Le Morte d’Arthur, Book 1, Chapter 1

How Uther Pendragon sent for the duke of Cornwall and Igraine his wife, and of their departing suddenly again.

In this chapter: Uther Pendragon, King of England, summons his old enemy, the Cornish Duke of Tintagil, to his court. Uther makes advances on Tintagil’s wife, and they leave in a huff. They ignore further summonses, and Uther marches to Cornwall with his army, to fetch them (read: her) by force. Tintagil sticks his wife in one castle, and holes himself up in another.

In this book, the Arthur cycle’s shift in focus away from the defense of Romano-Celtic Britain from Germanic invaders, and toward an ahistoric parable of courtly virtue, is complete. Uther is given as King of England, not Britain. And a quick perusal of the table of contents shows that Malory left out the Saxons.

We get the first instance of one of may favourite Malory phrases on the first page – “All so soon as King Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth.” In this chapter we also get the first use of the archaic verb “hight”, and the construction “the which”, both of which I love – “[A]non he went and furnished and garnished two strong castles of his, of the which the one hight Tintagil, and the other castle hight Terrabil.”

The details of this chapter are more or less the same as in past versions, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia, which is the baseline most medieval Arthurian writers worked from. However, Malory pulls a trick he’ll pull a number of times in the book – character fission! Or, in this case, location fission – whereas most versions centre this incident around Tintagel Castle, with both the Duke and Igraine holed up there, Malory’s invented a second location, where the Duke sticks Igraine.

This is yet another version of the story where the Duke doesn’t have a name. Geoffrey gave his name as Gorlois; I don’t think I’ve seen that or any other name for him in any other version.

Uther’s depicted as a man of more passion than reason, which is in line with other versions. Uther meets Igraine once prior to the armed conflict, during which she gets pissed at him for trying to damage her honour. Nonetheless, he’s so smitten with her he actually falls ill while besieging Castle Terrabil, claiming “I am sick for anger and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole.” Also, he seems to cheerfully bring his inner council in on his passion-spurred war:

“Then they advised the king ot send for the duke and his wife by a great charge; and if he will not come at your summons, then may ye do your best, and have ye cause to make mighty war upon him. So that was done, and the messengers had their answers; and that was this shortly, that neither he nor his wife would not come at him.”

Uther’s right hand, Sir Ulfius, goes looking for Merlin, to try to help remedy the King’s distress, and “Ulfius departed, and by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar’s array.” The disguised-as-a-beggar schtick is one of Merlin’s favourite routines, and we’ll see it again.

Next installment: How Uther Pendragon made war on the duke of Cornwall, and how by the mean of Merlin he lay by the duchess and gat Arthur.