Le Morte d'Arthur

by Thomas Malory

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What accident triggers the battle between the two armies?

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In Le Morte D’Arthur, King Arthur’s army is prepared to face the army of Mordred, a former knight of the Round Table and a traitor who tried to claim Arthur’s kingdom as his own while the true king was on campaign. Arthur hopes to settle the matter without a large loss of life, and he and Mordred are set to meet between the two hosts with fourteen men each, in order to discuss what is to be done. As a precaution, Arthur tells his army that he does not trust Mordred or his motives and that they should strike if they should see the flash of a sword on the other side of the battlefield. Mordred gives his army these same instructions as he is leaving to meet with Arthur.

Malory’s text tells us that as the two leaders met, “they were agreed and accorded thoroughly; and wine was fetched, and they drank.” Even though a truce has been apparently reached, disaster for the two armies seems inevitable.

An adder, which is a venomous snake, stings a knight on the foot, and the knight responds by slicing at the adder with his sword (wouldn’t you?). Unfortunately, this is interpreted as the forewarned gesture by the opposing side, and they rally to arms. The battle begins without the leadership of the Arthur or Mordred, who both drop the wine and spring to their horses in despair. Malory doesn’t tell us which side made the fatal mistake, simply that an unnamed knight accidentally instigated the battle that would be the death of a hundred thousand knights, including the good King Arthur.

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In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, the two opposing armies meet face to face to talk peace.  Both armies are suspicious of the other, however, and it doesn't take much to start a fight.

An adder comes out of a bush and stings a knight in his foot.  When he raises his sword to kill the snake, everyone sees it and thinks a fight is starting.  Trumpets and horns blow, announcing battle, and the battle begins.

Arthur had planned to delay the fight until Lancelot could arrive with reinforcements, but the appearance of the adder takes care of that.

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