Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Isle of Avalon:
La Morte le Roi Artu and Le Morte d'Arthur

13th century, Old French | 15th century, late Medieval English.

Girflet gallops back to the shore, but the boat carrying the wounded King Arthur is already a good distance out into the water when he arrives.

The last romance in the Old French Lancelot-Grail, or Vulgate cycle, written in the thirteenth century, perhaps 1230–35 and upon which Sir Thomas Malory, in the second half of the fifteenth century, based the ending to his own Arthurian epic, describes the final moments of the king. King Arthur lies mortally wounded after the battle with Mordred, with only Girflet as companion. Having finally persuaded Girflet to throw the sword Excalibur into a nearby lake, and being told of the wondrous hand that rose from the water to catch it, Arthur dismisses his companion. Girflet rides to a hilltop and sees a boat filled with women coming towards the shore. When the vessel has approached as closely as it can to the beach near to where King Arthur lies, the women call to the King. His own sister, Morgan, is amongst them, her hand held by the lady of the vessel who urges King Arthur to wade over and climb aboard. Girflet gallops back to the shore, but the boat is already a good distance out into the water when he arrives. Girflet knows that he has lost the King. He dismounts in anguish and weeps upon the sand.

A few days later, having retraced some of the route inland towards the battlefield, Girflet finds King Arthur’s tomb. Inscribed upon it are the words: 'Here lies King Arthur, the courageous, conqueror of twelve kingdoms.' The hermit of this chapel tells Girflet that the body was brought by some ladies he did not recognise.

'Sir Thomas Malory, however, incorporates into his version of the story a widespread belief that Arthur will one day return. Girflet has become Bedivere, and when 'Bedivere took the King upon his back and carried him to the water’s edge, there was floating there a little barge with many beautiful ladies in it.' Arthur calls to Bedivere as he departs: 'Comfort yourself, and do the best you can. I can no longer help you, for I must go into the vale of Avalon to be healed.' Bedivere finds the chapel and the fresh tomb that Girflet found, but yet the ermyte knew nat in sertayne... yet the hermit knew not for certain that it was the body of King Arthur... 'And some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead but was taken, by the will of our Lord Jesus into another place; and men say that he shall return, and he shall win the Holy Cross. Yet I cannot say that this will happen; rather, I would say that here, in this world, he changed his life – but rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff.

Here in this world he changed his life.

Story fragment recounted from: Cable, James, 1971. The Death of King Arthur (La Mort le Roi Artu). Translated from Old French with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. pp 222–5 and: Vinaver, Eugene, 1971, reprinted in paperback, 1977. Malory: Works. Oxford University Press. The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Guerdon. IV. The Day of Destiny, pp 707–18.

See for yourself

Sir Thomas Malory – Wikipedia

Le Morte d'Arthur – Wikipedia

Lancelot-Grail – Wikipedia

Morgan le Fay – Wikipedia

Avalon – Wikipedia

Sir Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur' – British Library, online exhibition

King Arthur – Wikipedia

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