Elaine has decided to become a nun and does not think much about Lancelot anymore. One day, she comes across the wild man asleep in her father’s robe and immediately recognizes him as Lancelot. She tells King Pelles, and he summons doctors to heal Lancelot’s spirits. Lancelot finally wakes from his madness, completely unconscious of anything that has occurred since he went berserk.
Lancelot and Elaine eventually move into Sir Bliant’s castle, and Lancelot goes by the name of Le Chevalier Mal Fet, which means “the ill-made knight.” A young knight tells Lancelot that he has uncovered Lancelot’s true identity. Lancelot asks him to respect his wish to remain incognito. The young knight apologetically promises to keep Lancelot’s secret.
In the spring, Elaine arranges a huge tournament. Lancelot, in disguise, defeats everyone else at the tournament, and the others leave, grumbling about the mystery knight. Elaine cries at this social fiasco, then finds Lancelot standing on the castle ramparts, where she sees that the symbol on his shield is that of a knight bowing before a queen. One day, two knights come to Bliant Castle and ask to fight with the mysterious Chevalier Mal Fet. They are amazed by his prowess, and he eventually reveals that he is Lancelot. The two knights turn out to be Sir Degalis, one of the Round Table knights, and Sir Ector de Maris, who, not to be confused with Arthur’s old guardian, is one of Arthur’s knights and also Lancelot’s brother. Elaine watches the joyful reunion, knowing that these knights will break her heart by taking Lancelot away.
Sir Degalis and Sir Ector de Maris urge Lancelot to return to Camelot with them. Lancelot feels doggedly obliged to Elaine and says he will return. One day, a squire appears and sits at the castle moat, saying he is waiting for Lancelot. Elaine asks Lancelot what she should do about Galahad if Lancelot does not return. Pretending not to know what she is talking about, Lancelot assures her he will return. The squire turns out be Uncle Dap, who has brought all of Lancelot’s armor, polished and patched. Guenever has stitched a mantle onto the back of his helmet, and when he sniffs it, Lancelot is reminded of her. He rides away with Uncle Dap without looking back.
Fifteen years pass and England has grown much more civilized. Instead of thieves and murderers and towers going up in flames, the new civilization has scholars and hospitals. Arthur is now accepted as a great king, and Lancelot as a legendary hero. A new and eager generation of knights comes to Camelot, among them Gareth and Arthur’s son, Mordred.
Arthur tells Lancelot a little about the Orkney boys and describes how they are so violent and unhappy because of Morgause. Of Morgause’s children, Lancelot thinks the least of Mordred, though he is unaware that Morded is Arthur’s son. Lancelot casually tells Arthur that Morgause has seduced King Pellinore’s youngest son, Lamorak. Arthur is aghast—it turns out that Pellinore killed Lot by accident in a tournament and was in turn killed by one of the Orkney clan. Arthur worries that Lamorak may be in danger.
Gareth enters crying and tells Arthur and Lancelot that Agravaine has killed their mother after finding her in bed with Lamorak. He adds that Agravaine, Mordred, and Gawaine have hunted down Lamorak as well.
Gawaine and Mordred return to Camelot. Gawaine still thinks Lamorak got what he deserved, but he feels bad about violating Arthur’s principles. Mordred is more evil, and he asks the king for pardon only with great insolence. Arthur halfheartedly forgives them and orders them to leave. To strengthen the weakening Round Table, Arthur decides to send his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, the copper cup or platter, according to medieval legend, from which Christ ate at the Last Supper. Lancelot then learns that Galahad is about to be knighted.
After two years, the knights who give up the search for the Holy Grail straggle back to Camelot. Gawaine is the first to return, and he does so in a bad mood, having come across no traces of the Holy Grail. He speaks bitterly of Galahad, who seems to be a knight of great piety, which Gawaine mistakes for arrogance. Gawaine shakes his head at the fact that Galahad does not eat meat or drink alcohol and is a virgin. Gawaine recounts how he and his companions slew seven knights laying siege to a castle of maidens, only to find that Galahad had already beaten them without having to kill anyone. In two hermitages, Gawaine reports, the priests lectured him for killing too many people and failing to repent. Arthur listens patiently, observing that Gawaine does seem to have been more interested in bloody adventures than in finding the Holy Grail.
Sir Lionel returns next and talks with a mixture of love and exasperation about the adventures of his brother, Sir Bors. According to Lionel, Bors’s honor was tested by a series of trials. In the first of these, Bors defeated a knight without taking his life. Bors was then forced to choose between rescuing a maiden or saving Lionel himself, and he chose the strange woman over his brother. Then a fiend in disguise told Bors that unless he slept with a certain lady, she would kill herself; Bors refused, however, even when she threatened to kill her servants as well. Guenever is particularly appalled by this part of the story. A while later, Bors and Lionel met again, and Lionel, enraged that his brother chose to rescue the maiden instead of him, tried to kill Bors. Bors refused to fight back, even after Lionel killed a hermit and another knight who was trying to help Bors. As Lionel was on the verge of killing Bors, God came between them, and they made up. Lionel expresses regret for his killings and remarks that if anyone is pure enough to find the Holy Grail, it is Bors.
Until now, the third book has centered exclusively on Lancelot, but once he returns to sanity, the narrative switches tracks to tell us how much the rest of the kingdom has changed during Lancelot’s absence. The tone of these chapters is a strange combination of optimism and apprehension. The violence and brutality of the past are quite vividly recollected, and White paints disturbing pictures of murders and wars, drawing on classic writers of the period such as Geoffrey Chaucer, the fourteenth-century English poet who wrote The Canterbury Tales. The book’s present is described in far more gratifying terms, but there is a sense that this tranquility is temporary. We hear of newly safe roads and of scholars sitting down to write learned texts, but shortly after the novel describes these improvements, Arthur is mourning the fact that his kingdom will soon crumble. This peaceful period is fleeting; though we have just gotten to know England as a tranquil place, we are already being told that this peace will soon be gone.
Arthur’s vision of a peaceful kingdom is a noble one, but his idea of harnessing might for right has limits that reveal themselves during the quest for the Holy Grail. Now that England has been civilized, Arthur’s knights are still chomping at the bit for action. Arthur needs to keep coming up with ways to keep them occupied, but this plan cannot go on forever. The quest for the Holy Grail, as told by Gawaine and Lionel, proves that harnessing might on behalf of right is not enough, and that true tranquility lies in dispensing with force altogether. Gawaine and Lionel are integral members of the Round Table—both of them are faithful to Arthur’s ideas—but they are not worthy of the Holy Grail because they still rely on violence as a way of life. Galahad emerges as the most perfect knight, in part because of his chaste and austere way, but even more so because he is more interested in sparing lives than in taking them. The same can be said for Lionel’s brother, Sir Bors. What both Gawaine and Lionel have never understood is that even killing justly is worse than not killing at all. The fundamental flaw in Arthur’s plan is that it tries to steer violent men to use their talents for the common good, when true good, the kind that is needed to find the Holy Grail, can be achieved only by abandoning violence altogether.
Overall, The Once and Future King is more sympathetic to what Arthur is trying to achieve than to the perfection represented by the Holy Grail. Both Galahad and Bors are very holy and noble, but they also seem selfish. Bors refuses to fight his Lionel, even though other people die as a result of Lionel’s sins. Gawaine tells us that Galahad defeats his own father, Lancelot, and is generally cold to the other knights. White’s vision of the otherworldly perfection of the Holy Grail feels very clinical: the Holy Grail’s champions may be perfect, but we feel very removed from them.