Le Morte d’Arthur is, at its core, a story of the life of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The central themes of destiny, identity, and the ideal quest drive the tales, which move from the formation of Arthur’s England through its tragic demise. Interspersed throughout the story are a variety of colorful characters and circumstances which illustrate the important moments in the history of his kingdom.
At the beginning of the epic, Uther Pendragon is King of all England. He lusts after Igraine, wife of the Duke of Tintagil. They eventually conceive a child together, named Arthur, who is raised by a surrogate family and is prophesized by the sorcerer Merlin to become High King and to unite the kingdom. Chaos ensues after the death of Uther, and the throne remains empty until a young Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from a stone, which makes him King of all England. Naturally, there is dissention among the other lesser kings, who think Arthur is unworthy of his position. This leads to war, and young King Arthur prevails. Meanwhile, Arthur learns his true identity and accepts his fate. Unfortunately, he has already conceived a child with his half-sister. The child, Mordred, is destined to destroy Arthur and his kingdom. In the meantime, King Arthur establishes a code of ethics for the Knights of the Round Table, which helps maintain the peace of the kingdom until it is unfortunately divided from within.
Each book within Le Morte d’Arthur focuses on a particular circumstance or character. Book I, as mentioned, heralds the birth of Arthur and his rise to power. It also details: two successful campaigns that Arthur leads against his enemies; his alliance with the French Kings Ban and Bors; Arthur’s attempt to kill his incestuous son Mordred, who is destined to destroy the kingdom; and Merlin’s prophecies, which foretell the rise and fall of the Round Table.
Book II deals in part with Sir Balin, or the Knight with Two Swords, and his adventures with his brother Sir Balan. They defeat King Rience of North Wales, one of Arthur’s enemies, and help Arthur finally overcome the twelve kings of the North. Their tale ends when the brothers tragically kill each other over a case of mistaken identity.
Book III details: Arthur’s marriage to Guenever; the introduction of the Round Table; and a set of quests which also introduce the characters of Sir Gawaine, Arthur’s nephew King Pellinore, and Pellinore's son Sir Tor.
Book IV details: Merlin’s death by being buried alive by the Damosel of the Lake, Nimue; a short war fought between Arthur’s forces and five kings of the North; and the introduction of Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half sister and enemy.
Book V begins when twelve delegates of Lucius, the Roman Emperor, arrive demanding Arthur pay the truage tax that is owed Rome. Arthur refuses, and Lucius gathers his substantial forces to make war against England. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table travel to meet Lucius’s forces, and eventually prevail. Arthur moves his army through Europe, besieging towns and cities until he arrives in Rome and is crowed the new Roman Emperor. Book V also introduces Sir Launcelot as a main character.
Book VI chronicles the early adventures of Launcelot, including: his defeat of the powerful knight Sir Turquine; his escape from Morgan le Fay; his defeat of two giants; and many other tales. Launcelot is revealed to be not only the best Knight of the Round Table, but also the best knight in the world. His love for Queen Guenever is also introduced, and Launcelot admits that he never wants to marry, since he fears marriage would prevent him from seeking adventure.
Book VII is perhaps the only original tale by the epic's author, Sir Thomas Malory. Most of the other books include stories he compiled from other sources. Book VII begins when a mysterious young man arrives in King Arthur’s court. Sir Kay mocks the young man and calls him Beaumains, or “fair-hands.” Beaumains stays at court for a year, and then is knighted by Sir Launcelot before seeking adventure with a damosel named Linet. Beaumains is revealed to be Sir Gareth, the fourth son of King Lot and Queen Margawse, and brother to Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Mordred. Gareth proves himself a noble and worthy knight by killing the Black Knight, an enemy of King Arthur’s, and the Black Knight's many brothers. Gareth also defeats the Knight of the Red Launds, or Sir Ironside, who was besieging the castle of Dame Lioness, Linet’s sister. Gareth falls in love with and wins the hand of Lioness at a tournament hosted by King Arthur. Gareth and Lioness marry, and he is named the fourth most powerful knight of the realm, after Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Lamorak.
Books VIII, IX, and X chronicle the life and adventures of Sir Tristram. Born a prince of Liones, he is eventually knighted by his uncle King Mark, and defeats Sir Marhaus, an Irish prince and Knight of the Round Table. Tristram travels to Ireland in search of a cure for a cursed wound, and falls in love with La Beale Isoud, whom he meets there. He returns to Cornwall, and his jealous uncle, King Mark, begins to hate him. Tristram is commanded to retrieve Isoud from Ireland and bring her to Cornwall so that Mark might marry her. Tristram does this, but falls even more in love with Isoud on the journey, which begins their life-long love affair. Isoud is married to Mark, although Tristram continues to see her behind his uncle’s back. Tristram becomes one of the most powerful knights in England, which greatly distresses Mark, who tries to have him killed on several occasions. Eventually, Tristram is accused of treason for consorting with the Queen, and so he escapes. Tristram’s story is interrupted with other tales from King Arthur’s court, the most notable being the story of Le Cote Male Taile, which, like the tale of Sir Gareth, involves a mysterious young man and his adventures with a malcontent damosel. Tristram’s story resumes with his marriage to another woman, and the introduction of Sir Lamorak, son of King Pellinore and one of the most powerful knights in the realm. Eventually, Mark banishes Tristram from Cornwall for his affair with Isoud, and Tristram gains fame within Arthur’s court as a Knight of the Round Table. Mark, ever jealous of Tristram, tries to kill him in England, but fails. Tristram returns to Cornwall, and after his defeat of an enemy invasion and an escape from prison, he is united with Isoud at Joyous Gard, Launcelot’s castle, where they live happily together. It is later revealed that King Mark killed Tristram by stabbing him in the back.
Books XI and XII return to Sir Launcelot’s tale. In Book XI, Launcelot seeks adventure, and arrives in the city of Corbin, where he is tricked into sleeping with Elaine, the daughter of the king there. Elaine becomes pregnant with Galahad, who is destined to surpass his father as the best knight in the world and to uncover the holy Sangreal. Launcelot returns to Camelot, but cannot keep his son a secret for long. Guenever feels betrayed by Launcelot but forgives him, as he had been bewitched. Elaine comes to Camelot, and Launcelot is again tricked into sleeping with her. This time, Guenever is less forgiving, and she banishes him from court. This drives him mad.
Book XII begins with Launcelot’s madness. After his banishment, he flees into the woods and lives on fruit and water until he is taken in by a kind knight. In despair, Guenever dispatches knights to search for Launcelot, which they do to no avail for almost two years. Then, Launcelot makes his way to Corbin, where he is mentally and physically healed by the holy Sangreal. He eventually moves into the castle Joyous Gard with Elaine, the mother of Galahad. Launcelot gladly returns to Camelot when two knights, Sir Percivale and Sir Ector, inform him that Guenever has forgiven him.
Books XIII, XIV, and XV begin the tale of the quest for the Sangreal. Also called the Holy Grail, this is the most prized item in medieval Christendom, and so the Knights of the Round Table all set out to find it. Galahad, Launcelot’s son, arrives in Camelot and is revealed to be the knight destined to achieve the Sangreal. Called the “haut prince,” Galahad and 150 other knights set out on the quest, which worries King Arthur. Book XIII mostly follows the quests of Galahad, as he performs miracles and deeds which deem him worthy of the Sangreal, and of Launcelot, as he realizes that although he is one of the best knights in the world, he lacks faith and hence must struggle to redeem himself. Book XIV introduces Sir Percivale’s quest for the Sangreal, in which he overcomes temptation and purifies himself. Book XV continues Launcelot’s tale as he struggles to reevaluate his faith.
Books XVI and XVII conclude the tale of the Sangreal. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors join together as the purest knights of the court. After much adventure, they arrive at the Castle Perilous, where they are greeted by Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus Christ himself. Galahad heals the Maimed King, who has waited many years for pure knights to find the Sangreal. Then, the three companions take the Sangreal to the city of Sarras, where Galahad is made King after the death of its tyrant. Later, Galahad dies in the presence of the Sangreal. Percivale dies in a hermitage two years later, and Bors returns to Camelot to tell the tale of the Sangreal.
Books XVIII and XIX detail the continuing affair of Lancelot and Guenever, and its consequences. After Launcelot’s return from the quest of the Sangreal, he and Guenever become lovers again. They try to hide their affair from the court, but they are too often in each other’s company. Fearing slander, Launcelot distances himself from the Queen, who grows jealous and banishes him from court, although he eventually returns to save her from being kidnapped. Later, Launcelot, in disguise, participates in a tournament and is wounded. A young woman named Elaine (or the Fair Maiden of Astolat) falls in love with Launcelot and helps to heal him. He rejects her offer of marriage, and she dies of a broken heart.
Books XX and XXI conclude Le Morte d’Arthur with the fall of the Round Table and the death of Arthur himself. Book XX begins when Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred accuse Launcelot and Guenever of treason for their adultery. Along with twelve other Knights of the Round Table, they trap Launcelot and the Queen in her chamber in a compromising position. Launcelot escapes, in the process killing the other knights, including Agravaine. Launcelot also wounds Sir Mordred, King Arthur’s son, who brings his father the terrible news which sets the stage for Arthur’s revenge on Launcelot. Sir Gawaine, Arthur’s favorite nephew, tries to persuade the King to release Guenever, saying she is probably innocent, but Arthur refuses and sentences his wife to be burned at the stake for treason. Meanwhile, Launcelot gathers his kinsmen and they concoct a plan to save the Queen. In a frenzy during the rescue, Launcelot kills over forty of his fellow Knights of the Round Table, including Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, Sir Gawaine’s beloved brothers. Gawaine now swears revenge on Launcelot, and encourages King Arthur to go to war.
After a war in England, Launcelot brokers peace and is banished to France. Gawaine convinces Arthur to continue the war there, and the conflict concludes with a single battle between Launcelot and Gawaine, in which Gawaine is terribly wounded. Meanwhile, Sir Mordred, who was left to rule England in his father’s absence, has forged papers claiming Arthur was killed in battle. Mordred calls a Parliament and is declared King of England. Arthur returns with his forces from France, and encounters his son’s army. After Gawaine dies, Arthur is warned in a dream by Gawaine's ghost to postpone the coming battle of Salisbury Plan, for Arthur will die if he faced Mordred in battle.
Arthur calls for a treaty and postponement, which Mordred is happy to sign. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding causes the war to resume.
When the battle ends, King Arthur sees that only two of his noble knights are left alive: Sir Bedivere and his brother Sir Lucan. King Arthur kills Sir Mordred in a rage, but is fatally wounded by Mordred before the latter dies. Arthur is taken to the isle of Avelion to heal; some speculation remains as to whether he ever truly died there. The narrator interjects to say that King Arthur may come again. In the meantime, Bedivere believes Arthur’s body was buried in a hermitage, and several knights, including Bedivere and Launcelot, retire there as hermits. Years later, Guenever’s body is placed beside her husband’s, and Launcelot dies soon after. Sir Constantine, the son of Sir Cador, is made King of England.