Book I Chapters 1-9
Uther Pendragon dies, leaving his kingdom in chaos. His son, Arthur, succeeds him as High King, after pulling an enchanted sword from a stone. Aided by the sorcerer Merlin, Arthur rises to power but is challenged by the lesser kings of Britain for the throne.
During his reign as King of all England, Uther Pendragon became embroiled in a long battle against the Duke of Tintagil (also called the Duke of Cornwall). It began when Uther one day sent for the Duke and his wife, the beautiful Igraine, to join him at his court. Uther welcomed them, but soon fell in love with Igraine and openly lusted after her. Igraine, loyal to her husband, begged him to escape with her in the middle of the night so that she would not be dishonored. They did so, but at the advice of his Barons, Uther sent a charge of men to summon them back to court. They refused. Uther, ever wrathful, told the Duke to prepare for war.
When the Duke of Tintagil received Uther's message, he sent Igraine to castle Tintagil, while he left for castle Terrabil. Uther soon arrived with a vast army to lay siege to Terrabil. There were many casualties on both sides, and then Uther fell ill. When Sir Ulfius ascertained that Uther was sick from love, he left the king to find the sorcerer Merlin, who he believed could cure Uther. After some adventure, Sir Ulfius found Merlin, who was dressed as a beggar. Sir Ulfius told Merlin of Uther’s plight, and Merlin agreed to help the king.
Uther welcomed Merlin, who told the King that he knew of his lust for Igraine. He predicted that Uther would not only lay with Igraine but also conceive a child with her. In exchange for his help in facilitating this union, Merlin asked that the child be left to his care.
Uther agreed, and Merlin devised a clever plan to disguise the king as Igraine’s husband, the Duke of Tintagil. Merlin told Uther not to speak to Igraine, but rather to claim he was ill and to go straight to bed. Uther was to stay there throughout the night; Merlin would fetch him in the morning. Unfortunately, the Duke of Tintagil saw Uther ride forth from the battle and followed him - in the pursuit, he was killed before Uther ever arrived at Tintagil.
Three hours after the duke's death, the disguised Uther slept with Igraine, who conceived Arthur that very night. The next morning, Merlin arrived to collect the king, at which point Uther kissed Igraine and quickly left. Soon after, Igraine learned of her husband's death, and thereby realized she had been deceived. Worried about her honor, she kept the liaison secret, all the while wondering who she had slept with.
The Barons of England knew of Uther’s love for Igraine, and so they worked with Sir Ulfius to arrange a marriage between her and the king. The wedding was celebrated with great fanfare, and Igraine was made queen.
Uther then requested that Igraine’s daughters be married to men of his choosing. King Lot (of Lothian and of Orkney) wed Margawse, who would later give birth to Sir Gawaine, Sir Gaheris, Sir Agravaine, and Sir Gareth. King Nentres of Garlot married Elaine. The third sister, Morgan le Fay, was sent to a nunnery, where she learned necromancy. She eventually married King Uriens of Gore, and later gave birth to Sir Uwaine.
Shortly before Arthur's birth, Merlin arrived and reminded Uther of his promise to give him the child. When Uther agreed, Merlin asked that the child instead be given to Sir Ector, who was lord of many lands in England and Wales, and who was very loyal to Uther. Merlin believed Sir Ector would raise the child as if his own. Uther sent for Sir Ector, who was given many gifts when he agreed to the arrangement. Upon the baby's birth, Sir Ector had the boy christened and named Arthur.
Two years passed, and Uther grew ill. His enemies from the North made war against him, planning to usurp his throne. A great battled raged, during which many of Uther’ s men were killed. At St. Albans, Uther directly confronted the enemy armies, killing many and sending the rest into a retreat.
He then returned to London to celebrate his victory, but he quickly fell ill again. On the day of his death, Merlin and all of the barons gathered. Merlin asked Uther if Arthur, his son, should become King of all England after his death. Within the hearing of the gathered barons, Uther insisted that Arthur had his blessing and should claim the crown for his own. He then died.
After Uther’s death, the kingdom's peace fell into jeopardy, as many great lords made claims for the crown. Merlin advised the Archbishop of Canterbury to call them together to a great church in London for Christmas. They obeyed the call, and after hearing mass, were led into the churchyard where sat a large stone against the high altar. On the stone stood an anvil of steel, into which a sword was submerged so that only part of its length and handle were visible. On this sword, written in gold, were letters that said: "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England."
The Archbishop decreed that no one was to touch the sword until the high mass was complete. When all of the masses for the day were finally finished, the lords each tried to remove the sword from the stone, but none was successful. The Archbishop declared that the proper king was not present, and ordered ten good knights watch over the stone until such a man come forth.
On New Year’s Day, the barons and lords gathered in London again to hold jousts and tournaments. Amongst them was Sir Ector, who brought his son, Sir Kay, and the young Arthur with him. Sir Kay had been made knight that very day, and realized while traveling that he had forgotten his sword, so he sent Arthur to fetch it. When Arthur found their lodgings locked, he panicked and rode to the churchyard to take that sword for his brother. He found it unprotected, and pulled it easily from the stone.
He brought the sword to Kay, who recognized it and showed Sir Ector. Arthur explained how he had taken it, but doubted his father's insistence on its import. To prove his point, Sir Ector had Arthur return the sword, and then he and Sir Kay demonstrated their inability to pull it out.
When Arthur again pulled it from the stone, his father and brother fell on their knees before him. In answer to the boy's confusion, Sir Ector explained that he was not Arthur's true father, but was rather a protector chosen by Merlin.
They then went to the Archbishop and told him of Arthur’s triumph. The barons and lords again attempted to remove the sword themselves, but none could succeed save Arthur. This angered the great men, because he was young and seemingly not of great birth. The sword was returned to the stone and guarded until Candlemas (a holy day in February), when many other barons and lords attempted the prize but failed.
The feast of Pentecost arrived, and Arthur pulled the sword from the stone for the final time. Those gathered now believed it was God’s will that Arthur should be king, and they promised to defend that belief. They begged forgiveness for initially doubting him, and he granted it before offering the sword to and being knighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. After the coronation, Arthur swore to be a true king and to stand for justice for all of the days of his life. King Arthur then named Sir Kay as seneschal (or Steward of England), never to be replaced as long as Arthur lived. Soon enough, Arthur's enemies - including the lesser kings of the
A year or so after his coronation, King Arthur arrived in the city of Carlion, in Wales, to hold a great feast for Pentecost. Many kings and great lords came including: King Lot of Lothian and Orkney; King Uriens of Gore; King Nentres of Garlot; the young King of Scotland; the King with a Hundred Knights; and the King of Carados. Each of these kings brought hundreds of knights with them, and King Arthur was very pleased to celebrate with so many noble men.
Believing they had come out of love for him, he sent them many presents, but the presents were snidely rejected. The king insisted that they took no joy in receiving gifts from a beardless boy of low blood, and in fact had arrived to make war against him. The barons then advised King Arthur to take five hundred loyal men and fortify the group into a tower. The gathered kings then laid siege to the tower, but King Arthur held strong.
After fifteen days, Merlin arrived in Carlion. The kings were glad to see him, and asked him how the low-born Arthur could possibly justify his claim. To their chagrin, Merlin then explained Arthur's true parentage, and added that his birth took place in wedlock, since the Duke of Tintagil had died even before conception. Merlin then prophesied several things: that Arthur would be king of all England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and other realms; that he would overcome all his enemies; and that he would reign for a long time. Some of the kings marveled at Merlin’s words, but others, like King Lot, called him a witch. They all agreed, however, to grant Arthur safe passage from the tower to speak with them.
On Merlin's insistence, King Arthur left the tower with a small entourage that included the Archbishop of Canterbury. He insisted that the kings would ultimately kneel before him, which made them angry. He then returned to the tower to prepare for battle. Merlin warned the kings that they would lose despite their advantage in numbers, but King Lot insulted Merlin as a "dream-reader." Merlin then vanished and appeared before King Arthur, whom he instructed to fight fiercely.
Meanwhile, three hundred of the opposing army's best men defected to join King Arthur. Merlin instructed Arthur not to use Excalibur - his blessed sword - unless absolutely necessary. Arthur then led his army, with the help of his loyal knights Sir Baudwin, Sir Kay, and Sir Brastias, all of whom marveled at his war prowess. Always on horseback, Arthur laid waste to his enemies with his mighty sword. When the battle was over and the other kings were fleeing, Merlin advised King Arthur not to pursue them.
Book 1 Chapters 10-17
King Arthur fights the eleven kings of the North with the assistance of Kings Ban and Bors of France. Arthur is victorious, but there is much bloodshed and loss of life on both sides.
After the battle at Carlion, King Arthur traveled to London. There, Merlin warned him that his enemy was strong, full of good men, and led by four kings and a mighty duke. He insisted Arthur must rally the support of many good knights to ensure victory, and specifically advised he earn the support of two great kings of France, the brothers King Ban of Benwick and King Bors of Gaul. They were united in war against a neighboring king, Claudas, and Merlin suggested Arthur promise to help them vanquish Claudas if they would first join his own cause.
By the time of All Hallowmass, Kings Ban and Bors had arrived with three hundred well trained knights to assist King Arthur in his plight. Meanwhile, Merlin had gathered more forces. Arthur’s army now numbered over ten thousand.
In the meantime, the army of the North had also grown - eleven kings now stood against Arthur, and their numbers reached fifty thousand on horse and ten thousand on foot. The eleven kings began their assault by besieging the castle of Bedegraine, which Arthur controlled.
On the night of the major battle, by Merlin’s advice, Arthur’s army set upon their enemy as they slept. Ten thousand men died that day. King Arthur led his army fiercely in battle, but the eleven kings also fought hard and well. When dawn approached, Merlin advised Arthur to hide his men in the woods where they could set up a successful ambush against the other army.
The eleven kings attacked King Arthur’s army with a renewed fierceness. The battle was long and brutal, and many knights were wounded or unseated from their horses. Arthur fought like a lion and grievously wounded many knights. Sir Kay wounded King Lot. Sir Lucas fought well, but his horse was killed and he was set upon by fourteen knights. Sir Griflet had to viciously behead and dismember knights in order to protect Lucas. With renewed energy, Sir Lucas charged into battle on horseback and killed two men. King Arthur injured King Lot on the shoulder, forcing a slight retreat. Kings Ban and Bors fought bravely, inspiring fellowship amongst the knights.
The battle continued. King Lot wept over the good knights he had lost, but he and his allies held strong against Arthur, Ban, and Bors. By the end of the battle, Arthur was so covered in blood and brains that no one would have recognized him. The eleven kings were ultimately driven back, but they were filled with chivalry and never gave up.
Throughout the battle, the other army kept Arthur in their sights, marveling at his appearance. After Ban and Bors were driven back to a small river, Merlin appeared to Arthur and instructed him to fall back. Thousands had died, and it was time to leave. Merlin revealed that the Saracens (Muslim pagans) were then laying siege to the lands of the eleven kings, which would distract them. Thus, Arthur withdrew his forces.
Merlin departed to Northumberland to visit his master, Bleise, who recorded the names of all the worthy knights who fought in the battle. Bleise would go on to record the history of all of the battles that Arthur’s knights fought.
Merlin then returned to Arthur and found him in the castle of Bedegraine, near the forest of Sherwood. Merlin disguised himself in black sheep skins with boots and a russet gown, so Arthur did not recognize him. When Merlin asked for a gift, Arthur asked why he should give a gift to such a lowly person. When Merlin replied that there was great treasure to be reaped, Sir Ulfius and Brastias recognized him, and Arthur was abased.
After Candlemas, a young woman named Lionors came to Arthur’s court. Arthur soon fell in love with Lionors, and impregnated her. The child was called Borre, and would one day become a Knight of the Round Table.
War broke out between King Rience of North Wales, whom Arthur hated, and King Leodegrance of Cameliard, whom Arthur loved. The three kings - Arthur, Ban, and Bors - arrived with twenty thousand men at Cameliard to assist King Leodegrance. There, Arthur saw Guenever, King Leodegrance’s daughter, for the first time. He fell in love with her quickly, and would eventually make her his Queen.
Meanwhile King Claudas was creating chaos in France. and Kings Ban and Bors made ready to return home to defend their land. Arthur wanted to go with them, but they insisted he tend to his own country. Merlin agreed with their advice, and predicted that within a year Arthur would repay his debt to them. Merlin also predicted that all eleven kings would die on the same day by two noble knights, the brothers Balin le Savage and Balan.
Book 1 Chapters 18-22
Arthur unwittingly fathers a child with his half-sister, Queen Margawse. Merlin predicts that their son, Mordred, will destroy the kingdom. Arthur also learns that he is the true son of Uther Pendragon.
After Kings Ban and Bors left for France, Arthur returned to Carlion in Wales. King Lot’s wife, Margawse, visited Arthur to secretly spy on him. She brought her four sons with her, named: Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth. Arthur lusted after Margawse, who was a beautiful woman. Soon, Margawse was pregnant with his child, Mordred. She stayed with Arthur for a month and then left.
Arthur did not know that Margawse was his half-sister by his mother Igraine. He dreamt that griffins and serpents came onto his land, killed all of his people, and wounded him greatly before he finally struck them down.
Later that day, he went hunting with his knights, and they chased a hart into the woods. As Arthur rested at a fountain, a strange creature approached from over a hill. From its belly emerged the sound of thirty baying hounds. King Pellinore soon arrived, and explained that the creature was called the Questing Beast, and that he had been fruitlessly pursuing it for over a year. Intrigued by Pellinore’s quest, Arthur offered to take up the challenge for him, but Pellinore refused. Arthur argued with him, but Pellinore stole his horse and rode of in search of the Questing Beast.
Then, Merlin arrived, disguised as a fourteen year child. Merlin told Arthur that Uther Pendragon was his father and Igraine was his mother. Arthur refused to believe him, and so Merlin left and then returned as an old man. This time, Arthur was apt to listen to him because he seemed wise.
Merlin revealed that God was displeased with Arthur because he had slept with his sister (Margawse), and that their child would destroy his kingdom. Startled, Arthur demanded to know the old man's identity, and so Merlin revealed himself. Arthur had always believed he would die in battle, but Merlin insisted his body must atone for his sins. However, Merlin was sorrowful because he knew he himself would die a shameful death while Arthur would die a worshipful one.
They soon returned to Carlion, where Arthur asked Sirs Ector and Ulfius about his conception, and thereby learned the truth. Arthur then sent for his mother to confirm. Igraine arrived soon after with her daughter, Morgan le Fay, a a beautiful woman and half-sister to Arthur. The king welcomed them in his best manner.
Arthur gathered together his mother, half-sister, and knights for a feast. During the festivities, Sir Ulfius accused Igraine of treason, saying her secrecy was the reason Arthur now suffered the “great damage” of having committed incest. Arthur warned him to be careful with his words.
Finally accepting the truth, Arthur fell into his mother’s arms and they wept together. Arthur then called for a feast that lasted eight days.
Book 1 Chapter 23-27
Arthur almost dies at the hands of King Pellinore, but Merlin saves him. The Lady of the Lake gives Arthur Excalibur. Mordred survives an attempted murder at the hands of his father. King Rience of North Wales declares war on Arthur.
Some time later, King Arthur rode into the forest to battle with a rogue knight. He came to the stream where the knight had set up camp, and challenged him. They fought for so long that blood covered the land beneath their feet. Then, the knight split Arthur’s sword in two and declared Arthur to be at his mercy. Arthur refused to yield, saying he would rather die than be so shamed. Arthur then charged the man, bringing them to the ground. The man overpowered Arthur, and prepared to smash the king's head with his helmet.
Merlin arrived and told the knight he could not kill this man, for it was King Arthur. The knight moved to kill him anyway, but Merlin put him into an enchanted sleep and rode off with the king. Arthur was upset that Merlin had used “the craft” against such a worthy knight, and Merlin informed Arthur that that knight was King Pellinore, who would sire two good sons, both knights, Percivale and Lamorak.
The king and Merlin traveled to see a hermit, who healed Arthur of his wounds. They stayed with the hermit for three days and then rode out. Arthur realized he no longer had a sword, and so Merlin directed him toward a lake. In the middle of the lake, an arm clothed in white samite (silk) held a sword above the water. Then, a young woman appeared from another portion of the lake. Merlin told Arthur to go to the woman, who was called the Lady of the Lake, and she would give him the sword. The Lady instructed him to row himself out onto the lake in a barge, and take the sword and scabbard from the hand. Arthur and Merlin rowed themselves to the sword, and after Arthur claimed the sword, the hand disappeared beneath the water.
Back on land, Arthur admired his sword and Merlin asked which he liked the most, the sword or scabbard. Arthur chose the sword, and Merlin chided him, for the scabbard was worth ten of the sword. So long as Arthur had the scabbard with him, he would suffer no grievous harm. When they arrived home, the knights were glad to see Arthur and professed their admiration for his willingness to fight as knight and not hide behind the crown.
A messenger arrived from King Rience of North Wales to ask for Arthur’s beard. King Rience had created a mantle (cloak) that was decorated with the beards of the kings whom he had defeated. He now demanded Arthur’s beard to add to his collection. If Arthur refused, King Rience would attack his lands and take Arthur’s head, beard and all.
King Arthur scoffed at the message and said it was the lewdest request he had ever received. Besides, he was a young man and his beard was not full grown. Arthur told the messenger that he owed Rience nothing, and that war would cost the latter his head.
Soon afterwards, King Arthur ordered that all noble children born on May Day be sent to him, on pain of death. Merlin had told him of Mordred’s birth and destiny to kill Arthur and ruin his kingdom. Many children were sent to him, including Mordred. They were loaded onto a ship and put out to sea to die. It so happened that the ship crashed against the side of a castle, and all of the poor children perished except Mordred, who was saved by a good man. He was raised by the man and later brought to King Arthur's court when he was fourteen. In the meantime, the lords and ladies who had lost their children were angry, more so at Merlin than at Arthur, but they kept their peace.
Around the same time, King Rience's messenger brought Arthur's reply to North Wales. Rience, greatly insulted, prepared himself for battle, and a great host set out for England.
Book I lays the foundation for the whole of Le Morte d’Arthur’s epic tale by introducing the main events which lead to Arthur’s coronation, victory over his enemies, and the formation of the Round Table and the ideals it upholds. Malory’s work is written as prose, as if it were a history of events rather than a collection of tales. The setting is a pseudo-realistic medieval England, where fictitious kings and knights rule the country through the feudal system. By treating the work as history, Malory was certainly seeking to bolster the nationalistic identity of his English reading public.
The feudal order is much on display in this book. Though Arthur's kingship is dictated by magic, his low birth is an impediment towards loyalty. By leaving him with Sir Ector, a good but unimportant knight, Merlin created hurdles that Arthur would have to overcome. He would have to prove his worth, and in fact does so through many battles before the truth of his parentage validates his rule.
However, these hurdles are what teaches Arthur the virtues important to rule, and ultimately lead to the creation of the noble and virtuous Round Table. Within the feudal system, the right to rule was passed from father to son, or from king to next of kin. As Uther died seemingly childless, the throne was there for the taking. When Arthur defeats these same kings on his own terms - and not solely on feudal protocol - he not only creates peace within the nation but also sets the precedent for his later reign and the mercy, justice, and chivalry of the Round Table.
King Lot's behavior during the battle mirrors Arthur's own thoughts and actions during his later war against Rome. He upholds his own code by besieging towns, thus protecting the women and children and avoiding a large death toll, as opposed to employing the tactics of his enemies who ravish the land and its people with no regard for fairness. In this way too, Arthur learns the value of virtue.
Magic is introduced in Book I as a reoccurring motif, particularly in the way Merlin uses it to: manipulate others; to disguise himself; to tell the future; and to travel great distances in a short amount of time. Merlin uses his manipulative craft to oversee not only the course of events, but also to plot out the eventual happenings within the story. On a literary level, this functions as storytelling. In the course of the story, it implies a type of fate and prophecy. Greatness is pre-ordained and needs only for that great man to grasp it.
The symbol of Excalibur reflects the union of personal strength and magic. Certainly, Arthur gets the power of the sword and the protection of its scabbard through the intervention of Merlin's magic. However, it requires him to accept it - he must row himself into the center of the lake, in effect making himself willing participant in his destiny.
Forewarnings as written messages are also a frequent motif. The following words were inscribed on the sword’s handle: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.” Written warnings or mysterious inscriptions are used within the text not only as a plot device but also as their own motif. For example, the written warning above King Solomon’s boat during the quest for the Sangreal, and the words inscribed on the tomb of the dragon which foretell of Galahad’s destiny, both move the plot along and foreshadow coming events.
The motif of violence is also apparent from the very beginning of the epic. Kings Ban and Bors ride into battle soaked in the blood of their enemies; Arthur uses Excalibur to hack away at opposing forces; and King Lot kills any man who deserts his army while simultaneously lamenting their loss. It is a violent world, and Malory engages in it without any overt commentary on the violence.
It is important to note that the narration of Le Morte d’Arthur is in the prose style but written as if it were a history, as if the characters themselves had lived in England at one time. The narrator, presumably Malory, rarely interjects his thoughts and for the most part remains objective. However, he does often note impending events, such as when he explains that a certain person will later play a role in Athur's rise or downfall. The structure is disjoined, giving evidence to the idea that Malory may not have written Le Morte d’Arthur as one work but as a collection of tales; however, connecting sentences may also indicate that Malory tried to bridge the tales together in the hopes of creating one volume of works. For instance, Book I ends with the introduction of Sir Balin le Savage, who is a major character of Book II.
Further, the historical pretense is belied by the compendium nature of the work. Sometimes, it is quite clear that Malory was compiling these legends. In this Book, one example is that Excalibur is mentioned in the battle with the armies of the North, even though the narrative does not bring Arthur to the sword until much later.
The importance of family, another strong theme within the text, in very notable in Book I. Arthur believes he is the youngest son of a knight, and finds it difficult to accept that Uther Pendragon, the High King of England, is his father. Arthur is unaware of his lineage when he sleeps with Margawse, his half sister, who becomes pregnant with their son, Mordred. Though he does not willingly sin here, it is implied that not knowing one's family is itself a sin. Later, Arthur is reunited with Igraine, his mother. Their reunion is joyous, whereas Arthur’s first encounter with Mordred is filled with tragedy. Arthur’s attempted murder of his son sets events in motion which will one day prove fatal for not only the King but his kingdom.