On one quest, Lancelot rescues Gawaine, who has been captured by an evil knight named Sir Carados. Later, left alone one morning at the home of his cousin, Sir Lionel, Lancelot is captured by four queens—one of whom is Morgan le Fay—but he refuses their demands to take one of them as his mistress. He escapes with the help of the girl who serves his meals, and in exchange, he agrees to fight in a tournament on behalf of her father, King Bagdemagus.
Fighting with a shield that has no insignia so no one will recognize him, Lancelot steers King Bagdemagus’s side to victory in the tournament. Lancelot then sets out to find Lionel. He discovers that Sir Turquine, Sir Carados’s brother, has captured Lionel and sixty-three other knights. Lancelot and Turquine fight a fierce battle, and Turquine is so impressed by Lancelot, whom he does not recognize, that he agrees to release his captives as long as the unfamiliar knight is not Lancelot. Lancelot informs Turquine of his identity, and after fighting for two more hours, manages to kill him. Gaheris is among the freed captives, and he marvels at how Lancelot keeps helping the Orkneys. Another of the captives, he tells Lancelot, is Agravaine.
One day in the summer, a beautiful lady asks Lancelot to climb a tree to retrieve her falcon. When Lancelot removes his armor, the lady’s husband, a fat knight, attacks him. The fat knight is a member of the upper classes losing power under Arthur’s rule, and he refuses to listen to Lancelot’s pleas for a fair fight. Lancelot eventually kills the fat knight. Later, Lancelot meets a knight who is trying to kill his own wife for adultery. Lancelot rides between them, but the knight tricks Lancelot into looking in a different direction and then cuts off the wife’s head. The knight then begs for mercy, and Lancelot, unable to kill a man begging for his life, spares him. Lancelot has a number of other adventures, and he always sends his prisoners back to Arthur’s court, at Carlion, to bow before Guenever rather than before Arthur.
Guenever is pleased at these signs of Lancelot’s love, and she is so swept away by them that when Lancelot returns, they are drawn to each other instantly. She still loves Arthur, but with a sort of awed affection. While Lancelot tries to repress his feelings, Arthur worries that his knights have become too fixated with what he calls “games-mania,” in which every knight compares his prowess to everyone else’s. He worries particularly about the Orkneys, whose father, Lot, was accidentally killed by Pellinore. Now that her husband is dead, Morgause is trying to seduce every knight she can, and the Orkney knights are becoming uncontrollable as a result.
With Lancelot’s adventures, White gets to the heart of the Arthurian tradition, but his interpretation of the classic stories goes in a purposefully different direction. Malory’s influence on White is more apparent here than in any of the novel’s other books, and he is cited in almost every one of Lancelot’s quests. Even Malory’s fifteenth-century language colors White’s narrative. On Lancelot’s first adventure, when he finds Gawaine held captive by Sir Carados, Gawaine tells Lancelot that his current situation is “Never so hard, unless that ye help me, for without ye rescue me, I know nae knight that may.” In earlier passages, Gawaine speaks modern English with a Scottish accent, but this snippet of dialogue written in archaic English is taken straight out of Malory’s fifteenth-century text. All of the later episodes in Chapters 7 and 8 are told, with matching details, in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. In the first two books of the novel, White tries to produce his own version of the Arthurian legend. But the first chapters of “The Ill-Made Knight,” the third book, try more specifically to interpret Malory’s work on King Arthur. These chapters take events from Malory’s Arthurian story and, without changing any details, make us wonder if there is more to them than Malory might have thought.
This third book elaborates on the evil knight, a topic that is only hinted at earlier in the novel. Arthur has enemies in earlier chapters, most notably King Lot, but these early enemies are primarily motivated by power rather than a difference in ideology. Early on, we hear about the old philosophy of might makes right, but we do not see examples of this idea until now. Sir Carados and Sir Turquine are both prime examples. They ride around the country and take knights hostage for their own amusement. They are variations on the character of Sir Bruce Sans Pitié, the backstabbing knight who is mentioned, but never appears in earlier chapters. Even kings such as Lot follow certain rules, but now we see knighthood at its most corrupt, used only to bully other people. Chapter 8 presents two more examples, even more appalling, of this abuse. One knight uses his lady to persuade Lancelot to scale a tree, and then he tries to kill Lancelot with no armor or weapons handy. The other knight takes advantage of Lancelot’s gullibility to cut off his own wife’s head. A number of Arthur’s knights, including Gawaine, Agravaine, and Kay, seem petty and malicious, and we may wonder what they are doing at Arthur’s court. In comparison to the figures in Chapter 8, however, Gawaine and his companions shine, and we can see why Arthur might enlist them to put down worse tyrants.