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The Once and Future King

T. H. White

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 16–20

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 10–15

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 21–29

Summary: Chapter 16

[Arthur] was hoping to weather the trouble by refusing to become conscious of it.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Arthur, back from France, realizes that something is wrong at Camelot. One day, he brings up the subject of Guenever with Lancelot, but it is an awkward moment, and the affair is not directly addressed. Lancelot then bumps into Guenever, who tells him Elaine is on her way. Guenever seems to be on the verge of reconciling herself with Lancelot, but she then tears herself away from him, saying that she does not want to stand in his way if he discovers that he wishes to marry Elaine.

Summary: Chapter 17

Guenever cordially welcomes Elaine, who brings Galahad, though some hostility is evident. Lancelot avoids Elaine and Galahad until Guenever orders him to go to them. Guenever adds, however, that Lancelot is not to sleep with Elaine. Lancelot says he has no intention of doing so. He is fascinated by the sight of his son, but when Elaine tries to embrace Lancelot, Lancelot rushes out of the room.

Summary: Chapter 18

The next day, Lancelot and Elaine are summoned to Guenever’s chamber. Lancelot goes happily, remembering how he was summoned the night before to Guenever’s room, where they spent the night together. Guenever, however, is furious, and she accuses Lancelot of sleeping with Elaine. Elaine defends Lancelot, saying that she thought he was sleeping with Guenever, and Lancelot realizes that he has been tricked once again. Guenever refuses to believe Elaine’s story. Lancelot suddenly jumps out the window and flees the castle. Elaine bitterly accuses Guenever of having driven Lancelot mad.

Summary: Chapter 19

Two years later, King Pelles’s friend Sir Bliant tells him of a wild man he once encountered, who he thinks may have been Lancelot. The wild man was naked, but spoke in the high tongue and was so good with a sword that he managed to knock out Sir Bliant, who was in armor. The wild man then ran to Sir Bliant’s tent, jumped into his bed, and fell asleep. While the wild man was sleeping, Sir Bliant brought him to his castle. A year and a half after that first encounter, Sir Bliant was attacked by two evil knights, one of whom was Sir Bruce Sans Pitié. The wild man saw this attack from his window, broke his handcuffs, and saved Sir Bliant. Sir Bliant and Pelles speculate that it may have been Lancelot.

Summary: Chapter 20

Soon after, a wild man comes to Pelles’s castle. Pelles asks the wild man if he is Lancelot, but all the man does is roar. Pelles tells his servants to give the wild man the clothes of a fool and keep him locked in the stable. One night, Pelles gets drunk and gives the wild man his cloak. In this royal clothing, the wild man looks brave and noble, and the servants make a path for him as he walks out.

Analysis: Chapters 16–20

This sudden mingling of Lancelot’s worlds—his relationship with Elaine and his relationship with Guenever—turns out to have disastrous results for Lancelot’s psyche. Now that questing and chivalry have been contaminated for him, Lancelot has nowhere to hide from Guenever, with the result being that he goes insane. Lancelot, who is admittedly a little slow to learn, is tricked for a second time and finds that what he thought of as a reconciliation in fact serves to drive him and his love apart. He cannot, however, simply rush out on a series of quests, as he does earlier; his first encounter with Elaine has taught him that even adventures and questing can be soured by love. When Guenever turns on Lancelot, therefore, he is defenseless, unable to derive pleasure from the questing that earlier brings him comfort, or at least distraction. Without any way of escaping the pain he feels from Guenever’s rage, Lancelot becomes insane from the strain.

Arthur’s goodness in these chapters comes under close scrutiny, and we begin to wonder if his ignorance can sometimes be harmful. This is the case in Chapter 16, when Arthur fails to talk to Lancelot about Lancelot’s affair with Guenever, avoiding the sort of honest confrontation that the issue so desperately needs. Arthur knows about the affair, but he is so dogmatic about the power of justice and goodwill that he remains purposefully blind to the issues that eventually tear his kingdom apart. But by abiding so rigidly to his principles, Arthur also violates his own laws. Just as Guenever and Lancelot are breaking the rules of honor, Arthur also cannot bear to follow the demands of his own laws, which would require that he punish them for their transgressions. By trying to be noble and selfless, Arthur and Lancelot enter, in a sense, a pact of dishonesty, by which they try to preserve Camelot with lies rather than with friendship.

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