This epic story by Sir Thomas Malory depicts all the life of King Arthur, from his birth to the death and the feats of his Knights of the Round Table. The main motif of the story is destiny one can’t fight but can face with dignity. Another prominent theme is the apocryphal quest, the search of ideal that takes the whole life and can never be completed.
The story starts from the depiction of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, who is the King of England. He is deeply in love with Igraine, the beautiful wife of one of his vassals, the Duke of Tintagil. They secretly meet and Igraine becomes pregnant with Uther’s child. Baby Arthur is given to a foster family and raised, not knowing either about his origins or the prophecy made by the great wizard Merlin that Arthur is the one destined to become the High King and unite all the England under his rule. Soon Uther dies not leaving an heir and the country plummets into chaos. Young Arthur grows up until accidentally, while attending his mentor as a simple squire, he sees the sword in the stone and pulls it out. The sword appears to be Excalibur and the prophecy, that makes the one able to pull it from the stone the King of England is fulfilled. Arthur, young, inexperienced and seemingly of low origin, isn’t immediately accepted by the rest of the lords. They consider him unworthy of the throne, moreover, he ruined the fragile balance that was achieved between the lords. The civil war started, and Arthur managed to win it, learning about his heritage in process. Alas, when he realizes that he is a son of Uther, it appears that he fell in love with his half-sister and even conceived a child with her. This half-sister is a powerful and beautiful witch Morgana, who knows that her child she called Mordred also has a great destiny: to destroy Arthur and everything he achieves. While Mordred, hidden from his father, grows, Arthur unites England and establishes the order of the Knights of the Round Table and their code of honor to guard the peace and integrity of the country.
The first book is dedicated to the aforementioned events and the wars Arthur has to participate against his enemies. Also it shows Arthur as a skilled diplomat able to form the alliance with the French Kings Bors and Ban. Arthur searches for Mordred trying to kill him and rewrite his destiny, fearing not his death but the fall of the Order of the Round Table.
The second book tells the reader about the adventures of two brother knights: Sir Balin, also known as The Knight with Two Swords and Sir Balan. They lead a campaign against the King of North Wales, who refused to bow before Arthur and defeat him, finally ending the feud and bringing the last of the twelve kingdoms of the North under Arthur’s rule. But their tale has a tragic end: Balin and Balan kill each other, mistaking each other for the enemies.
Book III depicts Arthur’s romantic love to Guenever, courting and their marriage. It also shows some of the main characters of the future books, such as Sir Gawaine, one of the most handsome and valiant Knights of the Round Table. King Pellinore, Arthur’s nephew, and his son Sir Tor.
Book IV starts with sudden death of Merlin, who enraged Nimue, the Damosel of the Lake and was buried alive in her lake. The Kingdoms of North start a revolt against Arthur and a new war starts, though this time it is short. In this book we learn more about Mordred’s mother and Arthur’s former lover, Morgan le Fay.
Book V suddenly presents us a delegation from Roman Empire. The Emperor Lucius demands Arthur to recognize his superiority and pay the taxes that his country owes Rome for a long time. Arthur proudly declines, and the Emperor gathers his army to start a war. Roman army is much stronger than the English one, but Arthur and his Knights decide to strike first, when no one awaits them to come and it works. Arthur, though, doesn’t stop after crushing Lucius’ forces, he proceeds to the walls of Rome, sieges the city, takes it and becomes the new Emperor of Roman Empire. Sir Lancelot greatly aids him in this conquest and there is a lot of narrative dedicated to Lancelot’s personality.
If Book V only introduces Lancelot to us, Book VI is completely dedicated to him, telling about his battle and victory over Sir Turquine, his imprisonment by Morgan Le Fey and escape from her, his fights with the giants and lots of other stories of his adventures and feats. Lancelot manages to overrcpme each and every King of the Round Table and in the known world. But he lusts after his Queen, Guenever, the wife of Arthur, dedicating all his victories to her. She is his Fair Lady, but Lancelot sincerely tells that he never considered marriage as an option because family life is what will restrict his desire to adventure.
Unlike the other books that are rewritten ancient legends, the tale told in Book VII is the original one, composed by Sir Thomas Malory himself. The story starts when a young stranger, known to no one, comes to Arthur’s castle. He looks so young, naive and even effeminate that one of the Knights, Sir Kay, taunts him, calling the stranger Beaumains that means “fair-handed one”. Beaumains accepts his nickname without objections, not revealing his true name and stays at court to prove himself worthy of being knighted. He is knighted by Sir Lancelot after his quest for the Damosel Linet. After that Beaumains reveals his true identity: his name is Sir Gareth, the youngest son of King Lot and Queen Margawse. He is brother to Gavaine, Gaheris, and Agravaine - the Kings of the Round Table, who didn’t recognize him as an adult. Also he appears to be half-brother of Mordred. Sir Gareth continues his adventures, killing the Black Knight, a personal enemy of King Arthur and his brothers prone to avenge Black Knight’s death. He also fights with Sir Ironside who attacked the caste of Linet’s older sister, Dame Lioness. While saving her castle, Sir Gareth is charmed by Lioness’ virtues and makes her a proposal after the victory. They marry and one of the lesser kingdoms is named after Sir Gareth.
The next three books from VIII to X are dedicated to the history of Sir Tristram. He is a prince of Liones, taught and knighted by his uncle, also the King named Mark. One of his first victories is over Sir Marhaus, also a prince from Ireland who is already a Knight of the Round Table. In the battle Tristram is wounded and it appears that the wound is cursed. Searching for the cure, Sir Tristram travels to Sir Marhaus’ motherland, Ireland. He meets a beautiful maiden, La Beale Isoud, who cures his wound and wins his heart. Sir Tristram returns to Cornwall and tells about his beloved to his family. But King Mark also falls in love with La Beale Isoud and plans to get the woman for himself. As a King he commands Sir Tristram to return to Ireland and bring the maiden to him, so he would make her his Queen. Tristram obeys, but despite all his efforts his love to La Beale Isoud grows only stronger. She is married to King Mark, but the affair of Tristram and Isoud continues to the end of their life. In the meantime, Tristram raises his fame and influence by his prominent victories, becoming one of the most famous Knights of the Round Table. This make King Mark jealous even more, he feels himself less worthy of Isaud’s love than his nephew. He plots new and new ways to get Tristram killed and finally catches him and Isaud together and accuses Tristram of treason. Tristram escapes and his story is unknown for some time. The narrative shifts to another mysterious young man who goes in a long quest after a malcontent damosel. We see Sir Tristram again, now married to another woman and learn that his fame caused lots of assassination attempts, but all they failed. Finally, Tristram runs to Lancelot’s castle, where he lives happily with Isaud who was also brought there. But King Mark finds Tristram and stabs him in the back, killing him.
The Books XI and XII are again about the adventures of Sir Lancelot. He comes to the city of Corbin and is lured to the bedroom of Elaine, the local princess. Elaine now carries his baby Galahad and hears the prophecy that Galahad will become even greater than his father and the pinnacle of his adventures will be finding the holy Sangreal. Lancelot returns to the Arthur’s court trying to keep secret, but soon the rumors about his son reach the ears of Guenever and she unleashes her anger on him. Lancelot says that Elaine bewitched him and soon Guenever forgives him. But later Elaine with her son comes to Camelot for Lancelot and uses the same magic again. Guenever doesn’t forgive her lover for the second time and Lancelot is exiled from the court. The banishment from Camelot and rejection of his beloved Queen drives him mad.
In the Book XII Lancelot is still mad. He hides in the forest, living a secluded life and eating only what nature offers him. Finally, he is found by a knight. It appears that Guenever, unable to live without her beloved, sent the knights to search for him, but only after two years one of them fulfills the Queen’s task. Lancelot goes to Corbin where he accidentally finds the holy Sangreal that heals his body and mind. Now reformed, Lancelot returns to his castle, Joyous Gard and takes Elaine and Galahad there as his family. Soon two of his fellow Knights deliver a message that Guenever has forgiven him and Launcelot leaves Elaine in the castle and returns to her service.
The next three books from XIII to XV tells us the story of the epic quest for Sangreal or Holy Grail. All the Knights of the Round Table are searching for it but only Lancelot managed to briefly see it. The tale starts from young Galahad, the son of Lancelot, arriving to Camelot to serve his King and become a knight. The prophecy is revealed that it is his destiny to achieve the Sangreal. So, Galahad leads the rest of the knights and they leave for a long quest, leaving the country unprotected and upsetting their King with that. Galahad shows himself as an incredibly virtuous knight, what he does is borderline miracles. It becomes obvious that he is indeed worthy to find and keep Sangreal. In the meantime, Lancelot sees his son and understands that he never was so pure since he started the affair with Guenever. The last book tells us about the parallel quest for Sangreal of Sir Percivale, who overcomes his sins and becomes pure during it.
Books XVI and XVII tell about the end of the quest. Percivale and Bors also join the most valiant knights and go for Sangreal. Finally they come to the Castle Perilous, where its owner, Joseph of Arimathea greets them along with Jesus Christ himself. Galahad, Percivale and Bors receive Sangreal and Galahad performs a miracle healing the Maimed King with it. The knights take Sangreal to the city of Sarras. In Sarras they happen to witness the death of the local evil King and the people of the city choose Galahad as their new King. Galahad rules the city wisely and dies peacefully. Percivale also dies two years later, dedicating his life to God. Bors is the only one to return to King Arthur’s court to tell the tale about Sangreal.
Books XVIII and XIX continue the story of relationship between Lancelot and Guenever. After returning from his Sangreal quest Lancelot regains all his fame and the affection of his Queen. They do their best to hide from the others, but still they are too involved into their love affair to keep it secret. Feeling that he has to do something, Lancelot starts to distance himself from Guenever. Feeling scorned, she banishes him from Camelot again and Lancelot obeys, returning only when he learns about direct danger for his Queen. Still, he feels the need to at least see Guenever. In disguise he comes to the tournament in Camelot and wins it, but is wounded. A young lady named Fair Maiden of Astolat falls in love with a beautiful stranger and heals his wound asking him if he would marry him. Lancelot refuses and the heartbroken woman dies soon.
The final books XX and XXI tell about the fulfilling the prophecy told to Mordred. The story starts from Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred, who came to Camelot, accusing Guinevere of adultery with Lancelot and accusing Lancelot of treason. They catch them together in her bedroom when their affair becomes obvious. Lancelot fights his way out, killing Agravaine and wounding Mordred (who is the one to warn his father about Guenever’s infidelity). Sir Gavaine steps for the Queen, pleading Arthur to spare her, but the King orders her to be burned at the stake. Lancelot returns home and brings his troops in attempt to save the Queen. Seeing Guenever in distress, Lancelot loses control and kills almost forty of his friends, fellow Kings of the Round Table, including two of the Gavaine’s brothers. Now Gavaine, embittered and bloodthirsty, persuades his uncle Arthur to start a war against Lancelot.
The war is devastating for Lancelot, but he is spared and made to sign a peace treaty. He breaks it, is fought again and exiled to France. Gavaine, not satisfied with such a final, convinces Arthur to attack France, but Arthur decides not to. Gavaine challenges Lancelot to a duel and loses it with horrible wounds. Sir Mordred gained Arthur’s trust and is left to rule England while his father is at war. But Mordred haven’t forgotten the grudge against his father. He falsifies a letter saying that Arthur was killed in the battle. Mordred is though declared the next King. When Arthur returns from France with his exhausted knights, he meets the troops of Mordred. Gavaine dies of his wounds and his spirit comes to Arthur to warn him that his son plans the final battle on Sailsbury Plan. If Arthur wants to live he should evade this battle, for Mordred will kill him there. Arthur offers Mordred a peace treaty and it is accepted, but the tragic accident makes both the sides to resume the war.
The battle of Sailsbury Plan is devastating. When it ends there are only two of Arthur’s faithful knights left alive: two brothers, Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan. Arthur challenges Mordred to a final fight and kills his son, but is mortally wounded himself. Dying Artur is taken to mystical island of Avalon to either be healed there or die in peace. The author says that if England will be in great distress, King Arthur may return again to save it. Still, the versions about his death differ. Sir Bedivere claims that Arthur is dead and buried in a hermitage. All the knights left go there and become hermits. Guenever lives her life and dies, her body placed near her husband’s. Lancelot dies soon after her death. The era of the Knights of the Round Table is ended and Sir Constantine, son of Sir Cador becomes the new King.