Many a spear was thrust and splintered,
Many a stern word spoken;
Many a sword was hacked and bent,
Many a helmet broken;
Noble companies clashed together,
Battering helmets bright.
A hundred thousand fell to the ground;
The boldest were quelled ere night.
Since Brutus voyaged out of Troy
And Britain for kingdom won,
No war so wonderfully fierce
Was fought beneath the sun.
By evening not a knight was left
Could stir his blood and bone
But Arthur and two fellow-knights
And Mordred, left alone.
—Le Morte Arthur
Camlann, the final battle of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, has been retold and re-imagined by authors as diverse as Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Bernard Cornwell, appearing in ancient sources like the stanzaic poem Le Morte Arthur (written circa 1350) and modern novels like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published 1958). Despite differing details of the order of battle and the manner in which its final blows were struck, all the sources agree that Camlann was the end of Arthur’s reign. He either dies outright, or is mortally wounded and spirited away to the mystical isle of Avalon from which one day he will return, healed, to repair a broken world.
Was Arthur a real figure? I suspect he was. Ancient legends, however altered they may become with the passage of years and the vagaries of recorded history, typically have some basis in fact. Most histories place Arthur as a sixth-century ‘dux bellorum’ (war-leader) or high king of the post-Roman period in Britain. His legend fomented in Geoffrey of Monmouths’s History of the Kings of Britain, was adapted and romanticized by various French poets, and eventually reached its fullest form in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
But beneath all the romance and splendor of the myth—handsome knights winning favors for their lovely ladies in tournaments, or riding off gallantly on glorious grail quests and the like—is the grim, bloody battle that ended the dream. Whether it was fought in the fifth century A.D. by bearded warriors armed with spears and shield and wearing coats of ring-mail, or was a mythic 15th century tilt of plumed knights in gothic plate, Camlann kicks ass and rates as no. 1 on my list of Top 10 fantasy fiction battles. There are many reasons why it has such resonance with me, but here’s a few:
• The aging Arthur, lacing them up one last time like an aging but still dangerous prize heavyweight. Arthur bleeds pathos; betrayed by his best friend and his wife, hated by his bastard son, and unable to patch together his squabbling knights, he nevertheless rides out to battle one final time for the good of the world. He fights for a concept of what is right.
• Lancelot, Arthur’s disgraced betrayer, returning to the fray to help out his beloved king. In many versions of the story he reaches the battle too late, but I’ve always been partial to those where Lancelot returns in the nick of time, fights bravely, and dies at Arthur’s side after begging his forgiveness. See John Boorman’s Excalibur (cue lump in throat when a wild-haired Lancelot rides into the fray swinging a mace).
• Mordred is a complex enemy. Either you love to hate him, or find it hard to wholly root against him. In some versions of the tale Mordred is Arthur’s nephew and a terrible betrayer, utterly unsympathetic to the reader. In others he’s Arthur’s illegitimate child whom the King in a moment of supreme weakness tries and fails to drown after hearing a prophecy that his birth will bring ruin to Camelot. Thus Mordred’s hatred for his father and the Round Table is rather justifiable.
• The desperate nature of the affair. Order and the age of chivalry hang in the balance, and underneath the pounding hooves of Mordred’s forces can be heard the heavy footsteps of an approaching Dark Age. Against these are arrayed a thin red line of Arthur’s knights, the remains of the once great round table.
• Its finality. Everyone of consequence pretty much dies in the Battle of Camlann, including Arthur, Mordred, and the great knights Lancelot and Gawain. It’s the end of a golden age and a shining castle on a hill.
The alliterative Morte Arthure says that Mordred’s forces include 60,000 soldiers while Arthur’s troops number just 1,800 knights. The stanzaic Le Morte Arthur estimates a larger order of battle with a combined 100,000 casualties.
Camlann is often started seemingly a random when, during a parley of the opposing forces, one of Mordred’s men is stung on the foot by an adder and draws his sword to kill it. Thinking that their king has been deceived, Arthur’s knights attack. Perhaps the serpent is an allusion to Satan, the deceiver and sewer of discord, wreaking mischief on the Christlike Arthur.
Of the battle itself there are numerous versions. Bernard Cornwell wrote a memorable version in Excalibur, the concluding volume of his highly recommended Warlord Trilogy. Here Arthur’s knights engage Mordred’s in a clash of shieldwalls on a narrow strip of sandy beach (would you expect anything less from Cornwell, he of the shieldwall fetish?) Mordred’s forces vastly outnumber Arthur’s but he can’t bring them all to bear at once and his advantage is nullified. Cornwell does a usual fine job of depicting the nasty, brutish conflict that occurs in the interlocked walls of wood:
I recall confusion and the noise of sword ringing on sword, and the crash of shield striking shield. Battle is a matter of inches, not miles. The inches that separate a man from his enemy. You smell the mead on their breath, hear the breath in their throats, hear their grunts, feel them shift their weight, feel their spittle on your eyes, and you look for danger, look back into the eyes of the next man you must kill, find an opening, take it, close the shield wall again, step forward, feel the thrust of the men behind, half stumble on the bodies of those you have killed, recover, push forward, and afterwards you recall little except the blow that so nearly killed you. You work and push and stab to make an opening in their shield wall, and then you grunt and lunge and slash to widen the gap, and only then does the madness take over as the enemy breaks and you can begin to kill like a God because the enemy is scared and running, or scared and frozen, and all they can do is die while you harvest souls.
At the end of most versions of the battle only four combatants are left standing—Arthur, Mordred, and Arthur’s knights Sir Lucan and Sir Bedievere. Mordred and Arthur’s final death-duel differs depending on the source material. Most tales have Arthur running Mordred through with a spear, but suffering a mortal head-wound when the latter cleaves his helm and brain-pan with an overhand sword-stroke.
But in the alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur, mortally wounded in the right side by a sword-stroke from Mordred, slashes off the latter’s sword-hand an inch from the elbow. Mordred falls to his knees in pain and Arthur drags him back upright again and drives Excalibur all the way up to its hilts. Cornwell’s version also has Arthur wounded in the side and right eye but concludes with Arthur chopping through Mordred’s skull-topped helmet (and Mordred’s skull beneath).
In any case, Arthur is terribly wounded, perhaps mortally. Lucan’s heart bursts as he tries to bear his wounded king from the field, leaving Bedievere as the final survivor of the battle. Arthur’s last order is for Bedievere to cast Excalibur into the sea, and after two false starts Bedievere follows his king’s command. The last rays of a red sun glitter on the sea as it dips below the horizon.
Some legends say Arthur is taken by boat to the Isle of Avalon to heal. Others say his wound was mortal and he died on the shores of the sea and was entombed there. But whether from some mystical isle or beyond the realms of death, Arthur will one day return. He is after all the Once and Future King.
So that does it for my top 10 fantasy fiction battles. Some honorable mentions that could have made the list on another day include The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, The battle of the ice wall from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the final battle in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the battle of Nemedian and Aquilonian armies from Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon, and The Battle of Yonkers from Max Brooks’ World War Z.
What are yours? Comments are welcomed.