Summary and Analysis
Book 1: The Tale of King Arthur: Tor and Pellanor
At the request of his lords, who are concerned about Arthur's founding a royal line, Arthur marries Guinevere — against Merlin's advice. As dowery, her father Laudegreaunce gives Arthur the Round Table. Merlin gathers knights to fill as many of the 150 seats as he can. Arthur dubs two young knights, Lot's son Gawain and the bastard son of Sir Pellanor. At the wedding feast, each of the two new knights, along with Sir Pellanor, get knighty work to do.
A white hart runs into the hall, pursued by black hounds. A disgrunted knight, knocked down by the hart, seizes a hound and rides away with it. A lady appears, says the hound is hers, and asks that some knight pursue the thief. A strange knight rides in, seizes the obstreperous lady, and takes her away by force. King Arthur is pleased to be rid of her, but Merlin warns that these wrongs must be redressed if his court is to be respected. Arthur orders Gawain after the hart, Sir Tor after the knight and hound, and Sir Pellanor after the kidnaper and the kidnaped lady, The remainder of the tale treats the three knights' adventures.
Gawain comes honorably out of two encounters, impartially judging the conflict of two brothers and disinterestedly overcoming a knight who guards a waterway. But in his third fight he is not impartial: to avenge his murdered hounds he refuses mercy to the knight he overcomes. A lady throws herself over the knight to save him and Gawain accidentally cuts off her head. He will carry this shame until his death. Four knights come to avenge the lady and, in contrast to Gawain, show mercy when ladies ask it in his behalf. Gawain returns to court, and Guinevere imposes his penance.
Sir Tor, pursuing the bound, encounters two knights served by a dwarf, fights them at their demand, beats them, and gives them mercy when they ask it. The dwarf leads Tor to the hound and Tor seizes it; but as be returns to Arthur's court a knight demands the hound. They fight, Tor overcomes the knight, and the knight refuses to ask for mercy. A lady rides up and asks a gift. Tor agrees, and the lady asks for the wounded knight's head. He murdered her brother and would show no mercy, though the lady pleaded for half an hour on her knees. The wounded knight now asks mercy, but because he asks too late, Tor grants the lady's request. Tor returns to Camelot and is honored both by the court and by Merlin.
Sir Pellanor, riding on his quest of the kidnaper, passes a lady with a wounded knight in her arms, who asks for his help. In his haste, he refuses to stop. He achieves his quest nobly, but on his return he finds that both the lady he would not help and her wounded protector have been eaten by lions. Back at Camelot, Guinevere reproaches Pellanor for these deaths, and Pellanor crossly shrugs it off: the lady should have taken care of herself. Merlin tells Pellanor that the lady was his own daughter and that his act was shameful. Because Pellanor would not stop to help the lady, his best friend shall fail him at need. This is the penance God has ordained, he says. Arthur distributes lands and rewards, then spells out the new code of the Round Table, which requires them to show mercy, to fight for the right, and to honor ladies.
Like all titles in Malory, including Le Morte d'Arthur itself, the misleading title "Tor and Pellanor" is not by Malory, but by later editors. In this tale, the chivalric code, found wanting in the preceding tale of Balyn, is modified. It is most obviously modified, of course, by the adventures of the three knights. The code must be merciful, as all the tales show; and the code insists that a knight must stop if he possibly can for any person in distress. The code is also modified in more subtle ways. The three adventures take place within the framing tale of Arthur's wedding, an event also significant with respect to the code.
For Arthur's knights, Guinevere represents the stability of rule which comes from the founding of a legitimate line of succession. As judge of the knights' adventures, she also serves as the court spokesman for love. She imposes on Gawain the penance of special devotion to mercy (a check against the law of revenge) and special service to ladies (i.e., the beautiful and defenseless). She approves Sir Tor, whose charity and respect for ladies is flawless. It is she who condemns Sir Pellanor for failing to save a lady's life when he might have-and her "civilized" judgment is sealed by a judgment from, in effect, God.
Finally, the tale contrasts the ideal of legitimate lineage affirmed in Arthur's marriage, public and lawful, with the kind of lineage achieved by Sir Pellanor. Pellanor's bastard son, Sir Tor, raised by a cowherd, must advance without the help his father owes him. Pellanor's daughter dies because her father did not know her. But legitimacy too raises problems. Gawain, legitimate son of Lot, longs for vengeance on Pellanor, his father's slayer. His brother persuades him not to strike yet, but he will, sooner or later. Knowing who one's father is — and who it is that killed him — can make mercy an unattainable ideal.