Little Dagonet, King Arthur's fool, dances gaily about the hall. Towards him, carrying a harp and a jeweled trophy won in yesterday's tournament, walks Sir Tristram, saying: "Why skip ye so, Sir Fool?"
Some while before, Arthur and Lancelot had found an abandoned child wearing a jeweled crown in a desolate wilderness. They had brought the infant back to Camelot to be reared by the queen. Guinevere soon came to love the baby very much, but the child took sick and died. In her distress, the queen suggested that a tournament be held and the infant's crown be given as the prize. She said: "Who knows? — the purest of thy knights may win . . . for the purest of my maids."
On the morning of this tournament, one of Arthur's servants staggered into the hall. He reported that he had been beaten and wounded by the Red Knight and his followers. He had been given a message for the king from the Red Knight, as follows:
"Tell thou the King and all his liars that I
Have founded my Round Table in the North,
And whatsoever his own knights have sworn
My knights have sworn the counter to it — and say
My tower is full of harlots, like his court . . . and say
My knights are all adulterers like his own,
But mine are truer, seeing they profess
To be none other; and say his hour is come,
The heathen are upon him, his long lance
Broken, and his Excalibur a straw."
Arthur immediately announced that he, accompanied by only his youngest knights, would ride north to rid the region of renegades and outlaws. In his absence, he ordered, the tournament was to be held anyway, and Lancelot was to preside.
The next day, "The Tournament of the Dead Innocence" took place. Some related this name only to the unexpected death of the infant, but others saw a deeper and more serious symbolism in it.
At this tournament, the corruption and decay that had been brewing in Camelot came to the surface. All the rules of chivalry and fairness were broken by the participants. There was cheating of every kind. Lancelot and the umpires observed all the violations, but they did not dare protest. The winner of the day was Sir Tristram.
While making the award, Lancelot caustically inquired whether Tristram was really the purest of Arthur's knights, for the man was well known to be an adulterer. Tristram responded bitterly and made several sarcastic comments about Lancelot and Guinevere. These remarks, in addition to his statements about the low standards of morality prevalent in Camelot, shocked many in the audience. They muttered: "All courtesy is dead . . . the glory of our Round Table is no more."
A banquet was planned for the next day, and it is at this dinner that Tristram and Dagonet meet. The two men hold a long conversation in which, despite his fool's costume and manner, Dagonet appears as a perceptive observer of affairs at court. Tristram, on the other hand, seems to be the real fool. Dagonet's statements show him to be one of the few left in Camelot who retains faith in Arthur and his principles.
Afterward, Tristram rides to Lyonnesse to seek Isolt, his lover. Both he and she are married to others, but they will not let this detail interfere with their romance.
Meanwhile, in the north, Arthur and his small army are on campaign. The king wins a bloody victory:
So all the ways were safe from shore to shore,
But in the heart of Arthur pain was lord.
He is beginning to perceive the decay of the institutions he has founded and the ideals he has upheld. In addition, he has a premonition of his own downfall.
Tristram arrives at Tintagil, where Isolt lives with her husband, King Mark. He surprises her in her chamber. At first she is jealous, having learned of his marriage, but he is soon able to allay her suspicions. She tells Tristram of her own hatred for her cruel husband. The two lovers sit and talk together for several hours, recalling memories of their past happiness. The poet subtly relates the development of their love and the vows they have broken to the general moral breakdown of the Round Table. Tristram presents Isolot with her gift and is about to kiss her when Mark breaks into the room and stabs him in the back.
That same night, Arthur returns to Camelot and finds the palace dark and silent. The queen's room is vacant and gloom is everywhere. Only Dagonet is present. The jester falls at the king's feet and sobs:
"I am thy fool,
And I shall never make thee smile again."