The fall of the Round Table and of Arthur is the climax of the Morte and shows Malory at the height of his powers. He reshapes the traditional story to dramatize his central themes of "worship"/honor, fellowship, and love. With his riveting narrative he makes us share the emotions of his principal characters. The end of the Morte celebrates the greatness of the Arthurian world on the eve of its ruin. As the magnificent fellowship turns violently upon itself, death and destruction also produce repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.
I. The Book of Lancelot and Guenevere as Prelude to the
1. After the spiritual quest of the Grail, the return to the Arthurian court produces the apple of discord in "The Poisoned Apple," threatening Queen Guenevere with shameful death. The knights deep distrust of her will later return when more justified charges are brought against her and Lancelot.
2. "The Fair Maid of Astolat" continues the foreshadowing of the destruction of the Arthurian fellowship. Lancelot's decision to fight in the tournament "against the king and against all his fellowship" is a preview of his role in the Death of Arthur narrative.
3. Gareth left Gawain and his brothers to join Lancelot, who had knighted him,; in the final book Lancelot will kill him.
4. In "the Knight of the Cart" Lancelot rescues Guenevere, charged with sleeping with ten knights; and Lancelot is praised by Arthur and the court. Then in the following book Lancelot will again rescue Guenevere, but will be condemned by Arthur, Gawain and the court.
5. In the tale of Sir Urry Lancelot alone has the power to heal him; in the last book Lancelot becomes powerless against Gawain and fate.
II. The Death of King Arthur
If all human institutions are doomed to fall, few do so with as much heroism, nobility, and love as Arthur's court.
1. The flower imagery with which the section begins suggests coming ruin (contrast the floral opening of "The Knight of the Cart"). The beautiful but transitory Arthurian garden is inhabited by serpents, "two unhappy knights, sir Agravain and Sir Mordred."
2. Such hatred is balanced by the way the fellowship of the Round Table transcends the bonds of kinship, as Gawain refuses to have anything to do with Agravain's schemes. The scene introduces the excruciating motif of the last part of the Morte: heroes helpless to avert the disasters they so clearly foresee.
3. Lancelot goes to the queen's room despite Bors' presentiments, and the affair is made public.
4. Arthur chooses the role of king over husband. He also chooses love between comrades over erotic passion. So in a way do Lancelot and Guenevere in their chivalric dignity, bravery, and concern for each other.
5. Accosted by fourteen knights, Lancelot slays all, including Agravain, except Mordred who is seriously wounded but escapes to report to Arthur. The carnage makes reconciliation impossible. The court is irremediably split.
6. Each of the characters tries to make his actions during the ending follow the dictates of "worship," honor. If honor forces Arthur to send Guenevere to the stake, it just as surely forces Lancelot to rescue her. Honor compels Gawain to take vengeance on Lancelot, who slew the unarmed Gaheris and Gareth in the melee of the rescue of the queen from the stake.
7. But Gawein, now the implacable rival of Lancelot, becomes increasingly nihilistic, less interested in victory than self destruction.
8. While distracted by internecine domestic strife in the court, Mordred takes advantage, precipitating the downfall of Arthur and the Round Table.
9. Amid the sordid events of Mordred's treason, the nobility of the Arthurian world is redefined. Honor is transformed into a deeper responsibility and the human bond of love creates a new purified fellowship. Gawain, whose relentless pursuit of "worship" drove him to extremes, shows in death how honor can be nobly transformed.
10. Malory's sentimental Christianity is seen most clearly in the concluding episode of the book. The values of the Round Table remain even in these religious settings.
However, the acts of Lancelot and Guenevere, like those of Arthur and his defeated knights, are never more heroic, loving, and generous than as they leave the world.