Caxton’s twenty-one books of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory’s story, originally written as 8 books, was first published by William Caxton as 21 books in the year 1485. The modern Penguin Classics version is currently published in two volumes: Books 1 – 9 in Volume 1 and Books 10 – 21 in Volume 2 – exactly 1,000 pages in all, written in Middle English but converted to modern spelling. On this page is a brief summary of the contents of the whole of Malory’s story, with links to another 21 pages on which Lugodoc has further (and excellently) summarised each book in more detail.
Brief summary of Le Morte d’Arthur
Book 1 – The Prologues: the rape of Igraine by King Uther. Arthur is born, fostered by Sir Ector and draws the sword from the stone. His coronation and his first three battles (Carlion, Bedegraine and Cameliard). He receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. By his half-sister Margawse, he unknowingly begets Mordred who is then lost at sea.
Book 2 – The adventures of Balin: his part in Arthur’s fourth battle (Terrabil, in which most of Arthur’s main enemies are defeated and his grip on the kingship of Britain is made secure) and how he deals the Dolorous Stroke to King Pellam, who becomes the Maimed King. The deaths of Balin and his brother Balan.
Book 3 – The wedding of Arthur and Guenevere and the adventure of Gawaine, Gaheris and Tor. Pellinore brings Nimue to court. The Knights of the Round Table are first sworn in.
Book 4 – Merlin’s entombment by Nimue. Arthur’s fifth battle (Humber) and Morgan le Fay’s various magical attacks with Merlin safely out of the way. The adventures of Gawaine, Uwaine and Marhaus with The Goddess. Baby Mordred is lost at sea.
Book 5 – Arthur’s 6th battle – his conquest of Rome. Launcelot appears.
Book 6 – The adventures of Sir Launcelot.
Book 7 – The adventures of Gareth: his conquest of the Red Knight as Beaumains and his marriage to Dame Lionesse.
Book 8 – The adventures of Tristram: his birth, coming of age and slaying of Marhaus. King Mark’s marriage to La Beale Iseult in Cornwall and Tristram’s marriage to Iseult la Blanche Mains in Brittany. His rivalry with Palomides for the love of Iseult, and his friendship with Lamorak on the Isle of Servage.
Book 9 – The adventures of Breunor le Noire: his shield quest as La Cote Male Taile. Tristram returns to Cornwall, goes mad, recovers, and is banished for ten years. The jousts at the Castle of the Maidens and at the Castle of the Hard Rock.
Book 10 – Odd tales, including the continuing rivalries between Tristram and Palomides, and between Gawaine and Lamorak, the treachery of King Mark and the adventures of Launcelot, Dinadan and various other knights. More jousting at Surluse and Lonazep.
Book 11 – Mention of Arthur’s 7th battle, in France. Elaine rapes Launcelot and begets Galahad. Bors meets Baby Galahad and has a Sangreal adventure at Castle Corbin. Elaine rapes Launcelot again at Camelot, driving him insane.
Book 12 – After several years lost and in madness (possibly the entire youth of his son) Launcelot is cured by the Sangreal and becomes the Chevalier Mal Fet in exile. Eventually he returns to Camelot as Galahad comes of age at 15.
Book 13 – Galahad joins the Round Table, and it breaks up to pursue the Sangreal. He learns the story of Joseph of Aramathie and his magic shield.
Book 14 – Percivale’s temptation in the wilderness.
Book 15 – Launcelot’s failure on the quest.
Book 16 – Bors’ temptation in the wilderness, his estrangement from his brother Lionel, his meeting with Percivale, and his victory on the Quest.
Book 17 – Galahad, Bors, Percivale and his sister board King Solomon’s magic boat, find the Sword of David and recount its long, twisted history. Percivale’s sister dies giving blood. The remaining holy trio achieve the Sangreal and heal the Maimed King at Castle Corbin. They sail to Sarras, Galahad and Percivale die there. Bors returns to Camelot.
Book 18 – After more than a quarter of a century, Launcelot and Guenevere’s adultery starts to become a problem. Guenevere is accused of murder and Launcelot saves her from being burned at the stake for the first time. He unwillingly causes the death of the Fair Maiden of Astolat.
Book 19 – Sir Meliagrance kidnaps Guenevere for lust and accuses her of sexual treason – Launcelot kills him, saving her from being burned at the stake for the second time. He cures Sir Urre by the laying-on-of-hands.
Book 20 – Agravaine finally catches an adulterous Launcelot and Guenevere, Arthur sentences her for treason, Launcelot rescues her from being burnt at the stake (for the third and last time) and Arthur lays siege to his castle (his eighth battle), until the pope intervenes. Guenevere returns to Arthur and Launcelot returns to France with his kin. Arthur pursues Launcelot to France and Gawaine and Launcelot fight, but Arthur receives news (about Mordred) that causes him to return to England.
Book 21 – Mordred seizes his chance to usurp. Arthur returns and defeats him at Dover (his ninth battle) and Barham Down (where Gawaine dies, in his tenth battle). Father and son finally slay one another near Salisbury, Arthur’s eleventh and final battle.
Note: these summaries are largely courtesy of Lugodoc, without whose excellent research and analysis of Sir Thomas Malory’s epic work, book by book, chapter by chapter, the tale of Le Morte d’Arthur would remain impenetrable to all but the determined student.