The mighty king of all primeval England, Uther Pendragon, lusts after Igrayne, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Uther invites the duke and his wife to his castle and propositions her. She refuses him, tells her husband, and the duke and Igrayne slip out of Uther's castle by night and flee. On the advice of his knights, the king, sick with lust and rage, marches on the Duke of Cornwall. While the siege is still on, Merlin the magician arranges a pact with King Uther. He will transform Uther into the image of the duke and get him to bed with lgrayne. The condition is that the child who will be conceived on this night shall go to Merlin for rearing as he sees fit.
The child is conceived hours after the real duke's death, and King Uther later marries the widow. On the same morning, by King Uther's request, two fellow kings — Lot and Nantres — marry two of Uther's daughters, and the third daughter, Morgan le Fay, is put to school in a nunnery and becomes a necromancer; she later marries King Uriens. The child is born and delivered unchristened to Merlin.
Two years pass. In this time Uther's enemies strike at him repeatedly, killing many of his people. Uther falls sick, and in the hour of his death, Merlin gets him to proclaim his son Arthur the future king of England.
After Uther's death, the kingdom is in jeopardy, every baron struggling to seize control. Merlin goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury, tells him a miracle is coming soon and advises him to assemble all the lords of the kingdom at Christmas. They come and find a sword lodged in a stone, and on it the legend: Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is duly born King of all England. No man can budge it, and to keep them in hand, the archbishop arranges a New Year's Day tournament. To this tournament a knight of low station, Sir Ector, comes with his son Kay and the child Merlin placed in his care, Arthur.
On the way, Kay loses his sword and sends Arthur back. Arthur brings the sword from the stone. When they hear of this, the barons are outraged at the thought of being ruled by a boy. They postpone their decision on Arthur's kingship again and again, but at last accept it, at the urging of the commons, and Arthur is crowned. He redistributes the land, redresses old wrongs, and extends his realm, in a few years bringing all the North, Scotland, and Wales to submission.
Arthur has himself crowned in Wales and the mightiest kings of his time come to the coronation, among them King Lot, King Nantres, and King Uriens, the husbands of Uther's three daughters. Arthur is pleased, thinking they come from love and respect; but the gifts he sends them are scornfully refused: they have come to fight him. With 500 men, Arthur withdraws to a tower, and Merlin goes to talk with the hostile kings. He tells them of Arthur's lineage and arranges a parley, then vanishes from their midst and returns to Arthur. He tells Arthur to answer his enemies boldly, for destiny is on his side.
The parley fails, war begins, and with the help of his magical sword Excalibur, gleaming in his enemies' eyes like twenty torches, Arthur routs his enemies. He returns to London, and there Merlin gives him a three-part plan of war. First he advises that Arthur get help from two kings over the sea, Ban and Bors, and that Arthur promise in return to help with their wars. Second, he advises a midnight attack on the greatest and bravest of Arthur's enemies, King Lot. Third, lie advises that the armies of Ban and Bors be moved secretly into the English forest of Bedgraine. This Merlin himself accomplishes. Arthur and his army fight the hostile kings-grown to a league of eleven — and bring the battle to a draw. When the enemy is weakened and weary, the fresh armies of Ban and Bors descend.
King Lot and his allies are badly beaten and might be destroyed, but Merlin tells Arthur to quit or Fortune will turn on him. The hostile armies will not trouble him now for three years. Arthur and his allies stop, joyful over their success, and Merlin sees that all that happened in the battle is written down. An interlude of peace follows; a seemingly irrational joke by Merlin, then the appearance of an earl's daughter on whom Arthur gets a child who will become, later, a Round Table knight.
Now Arthur, Ban, and Bors go to help King Lodegreaunce with his war and win it for him. There Arthur first sees Guinevere and immediately loves her. Ban and Bors return home, and so do the eleven hostile kings, who find their lands overrun with Saracens and other bandits — lands Arthur would have protected for them, they realize, if they had not struggled against him. They drive out the Saracens and begin to plot vengeance for the battle of Bedgraine.
Arthur goes to Carlyon, where the wife of King Lot and his four sons — Gawain, Gaheris, Aggravain, and Gareth — come to visit, actually to spy. Unaware that Lot's wife is his own sister, Arthur gets a child on her — Mordred. That night Arthur dreams that his land is overrun by gryphons and serpents which burn the land and slay the people; he fights them in his dream and, with great difficulty, slays them. To drive the nightmare out of his mind, Arthur goes hunting. He chases a hart until his horse falls dead. A yeoman brings another horse, but Arthur sits, lost in thought, near a fountain. A mysterious beast comes, drinks, and moves on; immediately afterward a strange knight comes — Sir Pellanor, hunter of the Questing Beast. Arthur offers to take up the quest, but Sir Pellanor says that destiny will allow none but him or his next of kin to kill the beast; then he takes Arthur's horse by force.
Then Merlin comes, disguised as a child of fourteen. Merlin tells Arthur that he is Uther's son by Igrayne. Arthur refuses to believe the boy because of his youth, and Merlin leaves, then returns as an old man. He now tells Arthur that if he would only have listened to him, the boy might have told him many things. Merlin-as-old-man tells him only that he has lain by his sister and has gotten on her the child who will destroy him. Then, revealing himself, Merlin prophesies that whereas Arthur will die a worshipful death, Merlin's death will be shameful — he will be sealed in the earth alive.
A few days later a squire comes to the court with his dying master, wounded by Sir Pellanor. A young squire of Arthur's court, Gryfflet, asks to be made knight and avenge the wrong; and against Merlin's advice, Arthur grants the boy's request. Gryfflet fights Pellanor and returns again to the court nearly dead. With his mind on Gryfflet, Arthur hastily and angrily dismisses envoys from King Lucius of Rome and rides out himself again against Merlin's advice — fights Pellanor, and is beaten. He is about to be beheaded when Merlin saves him by means of a spell. Merlin tells him that Pellanor will do him great service later, and that his two sons, Percival and Lamerok of Wales, will be two of the most valiant knights of the Round Table.
Having lost his sword in the fight with Pellanor, Arthur asks Merlin what he should do. Merlin guides him to a magical lake where an arm reaches out of the water holding a sword. Merlin takes him now to the Lady of the Lake, who gives him the sword, demanding that he give some return gift later, when she asks for it. Arthur agrees. The sword is the finest in the world, the scabbard better yet: as long as he wears the scabbard, nothing can harm him.
They return to court, where new troubles are waiting. Messengers from King Royns of North Wales say that Royns has overcome the eleven kings, has taken their beards, and now demands Arthur's. Arthur refuses them as angrily as lie earlier refused the Roman king's demand for tribute. Then, advised by Merlin that he should destroy all highborn children delivered on May Day, because Mordred is one of them, Arthur orders these children brought to his court. They are put on a ship, which drives onto rocks killing all but one — Mordred. Many of Arthur's lords and barons are furious, hearing of the death of their sons. Some blame Arthur, some Merlin. But for the time, they hold their peace.
Besides straightening out and tightening the development Le Morte d'Arthur 19 of plot, Malory departs from his source for "Merlin" in two main ways: in the characterization of Arthur, King Lot, and Merlin, and in his grouping of tribute demands at the end of this episode. The effectiveness of the characterization is partly a product of Malory's style — his swift presentation of action, his blunt realism, his habit of avoiding any complicated analysis of emotion. For example:
So whan the duke and his wyf were comyn unto the kynge, by the meanes of grete lordes they were accorded bothe. The kynge lyked and loved this lady wel, and he made them grete chere out of mesure and desyred to have lyen by her, but she was a passyng good woman and wold not assente unto the kynge.
When the duke and his wife have retreated and the siege is underway, Malory says:
Thenne for pure angre and for grete love of fayr Igrayne the kyng Uther felle seke. So came to the kynge Utber syre Ulfius, a noble knyght, and asked the kynge why he was seke.
"I shall telle the," said the kynge. "I am seke for angre and for love of fayre Igrayne, that I may not be hool."
"Well, my lord," said syre Ulfius, "I shal seke Merlyn and he shalle do yow remedy, that youre herte shal be pleasyd."
By these swift strokes, Malory arrives at the introduction of Merlin, agent of Arthur's rise and fall. On the other hand, Malory can switch from swift narration to scenes slowly and carefully worked out. When Arthur draws the sword from the stone, for instance, Kay's lie (his pretense that he himself drew it out), his father's suspicion, Arthur's grief at finding he is not Sir Ector's son, and Arthur's pledge that he will always be faithful to Ector and Kay, are all developed slowly, through dialog and gesture.
But at the heart of Malory's characterization is his original sense of how each character contributes to and defines the total tragedy. He makes Merlin directly responsible for every step of Arthur's progress — even his birth. He seems at first to be a prophet, a direct agent of God. But he is not. He is part demonic tempter, part wizard: he knows necromancy, and he can see into the future, but his vision, like that of any astrologer or (as Lot says) "dream-reader" is imperfect. In medieval terms, he can see into the workings of Fortune but not always into those of Providence. To trust him is to trust not God, but "the World."
Malory's method is to present Merlin first in his best light — manipulating Uther's lust to his own end, guiding Arthur to greater and greater power — then to reveal, little by little, Merlin's dangerous flaws. In the joke he plays on Arthur after the battle of Bedgraine, Merlin appears dressed in the hides of black sheep and offers treasure "under the ground" for a gift from Arthur. Nothing comes of the joke, but it has ominous overtones of demonic temptation. For medieval writers, to trust in the World (whose prophet is Merlin) is to trust the devil, emblematically identified with both black sheep and treasure under the ground. (We learn later that Merlin is a devil's son.) Merlin's deadly mistakes — his failure to warn Arthur against lying with Lot's wife and his still more terrible mistake in the attempted murder of Mordred — reveal how dangerous his limitations are.
Malory's King Lot is a much more heroic and forceful figure than the King Lot of the sources. Malory focuses on him at once, makes him the leader of Arthur's enemies, and insists on his nobility and courage (for instance, Lot's nightmare and panic in the sources is assigned to another king in Malory). He is thus made a worthy antagonist to Merlin's plan and Arthur's kingship. And Arthur is similarly ennobled: Malory underscores his loyalty to Sir Ector, to kings who are his friends, and to the young squire Gryfflet.
The structure of the "Merlin" is as remarkable as the characterization. Half-way through, events flow in a straight narrative line, reflecting our sense that all is well; Merlin is in full control. But immediately after Merlin's joke, everything changes. Apparently motivated by casual lust, Arthur sleeps with an earl's daughter and gets on her a son who will do him great honor. Immediately afterward, in what seems to Arthur an exactly similar situation, he commits incest and dooms himself.
All the remaining incidents involve demands for tribute, Le Morte d'Arthur 21 one after another — Sir Pellanor's demands, King Lucius' demand, King Royns' demand for Arthur's beard. All the demands are stalled off for the moment, but they are all still there, biding their time like the fathers of the murdered children. Thus the opening tale, "Merlin," sets tip the ironic principle which will govern the whole Morte d'Arthur.