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Son of King Pellam and brother of Kings Pelles and Alain, he is most famous for his endless hunt of the Questing Beast, which he is tracking when King Arthur first meets him. Pellinore beats King Arthur after three jousts and breaks the sword Arthur had withdrawn from the stone (in some versions this is Excalibur, though he gets another sword of that name from the Lady of the Lake soon after). Merlin throws a spell of enchantment on Pellinore to save Arthur’s life. Arthur praises Pellinore’s skill, and they soon become friends, with Arthur inviting him to join the Knights of the Round Table. He has many legitimate and illegitimate children; his sons Tor, Aglovale, Lamorak, Dornar, and Percival all eventually join the Round Table as well, and his unnamed daughter (see Dindrane) becomes a servant of the Holy Grail and helps Percival, Galahad and Bors achieve the mystical objective.
Pellinore is a major figure in the Post-Vulgate Cycle and the sections of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur based on it. There, he helps Arthur in his early wars against rebelling vassals, but when he kills King Lot of Orkney during the Battle of Tarabel (also called Dimilioc), he sparks a blood feud between his and Lot's family that results in his death and the deaths of many others. Before this, Pellinore is frequently encountered pursuing the Questing Beast, a strange monster with the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion and the feet of a deer. Though he claims his bloodline is destined perpetually to chase the bizarre creature, Sir Palamedes the Saracen takes up the quest, and, according to one version, slays the beast.
Pellinore was said to have been of the royal line of Joseph of Arimathea, whose dynasty guards the Holy Grail, according to Arthurian lore. Indeed, it is Pellinore’s own son, Percival, who was one of the first Grail seekers, and his grand nephew, Galahad, who finally succeeds in the quest. In the Livre d'Artus (early 13th century), Pellinore is called the "Maimed King" after being wounded by a holy spear, having doubted the powers of the Grail.
In modern fiction
- In T. H. White's The Once and Future King, he is a bumbling but endearing old man who cannot give up his search for the "Questin' Beast" lest the poor creature die of loneliness. He also tends to say the word "what" after his sentences (Merlyn makes fun of him by stating: "…Or, if I were King Pellinore, I would say 'what what, what?'") In White's novel, Pellinore is vengefully put to death by Sir Gawain and/or his brothers, for unintentionally killing their father, King Lot of Orkney, in a jousting match.
- In the musical Camelot, Pellinore (or "Pelly", as he is often called by Arthur) is a comical, much-loved, permanent guest of Arthur and Guinevere. He is however, somewhat unsure of Arthur's new ideas for a new order of chivalry, being against “...any new ideas” on principle. Pellinore is still with Arthur before Arthur fights his final battle at the end of the play/film; and when Arthur knights the young boy "Tom of Warwick".
- In Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles, Pellinore is represented as an old, mad man, kept in a cage commanding imaginary armies. After Gundleus' sacking of the Tor at Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury Tor), Pellinore is retrieved from the Tor by Arthur's men and taken to Caer Cadarn, where he is locked in a store room. While there, Owain argues that he should be sent to the Isle of the Dead, however when Arthur decides to rebuild the Tor, Pellinore is sent back with Nimue and Morgan to continue his life as before.