Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur Summary and Analysis of Book 5


Book 5 Chapters 1-3

Twelve ambassadors of Rome arrive and demand that King Arthur pay a truage. Arthur refuses and enters into war with the Romans.

While resting from war, King Arthur held a feast for his allies and the Knights of the Round Table. During the feast, twelve old men arrived, bearing olive branches. They were ambassadors from the Roman Emperor, Lucius.

The ambassadors carried Lucius's request that Arthur pay the truage that was owed Rome, as his predecessors had done before in accordance with the ruling of Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome and the conqueror or Britain and all its lands. If Arthur refused to pay, Rome and its allies would be forced to make great war against him.

King Arthur commanded the ambassadors to leave the room so that he might discuss the request with his council. Sir Cador of Cornwall argued that their armies were well rested and fit for a war with Rome. One by one, the knights offered their service and the kings offered to provide twenty to thirty thousand men each. Arthur then refused Lucius's request, and insisted they would fight to protect that refusal. The ambassadors left for Italy with his message.

Emperor Lucius was angered by Arthur’s message, and even though his advisers warned him against battling Arthur's powerful forces, he called upon his many European allies to prepare for war.

Lucius gathered an army of sixteen kings, fifty giants that would act as bodyguards and the front line of attack, and a multitude of other people. They departed Rome and marched down the mountains unto Cologne, where they besieged castles and destroyed countries that Arthur had won from King Claudus. Lucius then commanded his army to meet him in Burgoyne, where they would set off to destroy Britain.

King Arthur held a Parliament at York to discuss the upcoming war with Rome. There, he ordained that rule in his absence should be handled by Guenever and two other governors, Sir Baudwin and Sir Constantine, son of Cador of Cornwall. Further, Arthur named Constantine as his heir to the crown. Sir Launcelot was angry that he named Guenever as ruler.

Once all was settled, Arthur and his large army departed at the sea of Sandwich to confront Lucius.

Book 5 Chapters 4-5

King Arthur dreams of a prophetic battle between a dragon and a boar. Upon arrival in Flanders, Arthur kills a treacherous giant.

As Arthur slept in his ship cabin, he dreamed that a dragon made of gold and azure fought with a foul boar, and that the sea turned red with their blood. Then, the dragon flew to a great height and came down upon the boar, killing it and sending it into the sea. The king awoke and sent for a wise philosopher to interpret his dream. The philosopher said that the dragon represented Arthur, and the boar represented a tyrant or a giant that would be conquered by the king. Soon after this, they landed at Barflete in Flanders.

A farmer told King Arthur of a terrible giant near Brittany that had murdered and devoured many people. Each year, the people of that region sent their children as an offering to the giant, who then killed or ate them. Most recently, the giant had kidnapped the Duchess of Brittany, Arthur’s cousin and wife to Sir Howel. Upset by this news, Arthur set off after the giant, who lived on St. Michael’s mount. When he arrived at the mount, Arthur discovered a great fire and the freshly dug grave of the Duchess of Brittany, whom the giant had killed.

Arthur was told that the giant had killed fifteen kings and wore a coat of precious stones embroidered with their beards. Undaunted, Arthur sought the giant until he discovered him gnawing on a man's limbs while three women cooked twelve young children like tiny birds.

When Arthur beheld this horrible sight, his heart bled for sorrow. He called out to the gluttonous giant, who then used a great club to strike the crown from King Arthur’s head. Arthur stabbed the giant in the stomach and cut off the giant’s genitalia. Then, the giant squeezed King Arthur, crushing the man's ribs. The king wiggled from the giant’s arms, and they fell together down the hill and toward the sea. There, Arthur killed the giant with his dagger.

Later, when Arthur was resting in his tent, two messengers brought news that Lucius had entered France, and his forces were burning towns and slaughtering the people.

Book 5 Chapters 6-8

King Arthur and his knights defeat the Roman Emperor Lucius in a bloody but glorious war. Sir Launcelot distinguishes himself for the first time in battle.

Arthur commanded Sirs Gawaine, Bors, Lionel, and Bedivere to demand Lucius leave Flanders, or else they would soon engage in war. When the four knights arrived in Lucius’s camp, Gawaine and Bors delivered the message while Lionel and Bedivere hid nearby. Lucius, after hearing their message, promised that he would conquer all of their lands and defeat Arthur.

One of Lucius’s cousins and knights, Sir Gainus, announced that the Britons were arrogant people. Angered, Sir Gawaine beheaded Gainus, after which he and Bors quickly escaped with the Romans on their trail. A battle ensued, in which many Romans and Britons died. In the end, Gawaine was wounded, but they had captured many Roman prisoners. King Arthur praised his knights and helped heal Sir Gawaine before he sent the prisoners on to France.

Lucius’s spies learned that the Roman prisoners were being taken to France by Sir Launcelot and Sir Cador, with thousands of knights as guards. Lucius sent an ambush of sixty thousand men into the forest, but Launcelot’s scouts spotted them. Though they were outnumbered, the Britons engaged the Romans. Thousands died that day, but none could touch Launcelot, whose mastery of war was unmatched. The Romans and their allies, the Saracens, ran from him like sheep from the wolf.

When Lucius entered the battle at the Vale of Sessoine, he saw King Arthur fighting. He gave a rousing, inspirational speech to his compatriots, and then announced the charge.

Many feats of arms were performed by both sides that day but Arthur especially distinguished himself. After a long battle, Arthur spotted Lucius and engaged him. Though Lucius wounded Arthur on the face, Arthur swung Excalibur onto the emperor's head and killed him.

Book 5 Chapters 9-12

Moving through Europe, King Arthur and his forces besiege city after city, all of which fall before him, until he is made Roman Emperor.

When word spread that Lucius was slain, the Romans fled, but Arthur’s forces pursued and cut them down. England was victorious, and the Romans had lost over a hundred thousand men. Three senators were found alive, and Arthur told them to take three dead bodies back to Rome as Arthur’s truage. He also told them to inform their Senate that he would soon arrive, and that Rome would never again presume to tax Britain, Ireland, or their allies.

After the battle in France was won, Arthur led his forces through Europe until he reached a city in Tuscany that would not surrender to him, at which point he stopped to besiege it. While there, Arthur sent some knights, including Sir Florence and Sir Gawaine, to find food in a nearby forest. After traveling a while, the knights rested in a meadow, while Gawaine continued onwards in search of adventure. He came across another knight, named Sir Priamus, who challenged him to a fight.

In the fight, Sir Gawaine sustained a wound that would not stop bleeding. Priamus admitted that the wound would remain fresh unless he cured it with a secret remedy, and that he would not do so unless Gawaine took him to King Arthur. Priamus wanted to become a Christian and had left his people to do so. He also warned Gawaine that there were enemy forces hiding in the forest nearby. They rode out together, and came upon Sir Florence and the other knights. Priamus healed Gawain’s wound with the “four waters from Paradise” and soon both were whole again.

Then Sir Florence drove a herd of beasts from the forest, thereby forcing out the hiding forces that Sir Priamus had mentioned. A battle soon began, and though Sir Priamus warned that they should retreat, Gawaine refused. The Knights of the Round Table fought bravely and soon forced their enemies to retreat. They then returned to Arthur, still at siege, to recount their adventures.

After securing the prisoners from the battle, Gawaine introduced Arthur to Priamus, and vouched for the latter. Arthur agreed to baptize Priamus, after which he made him a duke and a Knight of the Round Table.

During the siege, many ladies left the city to beg Arthur not to destroy it. He promised not to, provided the duke within would surrender, and soon afterwards, the duke's son gave him the city's keys. Arthur appointed on of his own men as duke and then set out again for Rome.

Forces ahead of him defeated many cities, after which Arthur took control of them, forcing new laws decreeing that no woman there could be taken against her will. He eventually arrived in Rome, where he was crowned Roman Emperor. Leaving Priamus and others to rule in his place, Arthur soon returned to England.


The scope of the world grows considerably in Book 5. The demand for truage introduces the Roman Empire in the narrative, and makes reference to a history predating Arthur's time. Arthur is furious at being forced to pay truage (essentially protection money) to a foreign empire, and shows his characteristic aggression in response. The British audience of Malory's time would have certainly related to the jingoism of this story, and even though Arthur's march is geographically difficult to imagine in a realistic time frame, the essential point is clear.

In fact, Book 5 is perhaps the best example of how the motif of violence works within the text. Although the wars with the Kings of the North used detailed descriptions of battle carnage, the war between Arthur and Lucius follows a more traditional war epic form. It is written from battle to battle, victory to defeat. Lucius is eventually killed by Arthur, but has a moment in the story, not often relegated to the villain, when he tells his troops to fight for Rome, and what they believe in. What is strange is that Lucius's values are similar to those of Arthur. The violence in Book V is also notably graphic, including the initial battle with the giant.

Arthur's military prowess is on particular display in this Book. Before the battle even begins, he alone battles a great giant, and through toil and blood brings it down. In many ways, this is a metaphor for his victory over the giant empire. In fact, Arthur’s military success is seen as a rite of passage for the greatest King in Christendom. The overlaying influence of the Church is beginning to become more apparent in Book V. Lucius acts as a conqueror, whereas Arthur acts as a chivalric king, particularly in the way he treats the people he defeats. He makes laws to protect women, and treats hostages with Christian charity. The sword is of great importance to Arthur's legacy, but the Christian element also requires that his mercy be equally lauded.

Book 5 also introduces Sir Launcelot as a formidable knight. One of Lucius’ advisors sees Launcelot in action and tells the Emperor that they do not stand a chance against such a knight. Considering how highly praised Arthur's war skills are in this section, it is noteworthy that Launcelot serves as a de facto competitor. He is second only the the king here, a pattern that will repeat itself through the rest of the epic and play directly into its finale.

Interestingly, Book V lacks the mystical nature of most Books. Arthur's victory here is based almost solely on physical might and military strategy. This is also one of the few Books in which Arthur is removed from England. When he does so again, it is part of his final chain of events, all of which also owe more to human than mystical agency. What the connection indicates is not certain, though there is an interesting connection between the epic's lack of mystical content when its story is removed from England and its surrounding territories.

One exception to the lack of mysticism is Arthur's dream. It is the first in a series of prophetic dreams, a theme which is often repeated in the text. Arthur's dreams usually give an indication of England's state, which reinforces his connection to the land. Here, Arthur dreams of a dragon which defeats a boar. Interestingly, in the Winchester edition, the boar was originally a bear, which could have been a potential political remark on the part of the author in reference to the War of the Roses.

For all these reasons, Book 5 is quite unique in the context of the epic. It is one of the longer books in Le Morte d’Arthur, and was apparently edited for length by its editor, William Caxton. When the Winchester manuscript surfaced, it clearly indicated that Book V had been considerably longer, and that whole chapters had been removed. One of the only instances of expansion involves Lucius's speech to his men. Curiously, King Arthur does not give a similar speech to his men.