In order to fill the gaps left in the ranks of the Round Table after the quest for the Grail, Arthur begins to appoint a number of new knights. While the court is in Caerleon, a handsome and idealistic youth named Pelleas approaches the king and says:
"Make me thy knight, because I know, Sir King,
All that belongs to knighthood, and I love."
The lad is particularly eager to enter the forthcoming tournament. Pelleas provides Arthur with excellent references and is made a knight.
One day, Sir Pelleas of the Isles, as he is now known, is riding to Camelot. It is the height of midsummer and the heat makes him delirious. He rests beneath a shady tree and dreams of the maiden whom he will someday love, whispering to himself:
O, where? I love thee, tho' I know thee not.
For fair thou art and pure as Guinevere,
And I will make thee with my spear and sword
As famous — O my Queen, my Guinevere,
For I will be thine Arthur when we meet."
Pelleas continues on his way and suddenly encounters a party of ladies and knights. They are lost and ask him the way to the city. Pelleas gazes at the woman who is the leader of the group and is overwhelmed by her beauty and poise. He is embarrassed and can only stammer an answer to her questions, for he grew up in an isolated area where the only women were those of his family and household.
The lady, Ettarre, is cold and scornful when she sees his shyness, but Pelleas finally agrees to guide her party to the city. Ettarre mutters to herself about the ignorance of this callow youth. She sees, however, that he is a gallant knight and decides to take advantage of his affection for her. She plans to make him win the tournament and present the trophy to her.
Ettarre and her friends are kind to the youth. At Camelot, she takes his hand in hers and says:
"O the strong hand . . .See! Look at mine! but wilt thou fight for me,
And win me this fine circlet, Pelleas,
That I may love thee?"
The inexperienced youth is completely fooled by her pretence and is overjoyed to think that his love for Ettarre is answered. He resolves to win the tourney so that she will be proud of him.
A few days later, "The Tournament of Youth" is held. Because of his love for Pelleas, Arthur restrains his veteran knights from entering, and the youth wins an honorable victory. He presents the prize to Ettarre, which is the last time that she ever behaves decently to him.
For the remainder of her stay at court, the wicked Ettarre ignores Pelleas. When she returns home, Pelleas hopefully follows her party. Obeying Ettarre's orders, her maidens and knights mock and abuse Pelleas throughout the journey. At the end of the trip they lock Pelleas out of her castle.
The boy is confused by these events and sadly reassures himself:
"These be the ways of ladies . . .To those who love them, trials of our faith.
Yea, let her prove me to the uttermost,
For loyal to the uttermost am I."
For the next few days, Pelleas waits outside the castle for Ettarre to call him. She becomes indignant and annoyed at his constant presence beneath the walls. She sends her knights to chase him away, but he defeats each of them.
Another day her knights assault him all at once, bind him, and bring him inside. Pelleas pleads his love for Ettarre, but the callous woman curses him bitterly and orders him to leave her alone. Then she has him released.
Nevertheless, a week later Pelleas is still outside. Ettarre sends her knights again, with orders to capture or kill him. At this moment Sir Gawain passes by. He is enraged by this unfair fight and attempts to aid Pelleas. The youth asks him not to join in, however, and allows himself to be captured.
In the castle, Pelleas is reproached and mistreated by Ettarre, although she muses quietly to herself at his love for her. She has her knights eject him from the castle.
Outside, Gawain unties Pelleas and listens to his story. He too is scornful about Pelleas' behavior and lectures him sternly about the code of honor of the Round Table. Then he offers to go to Ettarre and set things right for the youth. He asks Pelleas to return to the castle in three days.
During this time, Pelleas wanders aimlessly in the surrounding country, confused and beset by doubts. On the third day, he returns, but Gawain does not meet him. The youth sneaks into the castle and, to his great dismay, discovers Gawain and Ettarre sleeping side by side. He is tempted to kill them both, but remembering his oath of chivalry he is unable to commit murder. He leaves his sword between the two bodies and gallops off in a fury.
As he rides, Pelleas moans to himself about what a fool he has been. He feels that he is totally disgraced and dishonored and is especially upset because he was unable to revenge himself on Gawain and Ettarre. He blames all his troubles on Arthur, rationalizing that if the king had not taught him a noble moral code, he would not be so troubled by its violation.
Pelleas rides without direction, made half-mad by his unhappy memories and thoughts. Weary and thirsty, he encounters Percivale, who is now a monk. Percivale tends the sick youth and overhears him cry out in his sleep: "False! and I held thee pure as Guinevere." Later on, Percivale makes a sarcastic remark about Guinevere's purity. He is horrified to discover that the lad has no knowledge of Guinevere's real nature. Pelleas asks:
"Is the Queen false?" and Percivale was mute.
"Have any of our Round Table held their vows?"
And Percivale made answer not a word.
"Is the King true?"
"The King!" said Percivale.
"Why, then let men couple at once with wolves.
What! art thou mad?"
Pelleas leaps up again and rides away, nearly killing his horse in his fury. He is slowly being driven insane by the collapse of the illusions he has held about himself and the Round Table. He continues riding until he reaches Camelot, which he calls a "black nest of rats."
Outside the city, Pelleas sees Lancelot. In a frenzy, the youth attacks the knight. Lancelot refuses to fight, but the boy shouts insanely that he is an avenger come to punish the sins of the Round Table. Lancelot is forced to overthrow the youth in self-defense. Pelleas asks to be slain, but the knight refuses and sadly leads him back to the city.
At the court, Pelleas sees all the knights and ladies, among whom is Guinevere. The queen hears Lancelot's story and says to the boy:
"O young knight,
Hath the great heart of knighthood in thee fail'd
So far thou canst not bide, unfrowardly,
A fall from him?" Then, for he answer'd not,"
Or hast thou other griefs? If I, the Queen,
May help them, loose thy tongue, and let me know."
But Pelleas lifted up an eye so fierce
She quail'd; and he, hissing "I have no sword,"
Sprang from the door into the dark. The Queen
Look'd hard upon her lover, he on her,
And each foresaw the dolorous day to be;
And all talk died, as in a grove all song
Beneath the shadow of some bird of prey.
Then a long silence came upon the hall,
And Modred thought, "The time is hard at hand."