The Several Mortes d'Arthur

CHAPTER V. How King Arthur commanded to cast his sword Excalibur into the water, and how he was delivered to ladies in a barge; in short, how he died

There are three stages to dying. (My heart works so, to tell you this story.) One is you lay down your arms and give your sword back to the body of water that gave it to you. The next is to step into a river. Then all the women you have ever known, including the woman who hated you most in life, arrive on a boat and bear you away to the island of your death. Where the boat goes after that no one knows. Perhaps the women go on a cruise. They have a lot in common, and quite possibly a lot to talk about, after all.

In the lifting of his king’s body did Sir Lucan of the Royal Household perish. In the lifting the king swooned, and in the catching Sir Lucan swooned himself, and in the swoon an old wound reopened, that the guts of Sir Lucan fell out of his body, and therewith his heart brast. Was it fair for such a true knight to die so like Judas? And when the king awoke from his swoon he saw Sir Lucan aground, foam at his lips and part of his guts spilled out at his feet. Alas, the king said, that now you have your death, and death at my feet, when you would have holpen me, when he had more need of help than I. And everyone around him swooned once more for good measure.

If I were dying slower, the king said, we might weep awhile, but the time hieth fast, and the boat approaches, and I have still got my sword, which is no fit dress to meet death in. Someone throw this in the lake for me, unless you have any secret injuries you are hiding from the rest of us, that you might expire nobly in the performance of your duties. And either Griflet or Bedivere did it.

Have we tarried? the king asked them over again and over. Have we tarried overlong? I dread me we have, and tomorrow you will find me dead in the hermitage. Here come the ladies, here come the ladies, say goodnight to all the ladies, fellows.

At the water’s edge hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them no mean number of queens, and they all bore about their heads black hoods, and wept and shrieked at the sight of King Arthur, who was borne among them and set him down in one of the lady’s laps. And then the greatest queen among them said: Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.

And the king said, That is exactly what I told them, back on the shore.

You were right, said his sister.

And everyone took in that what comfort they could, except for Sir Lucan, who lay still on the shore with foam at his mouth and his guts at his feet. He died without women, and without water, and with his sword still strapped to his side, which can’t mean anything good for Sir Lucan.

CHAPTER V. How King Arthur pleaded with his good friend Sir Bedivere to help him die drunk

“Leave off the arguments, please,” begged King Arthur. He tried to scoot his back up such that he could prop himself up on his elbows, failed, and gave it up as a bad job. “There isn’t time, not with a boat full of my sisters flying down the river, and this soul-wound looking to speed me fast. I’m simply asking you to listen. Agree or disagree: encountering death with one’s full faculties intact is a horrific prospect, all other things being equal.”

“Agree,” said Bedivere.

“Agree,” Arthur continued, “one cannot help being mortal. Though if a third exception is ever to be made, likely as not it will be made in my case.”

“Third?”

“Enoch and Elijah, ass.”

“What about -- what about the other one?”

Christ doesn’t count.”

“No, the other one. With the sisters.”

“Lazarus?”

Lazarus.”

A pause. “Doesn’t count,” Arthur concluded triumphantly. “It was only a postponement, not a commut -- not a commutation of sentence. Doesn’t count.”

“Has to count for something.”

“Doesn’t count for this.”

“It doesn’t say he dies again, does it? No word of him dying again. He could have been the third.”

“It doesn’t have to say he died again. It’s a given, dying.”

“Awful lot of givens in your argument.”

“Giving Lazarus a miss at this stage,” Arthur began.

“I don’t see how you can give Lazarus a miss,” Bedivere said.

“Are you suggesting Lazarus is still walking among us?”

“Just don’t see how you can give Lazarus a miss.”

“Giving Lazarus a miss,” Arthur said, “and barring the possibility of exception (which there’s no sign of, I think we can both agree; look at poor Sir Lucan), the only aspect of the situation I can control are my faculties. If one has to die, one had better die drunk, so as not to be so bothered by it. And since the hour is not known to any, not even the son of Man, best to be as drunk as possible as often as possible, to improve one’s chances. And since the hour is looking awfully imminent at this point, there’s no harm in fortifying oneself against the likeliest possibility. And since I can’t get any for myself at present –” here he briefly looked down at himself and cursed – “you’ve got to be a dear and get something to drink for me.”

“But I haven’t got any money on me,” Bedivere said dazedly.

“You have my good sword Excalibur,” the king said, “that noble sword whereof the pommel and the haft are all of precious stones; take that rich sword and get me with drink from it. Bedivere, please. Bedivere, Bedivere, Bedivere, please, Bedivere, get me with drink. The boat cometh, and I am not prepared for it. This is the last, the last, the last chance. Even if hurt comes from it, it will be the last hurt.”

So Sir Bedivere departed from him, although he was loath to do it, and by the way he thought of his noble king, and said to himself: If I throw this rich sword into the water, and tell the king there was no drink to be found, thereof shall come no harm, but only good, for I have seen the king when he gives himself over to drink, and I will not put him to drink again by my hand. So he hurled Excalibur into the lake, and a hand came up out of the water and grasped the sword, and shook it fiercely three times before vanishing itself back under the waves.

Therefore Sir Bedivere returned and said to the king, There was no drink to be had, not even for something as dear as the sword Excalibur.

That were untruly done of you, my darling, the king said.

It were truly meant, Bedivere said.

As you love me, said the king, do my bidding; as you love me, keep your word; as you love me, bring me the last drink, oh please.

Then Sir Bedivere went away again, and thought it sin and shame to let the king end in drink instead of glory, and so he did not come back at all. King Arthur lay a-waiting, and never did he see Bedivere again. This long tarrying putteth me in great danger of my life, Bedivere, he cried out. But if thou do now as I bid thee, if ever I may see thee again, I shall slay thee with mine own hands, for thou wouldst for my rich sword see me dead! But Bedivere was a true friend to him. And King Arthur lay in the dirt and cursed his friend’s name until he died.

CHAPTER V. How King Arthur curled in on himself like a starfish and recited H.G. Wells to himself in panic and heart’s terror

“Not to go on all fours. The lump of mystery opposite is a man, a five-man,” the king gabbled to himself. “He comes to live with us. The pause is interrogative, he comes to live with us, he comes to live with us and learn the Law. Stay a while, Bedivere; Are we not men? Say the words, Bedivere, before the lump of mystery comes to live with us. If Bedivere will not say the words, Lucan might, if Lucan lives. Not to go on all-fours, that is the law, not to suck up drink, that is the law, not to chase other men, that is the law. Are we not men? Does the boat approach, Bedivere? I don’t want to be king again, no matter how great the need or dark the hour. Don’t make any promises on my headstone, Bedivere, I make you no promises now. Are we not men? God, why won’t any of you touch me, or hold my hand?”

CHAPTER V. How everyone was impaled with spears and the Fisher King felt more than a little irritated by it

Here is a list of all the men who were braken on one another’s spears that day: Sir Goneries, Sir Palomides in disguise, Semound the Valiant, Meliagaunce, King Bagdemagus and King Marsil of Pomitain, Sir Breuse, Sir Galahalt, Sir Lamorak, Sir Corsabrin, Sir Ossaise of Surluse, the Earl Lambaile, the King of Northgalis and the Earl Ulbawes, Sir Gawaine, Sir Tristram, Galihodin, Sir Uwaine, Sir Lucanere, Sir Bliant, Sir Bors, and Sir Sagramore. And the Fisher King, with his vague and suppurating wound somewhere between his heart and his feet, had them all born inside his castle Corbenic on litters, and saw to it that all the wounded were attended with all care and courtesy, but his heart within him grumbled, and he snuck himself away from their sickbeds to sit beside the bleeding lance awhile. His had been the wound first, after all.

CHAPTER V. How King Arthur snuck away from the field of battle and lived with Guinevere as faithful nuns in Almesbury, sweet and loving sisters who were buried beside one another under the same headstone

(Upon such sacrifices the gods themselves throw incense.) When Queen Guenevere came to know that King Arthur was slain and many a noble knight beside, she stole away to Almesbury and made herself a nun, wearing white clothes and black, and did a great penance, as great a penance as the meanest sinner ever took. All manner of people marvelled at how greatly she was changed, and now an Abbess.

And Arthur stole away from Avalon in white clothes and black too, and whispered at Guenevere’s window: What, alive, sweet girl? Come, let’s away to prison, we two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage; when thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness, so we’ll live, God’s spies, And we’ll wear out in a walled prison packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by the moon.

And Guenevere laughed! and opened her window! and they lived in sweetest charity ever after!

CHAPTER V. How King Arthur hardly felt it at all

“It doesn’t feel like anything,” he said, “and I really do think this is it. It hardly feels like anything at all, and I’m sure that this is the real thing.”