After the Church has brokered the return of the Queen, Lancelot is banished to France, where Gawain and the King, the last of the Round Table, pursue him. Gawain seeks revenge for Lancelot’s cold-blooded murder of his unarmed brothers, Lancelot’s closest friends – an act witnessed only by Mordred. Lancelot, in the heat of battle cannot recall, but cannot deny that he may have killed many men he cannot account for in his passionate rescue of the Queen from her sentence to be burned at the stake. Gawain seeks justice and the King feels duty bound to this man, the last of his Round Table, so they pursue Lancelot. Gawain fights and loses duel after duel but Lancelot will not strike the fatal blow. Arthur tries to convince Gawain to forgive, telling Gawain that it is the bravest of men who are not afraid of appearing cowardly. Gawain has vowed to the death and cannot honorably walk away from his pursuit, just as the King cannot turn his back on justice.
Meanwhile, back at home, Mordred, the King’s son, has hatched his evil revenge. Falsely reporting that Lancelot and the King have killed each other in battle, he has married his father’s wife (against her wishes, of course) in an act of revenge against his father. Learning of this, Arthur and Gawain, who is badly injured from dueling with Lancelot, make haste to return to England, but find that Mordred’s army fights now with cannons. A weakened Gawain is fatally wounded. On his deathbed he reconciles with Lancelot, sending him a letter:
“Unto Sir Lancelot, flower of all noble knights that ever I heard of or saw by my days: I, Sir Gawain, King Lot’s son of Orkney, sister’s son unto the noble King Arthur, send thee greetings.
“And I will that all the world wit that I, Sir Gawain, Knight of the Round Table, sought my death at thy hands – and not through thy deserving, but it was mine own seeking. Wherefore I beseech thee, Sir Lancelot, to return again unto this realm and see my tomb, and pray some prayer more or less for my soul.”
In the final chapter of the novel, the old, haggard King is alone in his quarters, having fought the armies of his son, trying to regain England. We imagine that Lancelot is also en route to England, having promised, although banished, to return and fight for England at the slightest need. The King is reflective, pondering the causes of war…
He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt – to do nothihng which was not just. But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved too difficult. He was done himself.
Arthur proved that he was not quite done, by lifting his head. There was something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplilcity. He sat upright and reached for the iron bell.
“Page,” he said, as the small boy trotted in, knuckling his eyes.
The King looked at him. Even in his own extremity he was ablt to notice others, especially if they were fresh or decent.
“What is your name?”
“Tom, my lord,” it said politely.
“Where do you live?”
“Near Warwick, my lord.”
The old man seemed to be trying to imagine the place, as if it were Paradise Terreste, or a country described by Mandeville.
“At a place called Newbold Revell. It is a pretty one.”
“How old are you?”
“I shall be thirteen in November, my lord.”
“And I have kept you up all night.”
“No, my lord. I slept a lot on one of the saddles.”
“Tom of Warwick,” he said with wonder. “We seem to have involved a lot of people. Tell me Tom, what do you plan to do tomorrow?”
“I shall fight, sir. I have a good bow.”
“And will you kill people with this bow?”
“Yes, my lord. A great many, I hope.”
“Suppose they were to kill you?”
“Then I shall be dead, my lord.”
“Shall I take the letter now?”
“No, Tom. Sit down and try to listen. Lift those chessmen off the stool. Can you understand things when they are said?”
“Yes, my lord. I am good at understanding.”
“Could you understand if I asked you not to fight tomorrow?”
“I should want to fight,” it said stoutly.
“Everybody wants to fight, Tom, but nobody understands why. Suppose I were to ask you not to fight, as a special favour to the King? Would you do that?”
“I should do what I was told.”
“Listen, then. Sit for a minute and I will tell you a story. I am a very old man, Tom, and you are young. When you are old, you will be able to tell what I have told tonight, and I want you to do that. Do you understand this want?”
“Yes sir, I think so.”
“Put it like this. There was a king once, called King Arthur. That is me. When he came to the throne of England, he found that all the kings and barons were fighting against each other like madmen, and, as they could afford to fight in expensive suits of armour, there was practically nothing which could stop them from doing what they pleased. They did a lot of bad things, because they lived by force. Now this king had an idea, and the idea was that force ought to be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not of its own account. Follow this, young buy. He thought that if he could get his barons fighting for truth, and to help weak people, and to redress wrongs, then their fighting might not be such a bad thing as once it used to be. So he gathered together all the true and kindly people that he knew, and dressed them in armour, and he made them knights, and taught them his idea, and set them down, at a Round Table. There were a hundred and fifty of them in the happy days, and King Arthur loved his Table with all his heart. He was prouder of it than he was of his own dear wife, and for many years his new knights went about killing ogres, and rescuing damsels and saving poor prisoners, and trying to set the world to rights. That was the King’s idea.
“I think it was a good idea, my lord.”
“It was, and it was not. God knows.”
“What happened to the King in the end?” asked the child, when the story seemed to have dried up.
“For some reason, things went wrong. The Table split into factions, a bitter war began, and all were killed.”
The boy interrupted confidently.
“No,” he said, “not all. The King won. We shall win.”
Arthur smiled vaguely and shook his head. He would have nothing but the truth.
“Everybody was killed,” he repeated, “except a certain page. I know what I am talking about.”
“This page was called young Tom of Revell near Warwick, and the old King sent him off before the battle, upon pain of dire disgrace. You see, the King wanted there to be somebody left, who would remember their famous idea. He wanted badly that Tom should go back to Newbold Revell, where he could grow into a man and live his life in Warwickshire peace – and he wanted him to tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good. Do you think you could do that, Thomas, to please the King?”
The child said, with the pure eyes of absolute truth: “I would do anything for King Arthur.”
“That’s a brave fellow. Now listen, man. Don’t get these legendary people muddled up. It is I who tell you about my idea. It is I who am going to command you to take horse to Warwickshire at once, and not to fight with your bow tomorrow at all. Do you understand this?”
“Yes, King Arthur.”
“Will you promise to be careful of yourself afterward? Will you try to remember that you are a kind of vessel to carry on the idea, when things go wrong, and that the whole hope depends on you alive?”
“It seems selfish of me to use you for it.”
“It is an honour for your poor page, good my lord.”
“Thomas, my idea for those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now – you won’t let it out?”
“It will burn.”
“Good Tom. The light-bringer. How old did you say you were?”
“Sixty more years then, perhaps. Half a century.”
“I will give it to other people, King. English people.”
“You will say to them in Warwickshire: Eh, he wor a wonderfuly fin candle?”
“Aye, lad, that I will.”
“Then ’tis: Na, Tom, for thee must go right quickly. Thou’lt take the best son of a mare that thee kinst find, and thou wilt ride post into Warwickshire, lad, wi’ nowt but the curlew?”
“I will ride post, mate, so that the candle burn.”
“Good Tom, then, God bless ‘ee. Doant thee ferget thick Bishop of Rochester, afore thou goest.”
The little boy kneeled down to kiss his master’s hand – his surcoat, with Malory bearings, looking absurdly new.
“My lord of England,” he said.
Arthur raised him gently, to kiss him on the shoulder.
“Sir Thomas of Warwick,” he said – and the boy was gone.
For that time it was his destiy to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenevere’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.