Arthur lay wounded to the death, grieving, not that his end was come, but for the desolation of his kingdom and the loss of his good knights. And looking upon the body of Sir Lucan, he sighed and said: "Alas! true knight, dead for my sake! If I lived, I should ever grieve for thy death, but now mine own end draws nigh." Then, turning to Sir Bedivere, who stood sorrowing beside him, he said: "Leave weeping now, for the time is short and much to do. Hereafter shalt thou weep if thou wilt. But take now my sword Excalibur, hasten to the water side, and fling it into the deep. Then, watch what happens and bring me word thereof." "My Lord," said Sir Bedivere, "your command shall be obeyed"; and taking the sword, he departed. But as he went on his way, he looked on the sword, how wondrously it was formed and the hilt all studded with precious stones; and, as he looked, he called to mind the marvel by which it had come into the King's keeping. For on a certain day, as Arthur walked on the shore of a great lake, there had appeared above the surface of the water a hand brandishing a sword. On the instant, the King had leaped into a boat, and, rowing into the lake, had got the sword and brought it back to land. Then he had seen how, on one side the blade, was written, "Keep me," but on the other, "Throw me away," and, sore perplexed, he had shown it to Merlin, the great wizard, who said: "Keep it now. The time for casting away has not yet come." Thinking on this, it seemed to Bedivere that no good, but harm, must come of obeying the King's word; so hiding the sword under a tree, he hastened back to the little chapel. Then said the King: "What saw'st thou?" "Sir," answered Bedivere, "I saw naught but the waves, heard naught but the wind." "That is untrue," said King Arthur; "I charge thee, as thou art true knight, go again and spare not to throw away the sword."

Sir Bedivere departed a second time, and his mind was to obey his lord; but when he took the sword in his hand, he thought: "Sin it is and shameful, to throw away so glorious a sword." Then, hiding it again, he hastened back to the King, "What saw'st thou?" said Sir Arthur. "Sir, I saw the water lap on the crags." Then spoke the King in great wrath: "Traitor and unkind! Twice hast thou betrayed me! Art dazzled by the splendour of the jewels, thou that, till now, hast ever been dear and true to me? Go yet again, but if thou fail me this time, I will arise and, with mine own hands, slay thee."

Then Sir Bedivere left the King and, that time, he took the sword quickly from the place where he had hidden it and, forbearing even to look upon it, he twisted the belt about it and flung it with all his force into the water. A wondrous sight he saw, for, as the sword touched the water, a hand rose from out the deep, caught it, brandished it thrice, and drew it beneath the surface.

Sir Bedivere hastened back to the King and told him what he had seen. "It is well," said Arthur; "now, bear me to the water's edge; and hasten, I pray thee, for I have tarried over-long and my wound has taken cold." So Sir Bedivere raised the King on his back and bore him tenderly to the lonely shore, where the lapping waves floated many an empty helmet and the fitful moonlight fell on the upturned faces of the dead. Scarce had they reached the shore when there hove in sight a barge, and on its deck stood three tall women, robed all in black and wearing crowns on their heads. "Place me in the barge," said the King, and softly Sir Bedivere lifted the King into it. And these three Queens wept sore over Arthur, and one took his head in her lap and chafed his hands, crying: "Alas! my brother, thou hast been over-long in coming and, I fear me, thy wound has taken cold." Then the barge began to move slowly from the land. When Sir Bedivere saw this, he lifted up his voice and cried with a bitter cry: "Ah! my Lord Arthur, thou art taken from me! And I, whither shall I go?" "Comfort thyself," said the King, "for in me is no comfort more. I pass to the Valley of Avilion, to heal me of my grievous wound. If thou seest me never again, pray for me."

So the barge floated away out of sight, and Sir Bedivere stood straining his eyes after it till it had vanished utterly. Then he turned him about and journeyed through the forest until, at daybreak, he reached a hermitage. Entering it, he prayed the holy hermit that he might abide with him, and there he spent the rest of his life in prayer and holy exercise.

But of King Arthur is no more known. Some men, indeed, say that he is not dead, but abides in the happy Valley of Avilion until such time as his country's need is sorest, when he shall come again and deliver it. Others say that, of a truth, he is dead, and that, in the far West, his tomb may be seen, and written on it these words:

"Here lies Arthur, once King and King to be."



When news reached Sir Launcelot in his own land of the treason of Mordred, he gathered his lords and knights together, and rested not till he had come to Britain to aid King Arthur. He landed at Dover, and there the evil tidings were told him, how the King had met his death at the hands of his traitor nephew. Then was Sir Launcelot's heart nigh broken for grief. "Alas!" he cried, "that I should live to know my King overthrown by such a felon! What have I done that I should have caused the deaths of the good knights, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Gawain, and yet that such a villain should escape my sword!" Then he desired to be led to Sir Gawain's tomb where he remained long in prayer and in great lamentation; after which he called to him his kinsmen and friends, and said to them: "My fair lords, I thank you all most heartily that, of your courtesy, ye came with me to this land. That we be come too late is a misfortune that might not be avoided, though I shall mourn it my life long. And now I will ride forth alone to find my lady the Queen in the West, whither men say she has fled. Wait for me, I pray you, for fifteen days, and then, if ye hear naught of me, return to your own lands." So Sir Launcelot rode forth alone, nor would he suffer any to follow him, despite their prayers and entreaties.

Thus he rode some seven or eight days until, at the last, he came to a nunnery where he saw in the cloister many nuns waiting on a fair lady; none other, indeed, than Queen Guenevere herself. And she, looking up, saw Sir Launcelot, and at the sight, grew so pale that her ladies feared for her; but she recovered, and bade them go and bring Sir Launcelot to her presence. When he was come, she said to him: "Sir Launcelot, glad am I to see thee once again that I may bid thee farewell; for in this world shall we never meet again." "Sweet Madam," answered Sir Launcelot, "I was minded, with your leave, to bear you to my own country, where I doubt not but I should guard you well and safely from your enemies." "Nay, Launcelot," said the Queen, "that may not be; I am resolved never to look upon the world again, but here to pass my life in prayer and in such good works as I may. But thou, do thou get back to thine own land and take a fair wife; and ye both shall ever have my prayers." "Madam," replied Sir Launcelot, "ye know well that shall never be. And since ye are resolved to lead a life of prayer, I, too, will forsake the world if I can find hermit to share his cell with me; for ever your will has been mine." Long and earnestly he looked upon her as he might never gaze enough; then, getting to horse, he rode slowly away.

Nor did they ever meet again in life. For Queen Guenevere abode in the great nunnery of Almesbury where Sir Launcelot had found her, and presently, for the holiness of her life, was made Abbess. But Sir Launcelot, after he had left her, rode on his way till he came to the cell where Sir Bedivere dwelt with the holy hermit; and when Sir Bedivere had told him all that had befallen, of the great battle in the West, and of the passing away of Arthur, Sir Launcelot flung down his arms and implored the holy hermit to let him remain there as the servant of God. So Sir Launcelot donned the serge gown and abode in the hermitage as the priest of God.

Presently there came riding that way the good Sir Bors, Launcelot's nephew; for, when Sir Launcelot returned not to Dover, Sir Bors and many another knight went forth in search of him. There, then, Sir Bors remained and, within a half-year, there joined themselves to these three many who in former days had been fellows of the Round Table; and the fame of their piety spread far and wide.

So six years passed and then, one night, Launcelot had a vision. It seemed to him that one said to him: "Launcelot, arise and go in haste to Almesbury. There shalt thou find Queen Guenevere dead, and it shall be for thee to bury her." Sir Launcelot arose at once and, calling his fellows to him, told them his dream. Immediately, with all haste, they set forth towards Almesbury and, arriving there the second day, found the Queen dead, as had been foretold in the vision. So with the state and ceremony befitting a great Queen, they buried her in the Abbey of Glastonbury, in that same church where, some say, King Arthur's tomb is to be found. Launcelot it was who performed the funeral rites and chanted the requiem; but when all was done, he pined away, growing weaker daily. So at the end of six weeks, he called to him his fellows, and bidding them all farewell, desired that his dead body should be conveyed to the Joyous Garde, there to be buried; for that in the church at Glastonbury he was not worthy to lie. And that same night he died, and was buried, as he had desired, in his own castle. So passed from the world the bold Sir Launcelot du Lac, bravest, most courteous, and most gentle of knights, whose peer the world has never seen ever shall.

After Sir Launcelot's death, Sir Bors and the pious knights, his companions, took their way to the Holy Land, and there they died in battle against the Turk.

So ends the story of King Arthur and his noble fellowship of the Round Table.