Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur Summary and Analysis of Book 16-17


Book 16 Chapters 1-5

Gawaine grows weary of the quest for the Sangreal, as does Ector. In a a chapel, they are visited by the Holy Ghost. A hermit tells Gawaine he is not worthy of the Sangreal, and he abandons the quest.

Sir Gawaine had found little adventure since beginning his quest for the Sangreal, and he grew lonely. Therefore, he was pleased to meet Sir Ector de Maris one day. They complained about their fatigue, and Ector told Gawaine that other knights felt the same. Together, they decided that they would not likely be the ones to find the Sangreal, provided it actually be found.

They rode together for eight days, and then came upon an old chapel. They went inside, leaving their spears at the door, and soon fell into deep sleep. Each had a marvelous dream.

Sir Gawaine dreamt of a meadow filled with herbs and flowers. In the meadow were one hundred and fifty bulls, all black save three, which were white. One of the white bulls had a black spot upon it, but the other two were as white as snow. The black bulls moved on to find better pastures, but the white bulls were tied together with a strong cord and left in the meadow. When some of the black bulls returned to the meadow, they were sickly, starving, and near death. The white bulls remained strong and whole.

Sir Ector dreamed that he and his brother, Sir Launcelot, were sitting on two chairs. They each jumped onto two horses, and said to one other: "Go we seek that we shall not find." Then, a man beat Launcelot and took his clothes, replacing them with robes of knots. He rode a donkey to a well, and when he tried to drink of it, the water receded. The brothers rode on until they arrived at a rich man’s house, where a wedding was taking place. There, a king told them to leave, as they did not belong.

Gawaine and Ector awoke and spoke confusedly of their dreams. Ector felt anxious to find Launcelot. As they sat together talking, a hand appeared in the air, covered in red samite and holding a burning candle. It passed before them into the chapel and vanished. Then, a voice spoke to them, saying: "Knights of full evil faith and of poor belief, these two things have failed you, and therefore ye may not come to the adventures of the Sangreal."

Gawaine and Ector quickly left the chapel, and decided to seek out a hermit to ask the meaning of their dreams. They learned from a squire about a hermit, Nacien, who lived on a mountain that was only reachable by foot.

Before they could reach the mountain, they encountered an armed knight in a valley. In a joust, Gawaine was injured before fatally wounding the other knight, who turned out to be Sir Uwaine. Gawaine was grieved to have killed his cousin and fellow of the Round Table. They took Uwaine to an Abbey so that he might confess his sins before he died.

Gawaine and Ector then set off again to find Nacien. They traveled up the mountain on a small path, to a little house where Nacien lived. They told him of their dreams, and then asked for his counsel.

Nacien told Gawaine that the peaceful meadow in his dream represented the Round Table, and the humility and chivalry for which it was founded. The one hundred and fifty bulls symbolized the Knights of the Round Table. The black bulls were the knights with sin on their souls. The two pure white bulls were Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale, knights who had kept their virginity. The white bull with the black spot was Sir Bors, who lost his virginity and produced a son but had since remained chaste. The black bulls who were starved or dying were the knights who set out on the quest without confessing their sins, and would suffer or die for it. As for the white bulls, only one would return.

Nacien next interpreted Ector’s dream, saying he and Launcelot would never find the Sangreal. Launcelot’s fall from the horse symbolized his turning away from pride and toward humility. The robes of knots represented his hair shirt, and his donkey linked him to Christ by stressing his meekness. Since Launcelot had been sinful for so many years, the water of Christ receded from him. Nacien finally explained that the vision of the hand was a visitation from the Holy Ghost.

Nacien finally told Gawaine that he was not worth of the quest for the Sangreal. Nacien called him a murderer, contrasting him to Launcelot, who had now forsaken a sinful life in pursuit of the Sangreal. Gawaine then decided to give up the quest, and he and Ector soon departed to seek different adventures.

Book 16 Chapters 6-12

Bors begins his quest for the Sangreal. He defends a lady’s honor, saves a maiden’s virtue over his brother’s life, and escapes an evil enchantment.

On his own quest, Sir Bors departed from Camelot and met a religious man, who invited him to confess his sins before his journey began. They dined together, and the man told Bors to have only bread and water until he found the Sangreal. He also gave Bors a scarlet coat to wear as a sign of his chastity.

Later, Bors saw a great bird in a dying tree. The bird sat above a nest of starving baby birds. As Bors watched, the great bird pierced itself with its beak, and bled to death. The babies drank the blood and were saved. Bors considered this a good omen for his quest.

That evening, he came to a tower, where he met a young lady who needed a champion to fight against a knight who wanted to steal her lands. Bors agreed to be her champion, and spent the night sleeping on the tower floor.

He dreamt of two birds, one as white as a swan and the other black as a raven. The white bird came to him and said: "An thou wouldst give me meat and serve me I should give thee all the riches of the world, and I shall make thee as fair and as white as I am." The black bird then addressed him, saying: "An thou wolt, serve me to-morrow and have me in no despite though I be black, for wit thou well that more availeth my blackness than the other's whiteness."

In a second dream, Bors was in a chapel with a dry tree and two white lilies that were prevented from touching by a holy man. The man said to Bors: "Should not he do great folly that would let these two flowers perish for to succour the rotten tree, that it fell not to the earth?"

The next day, Bors prepared to fight for the lady of the tower. He went to mass and refused to eat until after the battle was won. The battle with the knight was long, but Bors prevailed and made the lady's enemies promise to respect her. After they did, he set out.

Two days later, he came across two knights beating his brother Lionel, who was naked and bound to a horse. Lionel bore the torture silently, and Bors was about to rescue him when he saw a woman being chased by a knight and calling for help. Bors was torn between helping his brother and the lady, but ultimately chose the help the latter.

After saving the maiden, Bors returned to where he left Lionel, but could not find him. He encountered a priest and asked if the latter had seen anything. The priest showed him Lionel's body in a nearby bush, which caused Bors to faint. When he awoke, he brought Lionel's body to a chapel where it was placed in a marble tomb.

While at the chapel, the priest, who was dressed in black, interpreted Bors's dreams. He explained that the white bird represented a gentlewoman who was in love with Bors. If Bors did not return her love sexually, then both she and his cousin Launcelot would die. He suggested that Lionel's blood was on his hands since he had chosen to protect a woman's maidenhood over his brother's life.

The priest brought Bors to a tower, where he met a group of joyful knights and ladies. Their cheer helped him overcome his sorrow over Lionel, and he allowed them to dress him fancifully. An attractive lady soon arrived, and asked to sleep with him. He was tempted, but worried about breaking his vow of chastity. Even when she threatened to kill herself, he refused her advances.

She brought twelve of her maidens to the top of the tower, and they jumped off. Bors, shocked, blessed himself, and the tower suddenly disappeared. He rode away hard until he arrived at an Abbey where he could ask for counsel.

Book 16 Chapters 13-17

Bors reluctantly fights with his brother, Lionel, then is taken to the ship which Percivale is on.

At the Abbey, the Abbot explained that the priest in black was a liar and a fiend. He then interpreted Bors's dreams and visions. He explained that the great bird in the forest represented Christ, who gave his lifeblood for his people. When Bors fought for the lady of the tower, he fought for Christ and the new ways of the Church. The black bird in his dream represented the Holy Church. The white bird symbolized those that pretended to live faithful lives but who were actually hypocrites. The dry tree of Bors’ last dream represented his brother, Lionel, who had turned away from the faith. The white lilies were two virgins, one a knight, recently wounded, and the other the maiden Bors saved from the lusty knight. The Abbot also explained that the dark priest had also lied about Lionel, who was alive and well.

The next day, Bors came upon a castle where a tournament was taking place. He was very pleased to find Lionel amongst the participants. However, Lionel was angry with Bors for choosing to save the maiden over him, and he knocked him unconscious. Lionel was about to kill Bors when a hermit blocked the blow, dying.

When Bors woke, he cried to see his brother preparing to attack him. He begged God for a miracle to save them, and then prepared to fight. A voice suddenly called from the heavens, telling Bors to flee. A cloud of fire appeared between them, and knocked them out. When Bors awoke, he saw Lionel was unharmed.

The voice told him to go to the sea, where Percivale was waiting for him on a ship. Bors asked Lionel for forgiveness, and then departed.

Sir Bors soon arrived at the sea, and saw the ship covered in white samite. He entered the ship and found Percivale. They were glad to be reunited, and knew that had only to wait for Sir Galahad.

Book 17 Chapters 1-7

Galahad participates in a tournament, and defeats Gawaine and Ector. He is taken to the ship by a gentlewoman. The gentlewoman relates the history of another ship, and of King Solomon, who built it.

While on his quest for the Sangreal, Sir Galahad arrived one day at a castle where a tournament was being held between the inhabitants and others who were outside its walls. Seeing the knights inside were losing, Galahad defeated many of the knights outside, whose number included Sir Gawaine and Sir Ector. Galahad's force convinced Sir Ector that the young knight was indeed worthy of his reputation.

After the tournament, Galahad travled to a hermitage, where he met a gentlewoman who asked him to join her on a great adventure. He accompanied her to the sea, where he found the ship on which Bors and Percivale were staying. The knights reunited and told their tales.

The ship set sail, and passed between two large rocks, where another large ship lay beached in the shallow waters. The gentlewoman told them to board this other ship to seek adventure, which was God’s will. On the ship, the knights found a message warning that only the pure of heart could enter.

The woman then revealed herself to be Percivale’s sister by their father King Pellinore. On this second ship, the knights found a bed on which lay a beautiful sword, on which was a message saying that the sword's bearer would never grow tired or injured. However, only one man was worthy of it. Neither Percivale nor Bors could lift it, and Galahad was skeptical. The woman told them about the ship and the sword, about the war between King Labor and King Hurlame which resulted in Hurlame’s death after he tried to use the sword in ill faith. Forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Nacien, brother in law of King Mordrains, found the ship near the Isle of Turnance. He was not worthy of the sword either, and became maimed when he tried to use it.

The ship had been fashioned by King Solomon to keep the sword safe until its worthy bearer could find it. One night, while Solomon slept, the angels wrote the warning on the sword and Solomon allowed the ship to sail off without him, knowing he was not worthy of it. A voice then told Solomon that the last knight of his line would lie upon the bed in the ship.

The woman provided girdles for the sword made of her own hair, and told them it was called the Sword with the Strange Girdles, and its scabbard the Mover of Blood. Galahad then took the sword from the bed. The ship set sail and soon landed in the marshes of Scotland, onto which they departed.

After some adventure, a heavenly voice told the knights to find the Maimed King and restore his health. In a forest, the adventurers (which included the lady) following a white hart and four lions into a chapel, where they saw the hart miraculously change into a man. The lions transformed as well: the first became a man, the next stayed a lion, the third became an eagle, and the last an ox.

They met a good man in the chapel, who explained that the hart represented Jesus Christ, who was pure and without sin. The man, lion, eagle, and ox were the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels. The man told them God would reveal many secrets to them, as they were destined to one day find the Sangreal. The three knights rejoiced, and stayed in the chapel for the night.

Book 17 Chapters 8-12

The companions arrive at a castle, and refuse to allow the gentlewoman to participate in the strange custom of bloodletting. To save their lives, the gentlewoman allows her blood to be taken, and dies. Percivale places her body in a ship and sends it to Sarras. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors go their separate ways.

The next morning, they arrived at a castle where they met an armed knight. The knight told them Percivale’s sister must donate a full bowl of her blood to the lady of the castle, per their customs. Galahad refused to grant this, and defeated the knights in a fight. During the altercation, he drew the Sword with the Strange Girdles, which produced a marvelous sight.

After his victory, a good knight of the castle offered them lodging and protection there. They agreed, and that night asked to learn more about the bloodletting custom. They learned that the lady of the castle had long been ill, and needed the blood of a king's virginal daughter to cure her. Upon hearing this, Percivale's sister promised to donate her blood, even though it might kill her.

The next morning, she gave her blood and fainted from its loss. When she awoke, she asked Percivale to put her body into a boat, and promised she would rejoin them at the holy City of Sarras. She asked that they bury her upon this reunion, and then predicted that Galahad and Percivale would soon after follow her to death.

A voice from above instructed the knights to part ways, and seek their own adventures until they reunited at the castle of the Maimed King. When Percivale's sister died, Percivale put her in a boat along with a note describing their adventures. The lady of the castle was healed through the sister's blood, but a wild tempest began as soon as the boat left, and it destroyed half of the castle.

The three knights then parted to seek their own adventures.

Book 17 Chapters 13-17

Launcelot and Galahad are reunited, and spend a year together on a ship. Launcelot finds himself in the same room as the Sangreal, but is struck dumb by its presence. He eventually heals. Meanwhile, Galahad performs miraculous deeds.

Meanwhile, Sir Launcelot had come to the waters of Mortoise, where he fell asleep and in a dream he was told to board the first ship he found. When he heard these words, he awoke and soon found a ship without sail or oar. As he boarded, he felt a sense of peace wash over him as he was filled with the presence of the Holy Ghost.

In the ship, he found the body of Percivale’s sister on a bed. He read the note which Percivale had left, explaining her lineage and adventures. Launcelot traveled with her body for a month on the sea.

One night, while outside on the deck, he saw a knight approaching. He welcomed the knight aboard to discover that it was Galahad, his son. They spent half a year together on the ship, very pleased to be reunited.

One day, a knight on shore cried out to Galahad that it was time to leave his father and continue his quest. They parted emotionally, and Galahad told Launcelot they would never meet again while alive.

Launcelot spent another month on the ship, during which time he prayed to God constantly to grant him sight of the Sangreal. His prayers were answered when the ship came to a castle with two lions, and a voice instructed Launcelot to enter it. He did so, and found a locked chamber door, outside of which he prayed for entrance. The door opened to reveal a room full of magnificent light. A voice told him to flee, saying he was not worthy to enter, and as he withdrew, he glimpsed a mass of angels and priests surrounding the Sangreal. Thinking a priest was about to collapse, Launcelot rushed into the room to his aid, but a breath of fire burnt him and left him deaf and blind. He was taken outside the room and left there as if dead.

The next morning, he was brought to a bed, where he laid prostrate for 24 days. He was upset to finally awake, for he had dreamed marvelous dreams. He soon learned he was at the castle of Carbonek, and that King Pelles had been called to help him. Pelles helped him recover and eventually leave.

Launcelot returned to Camelot, where he was greeted by King Arthur and Queen Guenever. He learned that more than half the Knights of the Round Table were dead, and that only three had returned (Gawaine, Ector, and Lionel). He told Arthur of his adventures, and lamented that his son would not return to him in this life.

Book 17 Chapters 18-23

Galahad, Percivale, and Bors are reunited. They arrive at the castle which houses the Sangreal, and are greeted by Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus Christ. They are tasked with taking the Sangreal to Sarras, where they are imprisoned for a year. Then, Galahad is made the king of Sarras and dies shortly thereafter. Percivale and Bors enter a hermitage, and Percivale dies two years later. Bors returns to Camelot and relates the tale of the quest of the Sangreal to the court

Meanwhile, Sir Galahad came to the Abbey where King Evelake dwelled. The king asked Galahad to hold him, so that he might depart this world in the arms of the purest knight alive. When the king died, Galahad buried him, and then traveled until he found a despoiled well, which he cured by touching it. As he traveled on towards Gore, he continued to perform miracles of this sort.

Galahad rode five days, and met Percivale in a forest. They traveled together in search of the Maimed King, and along the way reunited with Bors, who had spent most of the year in the wild forests and mountains with only God for company.

They soon arrived at Castle Carbonek, also called Castle Perilous. When they entered, they were greeted by King Pelles and his son, who brought them the sword that had struck Joseph of Arimathea. The sword was shattered into pieces, but Galahad's touch restored it. The sword was given to Bors.

A voice declared that only those worthy of sitting at the table of Christ could stay for supper. Twelve knights joined the table, from Gaul, Ireland, and Denmark. The Maimed King was brought before them, and he told Galahad he had long awaited this moment, and prayed it would end his anguish. A voice from above told Pelles and his son to depart, since this was not their quest.

Joseph of Arimathea was brought into the the room, flanked by angels. Though he had been dead 300 years, he explained that he could be both immortal and mortal. More angels entered with various candles and spears, and Joseph prepared to say mass. He held up a piece of bread, and a figure in the likeness of a child appeared and entered it. He then put the bread into the Holy Vessel and it vanished.

Jesus Christ then rose from the Holy Vessel and addressed the knights respectfully. He then gave the Sangreal to Galahad, and asked the knights to carry it to the city of Sarras. He also asked them to heal the Maimed King. After blessing them, he vanished.

Galahad touched the holy spear, coating his fingers with blood, and then anointed the Maimed King’s body, thereby healing him.

The knights traveled for three days, and then found the ship of white samite that had brought them there. The silver table and the Sangreal were already on board. That knight, Galahad slept in the bed where the sword had once lain, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that was told to King Solomon.

Before long, they arrived at Sarras and carried the silver table to its gates. Galahad asked a crippled man to help him carry the table, and the man was healed. Word spread quickly of this miracle, and of the three knights.

There, the three knights found and buried Percivale’s sister. When the tyrannical King of Sarras, Estorause, learned of the Sangreal and the knights who bore it, he threw them in a deep prison.

They were imprisoned for a year, but kept the Sangreal, which filled them with grace. King Estorause grew ill, and begged their forgiveness before dying. The city was dismayed because Estorause left no heir, but a voice from above told them to crown Galahad.

A year passed, during which the three knights prayed before the Sangreal every day. One morning, Galahad arose to find Joseph of Arimathea kneeling before the table of the Sangreal. Joseph told Galahad it was time for him to leave the physical world, so Galahad gladly bid farewell to his companions and asked that they bring news of him to Launcelot. He knelt before the Sangreal, and his soul was carried to heaven along with the vessel and the spear.

After burying Galahad, Percivale and Bors left the city to join a hermitage, where they stayed together until Percivale died two years later. Bors buried him beside his sister, the gentlewoman, and Galahad.

Bors then returned to Camelot, where he was gladly received by King Arthur and the court. Launcelot was deeply grieved to learn of Galahad's death. King Arthur asked clerks to record Bors’s tale as he told the court of the quest for the Sangreal.


The Sangreal quest continues to be defined by the themes of faith and mysticism. The final books are the best example of this, in which the three knights prove themselves less through physical feats than through piety, purity, devotion, and faithfulness.

In terms of the main plot, the Sangreal quest stands as the greatest test of valor for the Knights of the Round Table. Launcelot is no longer the top knight, but instead is eclipsed by his son and his son's companions. Launcelot's loss of prestige foreshadows the decline and destruction of the Round Table and the ideals of Camelot. On a character level, it is intertwined - Launcelot's great failing is his adulterous love for Guenever, which both keeps him from finding the Sangreal and sets in motion the civil war that ends Arthur's reign.

In a bigger sense, the epic's purpose is contained within this shift from Launcelot to Galahad. Ostensibly, Malory is telling the history of how feudal aggression was replaced by an era of Christian piety. The old heroes - defined solely by feats of arms - are less valorous in his day than the pious ones. The world changed during Arthur's time, and the choice of heroes reflects this. Whether Malory's purpose has accurate historical weight is questionable, but it seems clear that he wishes to somewhat repudiate the world of aggression and brute strength that has been so celebrated in the epic thus far, in favor of a purer, more devout knighthood.

Dreams and visions, a reoccurring motif within the text, are notably prevalent in these books. Most of the dreams are interpreted rather clearly within the text itself, and the symbolism is straightforward. As noted in the previous Analysis, this notes a shift from the complicated dreams of earlier to the clearer Christian demarcation of good and evil. Black remains a symbol of evil, and white a symbol of purity. What matters more than the dreams themselves is the willingness of pious knights to abide by the meanings.

Gawaine's dream of the black bulls presents an interesting interpretation of the Knights of the Round Table, however. In essence, the dream explores moral corruption. By its meaning, every knight - even the greatest - is contaminated with sin. Consider how Nacien accuses Gawaine of murder, and notes that this will keep Gawaine from reaching his goal. However, by this point, Gawaine and Ector have already grown tired of the quest. Christian piety is splendid and pure in the text, but it is also difficult to obtain. It is not for the faint-of-heart. Even after Galahad, Bors and Percivale stop having physical adventures, they show great fortitude through perseverance, whereas Gawaine and Ector and ready to give up. To earn God's love, we must be willing to transcend our weakness, to persist. We might not all be worthy of the Sangreal, but we can all persevere as Launcelot tries to. He continues to push despite his failures, and is the more worthy for it.

The motif of virginity is very apparent in the last stages of the Sangreal quest. Not only does Gawaine’s vision reiterate that only the pure of heart and body could achieve the Sangreal, but they are constantly reminded of this. Both Bors and Percivale confront physical temptations that they must overcome in order to stay on the quest. The power of temptation is reflected in the way Percivale must stab himself in the thigh to stay pure. So great is the power of virginity that Galahad, “the pure knight,” is able to heal others. Bors seems to have been rewarded for choosing to save a woman's chastity over his brother's life. The moral value of chastity is praised beyond question in these chapters, in an interesting counterpoint to the courtly love that is celebrated in the earlier parts of the epic. Again, the work overall seems to suggest that a new era is arising.

Women have a strange role within the epic overall, but are rather plainly drawn in these final books. For much of this quest, women have served as temptresses. They are antagonists to the pure knights, so much so that the woman who tempts Bors is allowed to die rather than compromise his chastity. For these knights, women present an obstacle that must be overcome for their success.

Percivale's sister does shine as a model of purity, but only because of her virginity. She has access to old religious lore about Solomon, and her blood has magical powers because of her chastity. Her purity is rewarded through her burial in Sarras, though it is telling that she is not allowed to be physically present when they reach the Sangreal.

Finally, it is worth considering this depiction of women as a presage to the final books. The great temptress of the work is Queen Guenever, whose relationship with Launcelot both keeps him from finding the Sangreal and leads to the end of Arthur's just kingdom. While the epic does not paint Launcelot as unwitting victim to her advances, her sexuality is interesting to consider in light of the Sangreal Quest, especially since it immediately precedes the final adventures.