First thing you need to know is Monty Python totally nailed it. Read the book, then watch the Black Knight “None shall pass!” scene, and you’ll agree. They nail it.
Second thing, all the knights are jackholes especially Gawain. (An arguable exception is Galahad, but he’s basically Jesus. Okay. There’s a few others who aren’t so bad, but it’s like five guys out of a thousand.)
Third thing, Malory didn’t invent any of this stuff. He edited oral traditions, pieced together narratives, and slathered on a layer of romanticized 14th century Christian chivalry to make the pre-Christian folk heroes palatable to his audience. He also wrote it in jail for a rather impressive laundry list of violent crimes, so when the knights behave terribly you have to figure old Tom knew what he was talking about .
The book’s divided into eight “tales”.
1. The Tale of King Arthur.
You have to read this. It has Merlin, Excalibur, and Arthur’s rise to power. In the first ten pages eight hundred named characters show up. Stuff happens and the jousting is still interesting.
2. The Tale of King Arthur And The Emperor Lucius.
This is great. Arthur unites England and marches on Rome. Rome has giants in its army. Much of it reads like a ten year old freeform rambling a D&D game. “You walk into the room and there are two hundred giants there. Roll for initiative.”
3. The Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lake.
I have no memory of what this was about. I suspect it was dull, because Launcelot is dull except during the quest for the Holy Grail, when he’s basically having a bad acid trip.
An aside, throughout the book there’s a very keen ranking system of knights that’s reminiscent of a baseball fan’s fixation on batting averages, only it’s jousts and sword-fights being counted. So a knight shows up and everyone says, “It’s Sir Hoppinscotch. He’s the 36th bestest knight in the realm. Let’s see how he does in the left-handed face-smash head-kebob event.”
4. The Tale of Sir Gareth.
This book is fun. Gareth is Gawain the Jackhole’s half-brother, but he’s cool and not at all like Gawain. (Gawain kills their mom when he busts in on her and her lover even though dad’s been dead for years.) Gareth’s like the third best knight in Camelot, depending on if Sir Lameface is dead or not. He has adventures and they are interesting.
5. The Tale of Sir Tristram of Lyoness.
By now it’s all knight-errantry and jousting with the occasional interesting bit like La Cote Male Tayle or Sir Palomides trip to the Red City. It’s 200 pages that read like 800 pages each of them nearly identical and looking like this:
”One morning Sir Launcelot left the castle and rode into the forest. Soon he came upon a well where a maiden was weeping. She said, “Oh good knight can you protect me from the knight who is chasing me?” Sir Launcelot said “Yuppers” and rode off to meet the knight and did so by the bridge where they jousted and both were knocked from their horses. They then fought with swords for so long that the blood ran from their armor and soaked the ground. Finally Launcelot said: “Who are you knight that is so strong?” The knight removed his helmet and it turned out to be Sir Tristram, and the two embraced and shared kisses for they had long pledged loyalty to each other, at which time the maiden appeared and Tristam chopped off her head because she was a sorceress.”
It’s wretched. The big thing is Sir Palomides is in love with Iseult the Fair and it makes him a complete jackhole.
6. The Tale of the Sangreal.
This is awesome Pagan-Christian Mystic hallucinogenic weirdness. Loopy stuff as if the knights of the Round Table got lost in a stoner-metal album. I suspect Malory was mining a tradition here well beyond his usual — and the only way he could make sense of it was basically having Galahad be Jesus, which kind of sucks deus ex machina and all that, but the whole thing is so weird that you just have to go with it. Or read the Mabigboingboingoinen to get the pure stuff.
7. The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwynevere.
Launcelot’s been schtupping the Queen. (Like you didn’t know.) Arthur finds out. Mayhem ensues.
8. Le Morte D’Arthur.
Arthur dies. It’s the name of the book. Everybody else dies too, or goes away and becomes a hermit/nun.
* * *
There’s actually some fascinating setting stuff here that I’ll probably get into next time.
Here’s my list of what I bring to the table when running the Vaults of Ur.
1. Red Tide.
2. Chronicles of Future Earth
3. Basic Labyrinth Lord
5. Moldvay Basic
But pretty much it’s Moldvay Basic.
So I get these awful headaches. I don’t know what causes them. They basically creep up on me and floor me for a day or two. This weekend has been one of those instances. I slept twenty hours on Saturday and hardly moved from the bed today. My doctor (God bless him and his luchador mask) told me not to take any caffeine or alcohol when I get them, so I’ve tried to stick to that.
But, jeez, what a drag.
Anyway, enough of my whining, here’s Lewis Carroll from his pamphlet Feeding the Mind:
“To ascertain the healthiness of the mental appetite of a human animal, place in its hands a short, well-written, but not exciting treatise on some popular subject—a mental bun, in fact. If it is read with eager interest and perfect attention, and if the reader can answer questions on the subject afterwards, the mind is in first-rate working order. If it be politely laid down again, or perhaps lounged over for a few minutes, and then, ‘I can’t read this stupid book! Would you hand me the second volume of “The Mysterious Murder”?’ you may be equally sure that there is something wrong in the mental digestion.”
How about those covers, eh?
I dig the ones at either end, although the left one fits the book better. That one on the right, though? Gosh. I totally want to read that book.
For folks who don’t want to Google, Vermilion Sands is a fictitious resort at some undetermined time in the near future populated by the bored, artistic, insane, and/or wealthy. Ballard said his inspiration was Palm Springs, but I always imagine a Mediterranean locale. It’s also one of those books you’re either going to love or hate. If you’re a Ballard fan you won’t really mind that every story is more or less the same featuring nearly identical characters and plots. If you’re not a Ballard fan then I’m sure that will bother you — but only if you try to tackle the book head-on. If you were to approach each story on its own, you’d probably have better luck.
Back in the good old bad old days I worked with a guy who would take summers off to go work in Alaska as a hunting guide. He’d return in the fall with an assortment of wilderness stories. One of them was about when the other guides and he all got stuck for a week in the back country waiting for the plane to pick them up. They ended up having to trek miles to another pick up site and wait for the plane there. On the way one of the guys dropped his book in the river and wound up with nothing to read.
For a week they were stuck in tents waiting out the rain and waiting for this plane to show up, and the guy had nothing to read. So he started reading the ingredients listed on the soup cans. Over and over again. By the end of the week he had memorized them and could rattle them off in a litany. Chicken noodle. Minestrone. Whatever they had.
That’s how to read.
Desperately. Obsessively. Like your life depended on it.