Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur Summary and Analysis of Book 20-21


Book 20 Chapters 1-7

Agravaine and Mordred confront Launcelot and Guenever while they are together in bed. Launcelot kills thirteen Knights of the Round Table during his escape, including Agravaine, King Arthur’s nephew. Mordred is wounded, and reports to the King of Launcelot and Gunever’s betrayal.

May arrived again, and two unhappy knights, Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred, swore they would avenge themselves against the damage that Launcelot and Guenever had afflicted on the code of chivalry. He began to talk badly of the lovers and the shame they caused, but only Sir Mordred joined in his open contempt.

One day, when Agravaine threatened before Gawaine and his brothers to tell Arthur of the affair, Gawaine reminded him that Arthur would never go to war against Launcelot because of all the times the knight had saved them all. Further, Gawaine worried that such mischief would destroy the Round Table.

Agravaine paid no heed to these warnings, and told Arthur of the affair, and that it was common knowledge. Arthur, deeply upset, refused to entertain the possibility, but he agreed that Agravaine could fight Launcelot in order to prove the validity of his claim.

Agravaine then asked the king to go hunting the next day, and to tell the Queen that he would be away for the night. Agravaine predicted Launcelot would stay behind as well, and then he and a select group of knights, including Mordred, could catch him in the act of adultery and detain him. Arthur agreed to the plan, but warned them to be careful.

The next day, Arthur rode out to hunt, leaving word he would be gone overnight. Agravaine and Mordred then asked twelve other knights to hide near the Queen's rooms. That night, Sir Bors warned Launcelot to stay away from Guenever, as he suspected mischief. Launcelot brushed aside his nephew’s comments, and then went to the Queen. He wore no armor, but did bring his sword.

Meanwhile, the armed knights outside the door waited a while, and then called loudly to the court of Launcelot's betrayal, after which they demanded he show himself. Guenever was beside herself with fear, as she would be burnt for treason and Launcelot killed.

Launcelot swore his love for Guenever, and promised that if he died, Sir Bors and others would save her from death by fire. She countered that she would gladly follow him to death if he died.

The knights outside continued to bang on the door and demand he surrender, promising he would come to no harm. Launcelot then opened the door wide enough to admit only one man; Sir Colgravance of Gore entered first, and was quickly struck down dead, his corpse left blocking the door. Guenever and her ladies helped Launcelot into Colgravance's armor, after which he demanded his accusers face him on the field according to custom. Agravaine and Mordred refused, and promised to kill him for his defiance.

Launcelot then opened the door and viciously attacked, killing Sir Agravaine and all the others save Sir Mordred, who fled. Launcelot quickly promised the Queen to protect her from the punishment now certain to follow, after which they kissed and exchanged rings before he fled.

Launcelot found Bors and asked him to gather the knights loyal to him, a group which included: Sir Lionel, Sir Ector, Sir Lavaine, and Sir Urre amongst others who had been loyal to Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristram. Launcelot protested his innocence to this group, but admitted that the death of thirteen knights would require his punishment. He begged them to fight with him, and to save Guenever from death by flame. They agreed to his requests, and then Bors advised that after her rescue, Guenever be brought to his castle, Joyous Gard. They all then set out into the woods to await the King's decision.

Meanwhile, Sir Mordred had found Arthur, his father, and told him what had happened. Arthur was upset, and blamed Agravaine and Mordred for their interference. However, he realized that Launcelot was now against him, and lamented that this surely meant that the Round Table would be "broken for ever."

Book 20 Chapters 8-16

King Arthur laments the loss of the knights whom Launcelot killed, and sentences the Queen to be burned at the stake for treason. Launcelot rescues her, and in his frenzy kills a number of other noble Knights including Gaheris and Gareth. Gawaine, their brother, encourages Arthur to go to war with Launcelot. King Arthur reluctantly enters into a war with Launcelot, which pits knight against knight. Gawaine taunts Launcelot and calls him a coward. Launcelot prevents Bors from killing Arthur. The Pope intervenes and demands that Guenever be returned to Arthur. Launcelot is banished from England.

Arthur was compelled to find his Queen guilty of treason, even though Sir Gawaine argued that Launcelot had likely visited her for an innocent reason, and had only done so at night in order to avoid slander. He also reminded Arthur of Launcelot's many good deeds.

Arthur agreed with Gawaine, but felt compelled to opposed his best knight partly because Launcelot: had previously killed two of his sons, Sir Florence and Sir Lovel; had now had killed his nephew, Sir Agravaine; and had almost killed his other nephew, Sir Mordred. Gawaine understood Arthur's reasons, but insisted he would not fight against Launcelot.

Arthur asked Gawaine and his brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, to escort the Queen to her execution by fire. Gawaine refused the King’s request, saying he would take no part in her death. Gareth and Gaheris shared their brother’s sentiment toward the Queen, but they would not refuse their liege, and so honored his request. As a sign of peace, they wore no armor.

The Queen was soon led away for execution, and a spy brought word to Launcelot about it. He quickly arrived to save Guenever, in such a frenzy that he killed everyone in his way. Many noble knights died that day, including Sir Griflet, Sir Aglovale, Sir Priamus, Sir Tor and others. Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris were also killed despite being unarmed, which constituted a great breach of knightly honor.

Launcelot easily rescued Guenever and brought her to Joyous Gard. When it became known that Sir Launcelot and King Arthur were at odds, many nobles and knights joined Launcelot, glad of their conflict.

King Arthur was most grieved to learn of the dead knights. In pain, he said: "Alas, that ever I bare crown upon my head! for now have I lost the fairest fellowship of noble knights that ever held Christian king together. Alas, my good knights be slain away from me… Alas that ever this war began." He admitted that a king can always find a new queen, but that a fellowship like the Round Table was once in a lifetime, and hence was he sadder to lose knights than a queen.

He commanded nobody tell Gawaine that his brothers Gareth and Gaheris had died. Arthur understood that Launcelot had killed in a fury, and had not considered either those he killed or whether they were armed. He feared Gawaine would seek to avenge their deaths, and thereby escalate the war.

However, Gawaine learned what had happened, and indeed swore vengeance. Arthur refused to let him see the mutilated corpses of his brothers, and they instead began to plan how to strike at Launcelot. Gawaine no longer stood as the voice to measure the king's wrath against the great knight.

King Arthur and Gawaine gathered their forces throughout all of England, and laid siege to Joyous Gard. Launcelot was loath to fight Arthur, and stayed in the castle for fifteen weeks. One day, Launcelot addressed Arthur from the walls, offering peace. Arthur refused, and insisted they must meet in battle. Launcelot then denied the charge of adultery, and insisted he remained loyal to Arthur and the fellowship.

Arthur might have considered this peace, but Gawaine continued the argument. Gawaine persisted in calling Launcelot a liar and a untrue murderer. This was the first Launcelot had heard of the death of Gawaine's brothers, whom he loved and who loved him back, and he swore he did not realize they were unarmed. However, Gawaine continued to insist Launcelot had killed from spite for Gawaine. Launcelot countered with the memory of how Gawaine had dishonorably murdered the worthy Sir Lamorak, a charge that only incensed Gawaine further.

The knights continued to exchange insults until Arthur interrupted, offering to quit the war if Guenever returned to him. However, Gawaine insisted Arthur push for war, and so the next morning, the two forces met in battle. Launcelot instructed his men not to harm either Arthur or Gawaine.

Many knights died in the battle, but no matter how forcibly Arthur fought, Launcelot would not engage him. In the fight, Bors unseated Arthur and was prepared to kill him until Launcelot prevented it. Launcelot then lifted Arthur onto his own horse, and Arthur saw in his face that the knight remained loyal. Arthur then ordered his army to retreat for the day.

In the next day's battle, Sir Gawaine and Sir Bors wounded one another, and Launcelot saved them both. Launcelot's forces proved superior in that day's fighting overall.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Pope learned of King Arthur’s quarrel with Launcelot, and sent a demand that they cease fighting and that Guenever be returned to Arthur. King Arthur and Launcelot were willing to honor the command, and the latter promised to bring the Queen in eight days time. However, Gawaine remained furiously committed to war.

Eight days later, Launcelot and escorts brought Guenever to Arthur's castle as Carlisle. He presented the Queen to Arthur, who sat beside Gawaine, and swore they were innocent of treason. He argued he had always been a loyal and committed knight, and that he had saved many lives, including those of Gawaine and his brothers.

Gawaine insisted he would never forgive Launcelot no matter what Arthur decided, even after Launcelot promised to found religious houses throughout England in their memories. He even threatened to leave Arthur's service so he would be free to fight and kill Launcelot.

Arthur decided to banish Launcelot from England, and Gawaine promised he would find Launcelot in other lands to fight.

Book 20 Chapters 17-22

Launcelot returns to France, and creates a new government. Under pressure from Gawaine, Arthur prepares to make war against Launcelot again, and they set out for France. Gawaine challenges Launcelot to many jousts, which Launcelot wins. Ill news from England reaches Arthur, and he must prepare to return home.

Though Launcelot was saddened to be banished, he took leave of the Queen and asked her to call him should she ever need a champion. He then warned Gawaine to leave him alone, and then he left King Arthur’s court forever.

Launcelot traveled to his homeland of France, with many loyal knights as companions. Going from town to town, Launcelot won great acclaim as he refurbished the places he visited. He also established a parliament, and named: Lionel as King of France; Sir Bors as King of Claudas’ lands; Sir Ector as King of Benwick; and he himself King of Guienne. He also awarded other lands and titles to many other loyal knights.

Meanwhile, largely at Gawaine's behest, Arthur prepared to continue the war. They amassed a large army and sailed to France in search of Launcelot. Arthur left his son, Mordred, in charge of his kingdom and the Queen during his absence.

When they learned Arthur had arrived with a great host to made war, Launcelot's kinsmen gave him conflicting advice. Finally, he decided to offer a peace treaty. Arthur was pleased with and open to the gesture, but allowed Gawaine to make the final decision. Naturally, Gawaine refused peace, which upset Launcelot.

The next morning, Arthur laid siege to Launcelot’s castle in Benwick. There, Gawaine challenged Launcelot to a joust, but Bors answered the call and lost to Gawaine, almost dying in the process. Lionel then tried to avenge Bors, but also fell. For half a year, Gawaine continued to challenge Launcelot daily, until Launcelot finally grew angry enough to face him.

It was a long battle. Though Gawaine was not as powerful as Launcelot, he had obtained a holy man's blessing that gave him special strength for three hours of the day. Launcelot did not know of this power. Launcelot withheld his attacks during this time, and then, as he felt Gawaine weaken, he overpowered Gawaine, but refused to kill him. Launcelot then returned to his castle, while Gawaine was healed of his wounds.

King Arthur soon fell ill over the conflict between Gawaine and Launcelot, and regretted ever making war against his great knight. Gawaine lay sick for three weeks, and then armed himself to challenge Launcelot again.

Both armies assembled to watch Launcelot and Gawaine. They fought an even harder battle, until Launcelot again overpowered Gawaine. Gawaine told Launcelot to either kill him or prepare for a lifetime of challenges. Nevertheless, Launcelot refused to kill him, and left again for his castle.

Gawaine rested for a month, preparing to fight Launcelot again. Meanwhile, ill news from England reached Arthur, requiring him to return.

Book 21 Chapters 1-3

In his father’s absence, Mordred has made himself King of England. Arthur returns to England and fights his son. Gawaine dies, and is buried in a chapel at Dover. Gawaine’s ghost tells Arthur to call off his war with Mordred, saying that if Arthur were to face Mordred in battle, Arthur would die.

Sir Mordred, in his father King Arthur’s absence, was temporary ruler of all England. Mordred had false letters written, claiming Arthur had died in battle. Mordred called a Parliament, and had it name him as king. He was crowned at Canterbury, and after fifteen days of feasting, he planned to marry Guenever. However, the Queen tricked Mordred by asking permission to travel to London to buy items for the ceremony. When she arrived, she barricaded herself in the Tower of London, which forced Mordred to besiege it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury intervened to tell Mordred he had displeased God, both because he was born of an incestuous relationship and because he attempted to marry his father's wife. The Bishop also knew Arthur was truly alive, but kept that a secret. Mordred tried to have the Bishop murdered, but he escaped to Glastonbury and became a hermit, so was never found.

When Mordred learned that Arthur was returning to England, he gathered his forces to confront his father at Dover. Many of the people of England supported Mordred because they had known only war under Arthur's reign, and Mordred promised an era of peace.

A bloody battle took place at Dover, and Arthur drove Mordred back. When the battle had finished, Sir Gawaine lay dying in a boat, his head wound from his joust with Launcelot having been reopened. Gawaine wrote a letter to Launcelot, asking the latter to pray over his tomb, and to come fight for Arthur's reign. When Gawaine died, Arthur had him interred in the chapel within Dover Castle, which is where the epic claims it can still be seen.

Soon afterwards, another battle took place at Barham Down, and many were slain on both sides. Mordred then fled to Canterbury.

The people began to turn against Mordred, but his forces continued to grow with men from throughout England, especially those who had been loyal to Launcelot and resented Arthur's banishment of him.

Arthur and Mordred prepared to battle again at Salisbury. The night before, Arthur dreamt that he was tied to a chair that was tied to a wheel, near a body of water filled with snakes, worms, and beasts. The chair turned over, plunging Arthur into the foul water, where he was overcome by the foul creatures within.

Later, the King dreamt again, this time of his nephew Gawaine. In the dream, Gawaine warned Arthur to avoid the battle at Salisbury, for Arthur would die if he fought his son. Gawaine told him to postpone the battle for a month, until Launcelot arrived with additional forces.

The next day, Arthur told his council of the dreams, and all agreed they should postpone the battle. Arthur sent two brothers, Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan the Butler, to offer Mordred lands and goods in exchange for a month's peace. Mordred agreed to the terms, and was given all of Cornwall and Kent for it.

Book 21 Chapters 4-7

Heeding Gawaine’s warning, Arthur and Mordred declare a truce, but a misunderstanding begins the battle anew. Arthur kills Mordred, but not before Mordred mortally wounds Arthur. All of the Knights of the Round Table are dead, save Sir Bedivere, who throws Excalibur in a lake at Arthur’s request. Arthur is taken on a barge to Avelion. His body is buried in a nearby chapel, although some say King Arthur will come again. Guenever becomes an Abbess.

Arthur and Mordred prepared to meet to sign the treaty, but each distrusted the other and ordered his knights to be ready to attack if necessary. When they met in a tent, an adder bit a knight on the foot. When he pulled his sword out to kill the snake, the suspicious and anxious groups erupted into battle.

It was a brutal battle that left hundreds of thousands dead. When he surveyed the carnage, Arthur noted that only two Knights of the Round Table still survived: Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan.

Arthur then saw Mordred leaning over a body of corpses, and prepared to attack him. Bedivere and Lucan reminded him of his dream, but Arthur was willing to take the risk, and he charged Mordred. He launched his spear through his son's body, but Morded struck his father on the head with his last strength before dying.

Arthur was so weak from the head wound that Bedivere and Lucan, who were gravely wounded themselves, could hardly hold him long enough to get him to a nearby chapel. Suddenly, a great noise arose on the battlefield, and Lucan saw scavengers pilfering the dead of their money and jewels. The brothers decided to take Arthur away from there, but the King was too weak. In attempting to lift Arthur, Lucan aggravated his stomach wound, which caused his guts to fall out, at which point he died.

Knowing he was near death, Arthur asked Bedivere to throw his sword, Excalibur, into the water and then to report what he saw. Bedivere took the sword, but because of its beauty and value, he could not bring himself to throw it into the lake. He tried to lie to Arthur, but the King recognized the lie and begged him to do as he asked.

Finally, Bedivere threw the sword towards the water. A hand appeared and caught it, brandishing it three times before disappearing into the water's depths. Bedivere told Arthur of this mysterious occurrence, and the King was glad.

Bedivere then carried the King upon his back to the water’s edge, where a barge arrived carrying four women: Queen Morgan le Fay; The Queen of Northgalis; The Queen of the Waste Lands; and Nimue, the Damosel of the Lake. Morgan le Fay asked, "Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?" Bedivere put Arthur on the barge, and the women rowed away to Avilion to heal him of his wounds.

Bedivere was so sorrowful that he walked through the forest all night until he came upon a chapel and hermitage. There, he saw a hermit praying before a new tomb. The hermit was the Bishop of Canterbury, who had fled from Sir Mordred’s wrath. Bedivere asked who was buried in the tomb, and the Bishop explained that four ladies had arrived that night with a body that they wished buried there.

Bedivere swooned, thinking the man to be King Arthur. When he awoke, he asked the hermit if he too might live at this hermitage as a holy man. The narrator then points out that the Bishop of Canterbury never knew definitively whether it was Arthur whom he buried, which suggests that the King might still be alive.

The narrator goes on to explain that it is thought in many parts of England that King Arthur was not dead, but would come again.

When Guenever learned of the deaths of Arthur and Mordred, she took herself away to a nunnery and did great penance. There, she was changed from a sinful woman into a virtuous Abbess.

Book 21 Chapters 8-13

Launcelot arrives too late to help King Arthur in his war against Mordred. Launcelot becomes a priest in the same chapel where Arthur is buried, and lives a quiet life. He goes to Almesbury to retrieve Guenever’s body several years later. He dies shortly thereafter, and is buried at Joyous Isle. Constantine becomes High King of England.

In the meantime, Sir Launcelot had heard of the war between Mordred and Arthur, and was sorely displeased to learn that Guenever was hidden away in the Tower of London. He received Gawaine’s letter, asking him to aid King Arthur, and with his kinsmen soon set out for England.

They stopped in Dover, where they learned of the King’s death at Mordred’s hand. Launcelot was deeply grieved to learn of Arthur’s death. He visited Gawaine’s tomb, and prayed for his soul, and then set out in search of Guenever.

When Guenever, already at the abbey, saw Launcelot arrive, she fainted. When she awoke, she admitted that their love had caused grievous harm, and she insisted he leave and never seek her out again. Launcelot promised to do as she asked, though it saddened him.

In his sorrow, he wandered through the forest until he found the same chapel and hermitage where Bedivere now lived and Arthur was supposedly interred. Launcelot joined them, and became a hermit and holy man himself.

In the meantime, his kinsmen were worried, and did not know where he was. Sir Lionel set out in search of Launcelot, but was killed. Sir Bors became the first of eight knights to find Launcelot at the hermitage and then dedicate himself to a holy life there.

After six years, Launcelot became a priest, and everyone marveled that the man who was once the best knight of the world was now so meek and mild. One night, he had a vision in which Guenever told him she had died, and asked him to bury her body next to Arthur's.

On foot, Launcelot and eight fellows traveled to Almesbury to discover the Queen had died merely thirty minutes before their arrival. They took her body back to the hermitage, and buried her as she asked. Launcelot grew deeply depressed over her death; he stopped eating and drinking, and spent most of his time near the tomb that held her and Arthur. Soon, he withered away. Near death, he received his last rites and asked to be buried at Joyous Gard.

On the night that Launcelot died, the Bishop dreamt that angels took him away. Launcelot’s fellows brought him to Joyous Gard, where Sir Ector, his brother, had been waiting for him for seven years. They buried him as he had asked, and then returned to the hermitage.

Sir Constantine, the son of Sir Cador of Cornwall, was made King of England after Arthur.


As the epic comes to a close, the rifts in Arthur's fellowship are extremely apparent. The virtues that once bound them together and made them unique - loyalty, honor, strength - no longer apply as these knights look upon one another with animosity and distrust. By the end of these books, the two most significant men of the court - Arthur and Launcelot - are at war, and have split both the court and country through their antagonism.

The final chain of events is set in motion by the jealousy of the "unhappy" knights Agravaine and Mordred. However, events escalate because the knights are no longer able to forgive one another. What irks Arthur most of all is that Launcelot kills his fellow knights when he escapes, and then kills 40 knights in rescuing Guenever. Perhaps the most damning act of all is the murder of Gareth and Gaheris, which determines the persistence of Gawaine, which in turn compromises Arthur's desire for peace. It would be easy to lay blame on one of many different individuals, but ultimately, the whole disastrous end has a tragic feel - too many forces are in play, none of which can be countered by any one individual. An era of goodwill has passed, and now the human capacity for violence and bloodshed reigns supreme.

While sexuality in many ways explains the catalyst, it is telling that Arthur is more perturbed by the loss of his fellowship than by Launcelot's adultery. He says so explicitly, noting that queens can be replaced but a great fellowship of men cannot be. Perhaps in this way more than any other is the work's strange relationship with women made manifest. While they have a dangerous power, their value is inferior to that of the bonds between men. They are powerful in terms of their sexuality, but not in terms of their agency.

Along these lines, the final nail in the coffin for Arthur's just reign is a conflict between father and son. The theme of family looms large in these final books, first in the aforementioned death of Gawaine's brothers, and then in this conflict between Mordred and Arthur. The ultimate destruction comes because of masculine betrayal and ambition. Interestingly enough, Mordred's first act as King is to marry his father's wife, which prompts the Bishop to declare him unworthy of the throne. Even though the Bishop knew of the deceit, he did not speak up until Mordred attempted to act in a sexually inappropriate way.

Though Mordred is blatantly villainized in the text, it is worthwhile to consider his position. Guenever and Arthur have no children and, except for two distant half-brothers who are rarely mentioned in the text, Mordred has no competition for the throne. Guenever stands as the prize to be won. After all, Guenever has been the prize all along. First, Arthur obtained her from her father in Wales, which brought him legitimacy. Next, Launcelot became her lover, which led the kingdom to fall apart. Now Mordred, the heir apparent, sees Guenever not as a mother-in-law or aunt, but as the key to a successful reign. She is the object of devotion which launched the war between Arthur and Launcelot, and so has a symbolic value far greater than her person.

Though the events of these chapters are largely defined by human agency, there is still a supernatural context. First, Arthur's death fulfills a prophecy that Merlin gave long before. Further, Arthur's visions give some context into the workings of fate in engineering his demise. His dream of the wheel indicates that the wheels of fortune have begun to turn against him. He will die not because of what he has done, but because it is time for him to die. Even though he knows that confronting Mordred will lead to his death, the world is such that it must be.

However, fate and supernatural forces are not solely against Arthur in these books. Instead, there is explicit mention that his legacy and person will come again. He is the "once and future king," more powerful in his symbolic value than in his role as human. Malory's split purposes - to write myth and to write history - are interlinked in these final books. In many ways, he tells how an era ended, and another came about. However, he also suggests that the force that was Arthur and Camelot, the utopian force that defined the best England could be, has never gone away. It will return, because that is what must be. History is a series of events, but it is not caused purely by humans. Instead, the epic implicitly argues that all history is privy to the workings of the wheel of fortune, which might quash a great man like Arthur at one point, but will not keep him away forever. For Malory's British audience, it would come as great relief to consider that England's virtuous past continues to exist beneath the surface, and that with patience, hope, and fortitude, a population might survive to see that type of era return.