This is the story told by Sir Bedivere, the last survivor of the Round Table.
One night on the march westward, Bedivere overhears Arthur lamenting in his tent. The king is perplexed and confused by recent events, the failure of the institutions he has founded, and the people whom he trusted. He speaks of his belief in God, musing:
"I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I mark'd Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.. . . for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would. . . ."
Arthur finally wonders whether God has forsaken him after all his efforts, and concludes:
"My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death!
Nay — God, my Christ — I pass but shall not die."
Another night, the ghost of Gawain, killed in the war with Lancelot, comes to plague Arthur, howling:
"Hollow, hollow all delight!
Hail, King! to-morrow thou shalt pass away.
Farewell!. . ."
At this, Arthur cries out, and Bedivere tries to comfort him by reminding the king of his past glories. He points out that the rebels still recognize Arthur's sovereignty, and that he should "Arise, go forth and conquer as of old."
Arthur answers that the forthcoming battle is of a different sort from any previous one. In the past, they have fought only enemies, but now they must fight his own former subjects, and:
". . . The king who fights his people fights himself.
And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke
That strikes them dead is as my death to me. . . ."
No matter though, Arthur continues, they must go on in whatever path destiny has outlined for them and attempt to solve each new problem as it arises.
At long last, the two armies meet in the wilderness near Lyonnesse. The battle is fought under the weirdest and most terrifying conditions; the air is cold and still, and a thick white mist covers the entire field so that no one can see his adversary. Blinded by the fog, many warriors kill their own friends or relatives, and others have strange visions of ghosts and past events. The battle is savage, and many deeds of great nobility, as well as many of cowardice and evil, take place on the field. Everywhere, Arthur fights in the midst of the fierce conflict.
Finally the day comes to an end. Arthur stands with Bedivere, and the two survey the heaps of hacked, bloody corpses. They are the victors, but Arthur sadly points out that he seems king only among the dead. Suddenly they notice that Modred too has survived. Arthur attacks the traitor and kills him, but Modred, as his last act, mortally wounds the king.
Sir Bedivere carries the dying king to a nearby chapel and attempts to tend his wound. Arthur realizes that his end is nigh and instructs his faithful follower to take his royal sword, Excalibur, and throw it into the lake.
The sword is so beautiful that Bedivere feels it should be saved as a memorial of Arthur and his ideals for later generations. Twice he pretends to have obeyed the command, and both times Arthur recognizes that Bedivere is not telling the truth. He insists that the knight carry out this one last order.
Bedivere throws the sword toward the center of the lake, and an arm wrapped in white cloth reaches out to catch it. After brandishing Excalibur in the air three times, the arm draws it into the water. When Arthur hears this, he asks Bedivere to carry him to the edge of the lake.
When they arrive at the shore, they see a barge draped in black slowly drawing up to them. On the deck stand three queens, dressed in black and wearing golden crowns. They lift Arthur into the barge, wash his wounds, and weep as they do.
Bedivere asks Arthur what is to become of him now that the Round Table is destroyed and justice has vanished from the world. Arthur answers:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. . . .But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seest . . .To the island — valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."
The barge sails off and Arthur is never seen again.
Bedivere stands watching for a long time, reliving many memories, until the boat is just a tiny dot on the horizon. He groans to himself: "The King is gone. . . . From the great deep to the great deep he goes." Bedivere slowly turns and walks away, murmuring:
"He passes to be King among the dead,
And after healing of his grievous wound
He comes again. . . ."
In the distance, Bedivere hears a sound like that of a great city's populace welcoming a king on his victorious return from the wars. He looks again and, for a moment, sees a speck that must be the barge, far off on the horizon. Then the spot sails on and disappears, "and the new sun rose bringing the new year."