Book 18 Chapters 1-8
Launcelot and Guenever resume their affair, although the Queen quickly banishes him from court out of jealousy. The Queen hosts a dinner for select Knights of the Round Table, with tragic results. Launcelot defends Guenever’s honor in a duel.
After the quest of the Sangreal was fulfilled and all of the surviving knights had returned to Camelot, King Arthur and Queen Guenever made great cheer and were especially pleased with Sir Launcelot and Sir Bors.
Soon after his return, Launcelot resumed his affair with the Queen, forgetting the promise he had made during the quest. Even though it was this adulterous affair that had kept him from finding the Sangreal, he could not help himself. In fact, their affair escalated, so that many in the court began to gossip. Two knights, Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine, were particularly aware of the gossip.
Launcelot put some distance between himself and the Queen, and began to associate himself with many different women, to try to dispel the rumors. Unfortunately, Guenever thought Launcelot had fallen out of love with her, and she she banished him from court on pain of death. Launcelot left her with great heaviness in his heart, and went to a hermitage.
Guenever was sad over Launcelot’s departure, but did not show it. Instead, she held a great dinner in London for select knights, including Sir Gawaine, Sir Agravaine, Sir Gaheris, Sir Gareth, and Sir Mordred, Sir Bors, Sir Ector de Maris, Sir Lionel, Sir Ironside, Sir Kay, Sir Mador de la Porte, Sir Patrise, a knight of Ireland, and Sir Pinel le Savage, the cousin of Sir Lamorak whom Sir Gawaine and his brethren had killed.
Sir Gawaine loved fruit, and so Guenever provided several fruits for his pleasure. However, Sir Pinel hated Sir Gawaine over the murder of Sir Lamorak, and so he poisoned several of the apples. Unfortunately, Sir Patrise ate a poisoned apple and died.
The knights were enraged at Guenever, thinking she had meant to poison them. The Queen remained tactfully quiet, but Sir Mador finally called publicly for his kinsman Sir Patrise's death to be avenged.
None of the knights defended Guenever, believing she was guilty and Mador was in his right to claim vengeance. She cried out and fainted, which caused Arthur to rush to the room.
Sir Mador explained his complaint against the Queen, and demanded death for treason, which was the law. Women were usually burned for the crime, and there was no chance of pardon. As King Arthur could not make an impartial decision, he asked his knights to decide the question through a duel.
Mador agreed to these terms, but no knight would volunteer to be the Queen’s champion, even when she claimed innocence. Arthur asked Mador to give a day's reprieve so he could locate a champion for her, but promised he would abide by the outcome.
Later, in private, Arthur asked Guenever why Launcelot had not come forward to defend her. She claimed ignorance and said his kinsmen might know his whereabouts. He was upset to learn from the knights that she had banished Launcelot. Ultimately, he decided to ask Bors to fight as her champion.
When the Queen asked Sir Bors, he chided her for sending Launcelot, her best defender, away. She fell to her knees in supplication, and when Arthur saw this, he asked Bors to have mercy on her. He finally agreed, stipulating that if a better knight arrived for the cause, he would step aside.
Bors then left secretly to find Launcelot at the hermitage. Launcelot was pleased to learn he had a chance to regain Guenever's favor, and then asked Bors to prepare for the battle so that Launcelot's arrival would be a surprise.
Back at court, the knights felt betrayed by Bors, but he insisted he represented the Queen out of love for Arthur. However, he did stress that the Queen was likely innocent, a claim that affected some minds.
The day of the battle approached, and all gathered beside a meadow in Westminster. The Queen was placed in the Constable’s ward, where she would await her judgment as a great fire was built around an iron stake. If Sir Mador won, then the Queen would die of treason by burning.
As the knights prepared to battle, Bors tried to delay for Launcelot, but Mador was aggressive and forced Bors out on the field. As the latter was about to engage, a strange knight bearing unfamiliar armor arrived. This knight asked to take Bors's place, and Bors agreed.
The knights fought for over an hour, and Launcelot was wounded in the thigh before he finally bested Mador, who yielded and promised to drop the charges.
Arthur and Guenever were happy to learn the knight's identity, and Guenever was especially thankful that he defended her despite her cruelty. Launcelot’s wounds were attended to, and the other knights of the Round Table welcomed him back into the fold.
Nimue, the Damosel of the Lake and wife of the good knight Sir Pelleas, arrived in court. She told King Arthur that it was Sir Pinel who poisoned the apples in an attempt to kill Sir Gawaine. The Queen’s was now longer suspected of treason, and Sir Pinel fled the country.
Book 18 Chapters 9-17
Launcelot participates in a tournament in disguise, and is injured. He is cared for by the Fair Maiden of Astolat, or Elaine. Guenever is jealous of Elaine, as she is not able to take care of Launcelot herself.
Soon afterwards, King Arthur held a feast in Winchester, with jousts and tournaments. Many traveled from all around, but Arthur was saddened to learn Guenever would not accompany him, claiming illness. Launcelot, too, chose to stay behind, claiming his wound from fighting Mador was ailing him. The King left in anger and came to a town called Astolat, where he and his party lodged in preparation for the tournament.
Once the King had departed, the Queen asked Launcelot to attend the tournament in order to dispel suspicions. He agreed, but decided to travel in disguise so he could fight his brethren secretly. Once he arrived, he stayed with the Baron of Astolat, Sir Bernard. Arthur saw Launcelot in Bernard's garden, and though pleased, kept news of his attendance secret.
Launcelot borrowed the shield of one of Sir Bernard's sons, to use as disguise. Sir Bernard asked another son, Sir Lavaine, to act as Launcelot's squire. Further, Bernard's daughter Elaine le Blank, also called Fair Maiden of Astolat, asked Launcelot to wear a token of her favor during the joust, because she was smitten with him. Though he had never worn a lady's token, he accepted it to compliment his disguise. He then left her his true shield for safe-keeping.
During the tournament, Arthur sat as judge above the field, keeping Sir Gawaine as attendant because he did not want Gawaine and Launcelot to joust. Sir Launcelot allowed the tournament to progress for a while before he joined. When he and Lavaine finally entered, they were overwhelmed by the Knights of the Round Table, but ultimately took down 40 of the knights before leaving again for the woods. During the battle, Launcelot did suffer a spear wound in his side.
All the while, Arthur kept Launcelot's identity a secret, and continued to do so when he called the mysterious knight forward to claim the day's prize. Launcelot accepted it, but left quickly to tend the spear wound. Lavine pulled the spear tip out, which caused great pain, and so they went together to a hermitage to recover.
While the hermit tended Launcelot, Gawaine set off to uncover the mysterious knight's identity. When he arrived at Sir Bernard's castle and found Launcelot's shield there, Gawaine told Elaine of Launcelot's injury, and she asked her father's permission to find and aid him. The permission was granted, and she set out.
Meanwhile, Queen Guenever was furious to learn that Launcelot had worn another woman's token. She confronted Sir Bors to learn more, and the knight explained that the token was part of a disguise. It barely quashed her anger, and Sir Bors set out in search of Launcelot.
Elaine, the Fair Maden of Astolat, had found Launcelot and Lavaine, and was depressed to see his suffering. She stayed at his side to heal him, and Launcelot asked Lavaine to bring Sir Bors to him.
Once he arrived, Sir Bors regretted having wounded his uncle, but was forgiven. Bors then told Launcelot of Guenever's anger, and also suggested he give his love to Elaine, a request Launcelot felt unwilling to fulfill.
Book 18 Chapters 18-25
Launcelot rejects Elaine, the Fair Madien of Astolat, when she proposed marriage. She dies of a broken heart, and her family places her body in a barge that sails down the Thames to Camelot.
Once Launcelot had recovered, they all traveled back to Astolat. There, Elaine asked Launcelot to either marry her or take her as lover. He gently refused, offering to pay her a yearly amount and find her a good husband, but she threatened she would die rather than lose him. Launcelot and Lavaine soon left for Camelot, and Elaine died of a broken heart.
Elaine had asked that her body be richly dressed upon her death, and sent down the Thames on a barge. She further wanted a note detailing her tragic tale placed in her hand.
Launcelot was grandly welcomed back at Camelot by all save Guenever. One day, Elaine's barge floated nearby, and her body and note were retrieved. Launcelot was saddened to learn of her death, but insisted to both Arthur and Guenever that he could not have given his love to one he did not truly love. His tone pleased the Queen.
Launcelot buried Elaine the next day. Guenever then apologized for mistreating him, and they continued their relationship throughout the winter.
King Arthur held a joust around Christmas time, but Sir Launcelot did not want to participate. However, when Guenever asked him to wear her token and fight in disguise, he agreed to wear her gold sleeve on his helmet. Only Sir Lavaine, who was to be made a full Knight of the Round Table at the next Pentecost, knew of Sir Launcelot’s disguise.
Before the tournament, Launcelot rested at the hermitage of Sir Brastias. While there, he was injured in the buttocks by a skilled huntress's arrow. Lavaine and Brastias pulled the head out, and he healed in time for the jousting.
In the tournament, even King Arthur fought. Many fought well, including Launcelot and Lavaine, who unseated all of the Orkney men, save Gareth. King Arthur, unhappy to see so many of his men defeated, gathered a group to confront the mysterious knight. Gareth learned from Bors that the mysterious knight was Launcelot, and he and Bors joined the latter's side to win the day.
May, the month of lovers, soon arrived. Malory explains how spring lets every man's heart flourish with both love from God and the love of a faithful woman, whereas winter is cold and fleeting. He further suggets that the virtuous love of King Arthur's day has passed, and that contemporary love cools too quickly. He describes Queen Guenever as one who understood the true nature of spring.
Book 19 Chapters 1-7
Queen Guenever goes a-Maying with Knights of the Round Table, and is kidnapped by Sir Meliagrance. Launcelot arrives and saves her, although Meliagrance accuses the queen of having an affair. Meliagrance imprisons Launcelot in his castle to prevent him from defending the Queen’s honor. Launcelot kills Meliagrance.
One day, Queen Guenever invited ten Knights of the Round Table to celebrate May Day by joining her on a ride into the fields and woods besides Westminster. Each knight was accompanied by a lady, a squire, and a yeoman. The knights included in the lively group were: Sir Kay, Sir Agravaine, Sir Ironside, and Sir Pelleas, among others.
A Knight of the Round Table named Sir Meliagrance, son of King Bagdemagus, lived in a nearby castle that had been awarded him by Arthur years before. Meliagrance had been in love with Guenever for many years, but had never approached her for fear of Launcelot. As this latter knight was not in her company on May Day, Meliagrance gathered a group of archers and men and set out to kidnap the Queen.
When his group confronted her party, Guenever refused to be taken until she saw her accompanying knights being wounded by Meliagrance's larger group. She promised to leave with him if he left her escorts alone.
At Meliagrance's castle, Guenever asked a servant child to bring her ring to Launcelot. Meliagrance learned of this plan and, worried, prepared an ambush to kill Launcelot's horse and delay his arrival.
Meanwhile the child found Sir Launcelot and gave him the Queen’s ring and message. Launcelot swore to rescue her. He moved quickly and bravely - even crossing the Thames in pursuit - but was surprised by the ambush, which killed his horse. He was able to escape to the forest, and was deeply disappointed to see a Knight of the Round Table act so dishonorably as Meliagrance had.
Fortunately, he encountered two of Meliagrance’s servants heading to the castle by chariot. He intercepted the vehicle, and had it bring him secretly to the castle. When he arrived, he called out for Meliagrance to confront him.
When Meliagrance heard Sir Launcelot’s challenge, he asked the Queen for mercy, promising to accept her punishment if she would quell Launcelot's anger. Guenever, wanting to avoid further conflict, asked Launcelot to accept Meliagrance's offer of dinner, which he did. He also promised to meet her at her room that night.
Guenever tended to the wounds of the ten knights who had accompanied her, and made pallets on her floor for their rest. That night, Launcelot snuck to her window and showed his prowess by bending the bars so he could enter, in the process badly cutting his hand. They made love that night even as his hand bled and the other Knights of the Round Table slept on the floor around the bed. When they finished, he left by window and bent the bars back. In his chamber, Lavaine tended his hand wound and hid it by a glove.
The next morning, Meliagrance visited the queen and found her bed disheveled and covered in blood. He accused her of adultery with one of the wounded knights, and threatened to inform King Arthur. Both Guenever and the knights denied the accusation, claiming none of the knights still bled from their wounds. However, when the knights saw the condition of her bed, they were appalled. Launcelot heard loud voices in her room, and soon appeared.
When Meliagrance told Launcelot of Guenever's treason, the latter challenged him to a duel. Meliagrance was forced to accept, but sneakily invited Launcelot to a tour of the castle, during which he set Launcelot on a trap door that opened and imprisoned Launcelot in a deep cave full of straw.
Later, the Queen and her knights departed Meliagrance’s castle for Westminster, thinking Launcelot had already left. Meliagrance wasted little time in telling King Arthur of his accusations, promising the truth of his claim would be proven through a battle with Launcelot to be held eight days later.
Meanwhile, Launcelot remained in great pain until a woman helped him escape in exchange for a kiss. When the day of battle arrived, Guenever was set up to burn in case Meliagrance won or Launcelot did not arrive to act as her champion. Distressed at Launcelot's absence, Sir Lavaine begged King Arthur for permission to act as the Queen’s champion instead. The King, equally upset, agreed, but right as Lavaine took the field, Launcelot arrived on a white horse. He told everyone of Meliagrance’s treachery and deception, and Arthur ordered Guenever to be freed so she could watch the battle.
Launcelot easily bested Meliagrance, who begged mercy. Launcelot looked to the Queen for guidance, and she gave him a signal to slay the traitor. Launcelot insisted Meliagrance continue fighting, but the latter refused, saying he was at disadvantage to Launcelot's strength. Launcelot then tied one hand behind his back, which appeased Meliagrance, but Launcelot easily killed him nevertheless.
King Arthur had Meliagrance’s body interred, and all honored Launcelot for his victory.
Book 19 Chapters 8-13
Launcelot heals the wounds of Sir Urre, and participates in a large tournament .
Later, a Hungarian knight named Sir Urre arrived at court, and Launcelot healed him of his wounds.
A joust was held soon after for 200 knights, and Sir Urre and Sir Lavaine performed well against the mostly inexperience crowd of competitors. They were subsequently made Knights of the Round Table, and Lavaine married Urre’s sister, Dame Felelolie.
Meanwhile, Launcelot had many more adventures, and was now known as Le Chavaler du Chariot because of his ruse with Meliagrance's chariot. During this period, Sir Agravaine remained ever watchful of the Queen and Sir Launcelot, eager to expose their affair.
Love, a major theme throughout the text, grows more threatening in Books 18 and 19 through Guenever and Launcelot's affair. In previous books, their affair was frequently referenced by other characters with a wink or nod, or even pointed out to King Arthur (Morgan le Fay’s shield, King Mark’s letters, etc). However, the affair had never threatened the lives of the participants, or threatened the foundation of Arthur's rule, until now. The dark side of an illicit love now begins to come to the surface.
To some extent, this can be explained in terms of Sir Launcelot. During his quest for the Sangreal, he
turned away from earthly glory and concentrated on developing his faith; in particular, he promised to end his affair with the Queen. However, as we learn here, his thoughts had never strayed from her, and hence compromised his search for spiritual reward. He had proven too tied to Earthly reward (adventures, sex) to be deemed worthy of spiritual greatness. In breaking his promise to God, he shows himself an untrue knight. Because these books come after the spiritual quest, it makes sense that Launcelot's disloyalty would be presented in a more negative light, with greater consequences.
Their behavior also grows more brash in these books. For instance, they have sex in Guenever’s bed even as other knights surround it. She also asks him to wear her token - a repeat of what he had done for Elaine - which risks discovery amongst those of Camelot. It is almost as if the relationship has grown stale, and they must escalate the risk in order to remain committed. Their brashness begs the attention of competing knights like Agravaine, who will play a large role in uncovering the affair in the final books. As they grow more accustomed to their adultery, they create a gross imitation of a married couple, the perversion of which parallels the destruction of Camelot's ideals.
In order to combat suspicions, Launcelot tries in these books to distance himself from Guenver and associate himself with other women. In effect, he attempts to imitate the type of courtly love that most knights show in the earlier parts of the epic, a platonic connection to beautiful, unattached women. However, Guenever is unable to honor such behavior (even when she encourages it). Her jealousy and dishonor become manifest when she is accused of murder at the dinner. Had Launcelot been there, the situation would likely not have escalated as it did, but because she is living a sinful life, she lacks the proper protections when trouble comes. Worst of all, she does not learn from this mistake - her death is delayed by Launcelot's arrival to act as her champion, but destruction is sure to follow because they cannot help but persist in the affair.
However, the problem in these books is bigger than simply Launcelot and Guenever. The Knights of the Round Table are beginning to fall apart. The fact that nobody will defend his Queen when those accusations are made suggest that they are less loyal after having been so thoroughly weakened by the Quest for the Sangreal. There is a significant amount of fighting amongst the brethren in these books, which, albeit done through tournaments, is striking in its frequency. The sense of community collapsing is hard to ignore.
Ironically, it was the Quest for a holy item that causes such strife. Whether this is a comment on how spiritual reward requires Earthly sacrifice and loss, or is a reflection of how those who fail in a spiritual quest will find failure on Earth, remains unanswered by the epic. Nevertheless, it is an interesting contradiction - the court is not rewarded for attempting to do honor to God by undertaking that difficult, long, painful quest.
Women in these books remain difficult to understand. In many ways, they are only the helpless damosels represented in the earlier books - Launcelot saves a lot of women in these books alone. However, the intensity of Guenever's jealousy and hatred suggests a strong distrust of female sexuality. It is seen as a weapon, obstacle, and poison, something capable of causing fellowship of men to disintegrate.
However, Elaine, the Fair Maiden of Astolat, acts as an interesting foil to Guenever’s character. As the unattached daughter of a Baron, she is free to love and care for Launcelot after his injury, whereas Guenever must keep her affections always hidden. Guenever is described as a "destroyer of good knights," and is viewed distrustfully by the Knights of the Round Table, while Elaine is portrayed as an innocent girl so pure that she cannot live without love. The epic seems to suggest that a holy marriage will fulfill a man, while impure, purely sexual, love will destroy him.
When Launcelot tells Arthur and the Queen that love cannot be forced, they both agree - and while the epic seems to agree as well, it also realizes through perspective that this is a tragic truth, one that can cause great harm. The epic certainly fulfills its Christian purpose by suggesting how such love can destroy a world, but in the same breath, it celebrates their love as honest and true. The narrator's description of spring reminds us that love is indeed free, not constrained. By accepting both sides of the issue, the epic does not contradict itself, but rather reminds us that some forces in life have tragic consequences, ones which cannot be controlled even as they spiral us towards a deadly end.