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The Once and Future King

T. H. White

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 30–37

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

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 38–45

Summary: Chapter 30

Sir Aglovale returns to Camelot and swears revenge on the Orkney faction for having killed his brother Lamorak. Arthur convinces Aglovale that the only way to stop the bloodshed is for him to give up on revenge. Aglovale tells Arthur about the adventures of his youngest brother, Sir Percival, who is also a holy knight like Galahad. Percival has some adventures in a magical forest and then boards a magical barge with Sir Bors and Sir Galahad. In the barge, they are joined by Percival’s sister, a holy nun. On their search for the Holy Grail, the three knights get into a fight with a group of men and slaughter them. Galahad tells them the slaughter is not sinful, since the murdered men were not christened. They then come to another castle, where Percival’s sister sacrifices her life to save a woman with a fatal disease. After telling his stories, Aglovale asks Arthur to invite the Orkneys to dinner on his behalf.

Summary: Chapter 31

Other returning knights bring contradicting rumors about the adventures of Bors, Percival, and Galahad. Rumors fly that Lancelot has died or gone mad. Guenever becomes less cautious, and Mordred and Agravaine wait eagerly for her to reveal her affair. Lancelot returns to Camelot exhausted but sane. Uncle Dap tells Arthur that Lancelot has been wearing a hair shirt—a painful way of doing penance for one’s sins.

Summary: Chapter 32

The next day, Lancelot tells Arthur and Guenever the story of his search for the Holy Grail. Guenever, now forty-two years old, has dressed up and put on makeup in an effort to look good for Lancelot, and his heart warms at the sight of her. Lancelot tells them that he did not find the Holy Grail, which was reserved for Galahad. Lancelot also says that if Galahad seems cold, it is because he is more angelic than human. Lancelot relates that Galahad defeated him in jousting. Lancelot then confessed his sins, which he thought would make him the best knight in the world again. But he was then beaten by another group of knights, after which he fell asleep in a chapel. When he woke up, his sword and armor had been taken from him. He then began to wear the hair shirt as penance. Thinking he had cleansed himself and could fight as well as he had before, Lancelot fought a knight dressed in black but was again defeated.

Summary: Chapter 33

Arthur is outraged that Lancelot, his best knight, has been beaten. Lancelot continues with his story: he then got on a magic barge, and Galahad soon joined him. Eventually Galahad got out to seek the Holy Grail. The barge eventually returned to the castle where the Grail was located, and Lancelot was allowed to watch Galahad and other holy knights participate in a Mass in a chapel that contains the Holy Grail.

Summary: Chapter 34

Having found God, Lancelot decides to end his affair with Guenever, but she is confident he will return to her. The narrator explains that Guenever is not an evil seductress, for seductresses usually leave men hollow, while both the men that Guenever loves have accomplished great things.

Summary: Chapter 35

Guenever’s faith in Lancelot’s love grows weaker as time passes. One day, she demands that he go on another quest instead of torturing her with his presence. Just as Lancelot has decided to give up his abstinence and rekindle his affair with Guenever, she leaves the room and refuses to talk to him. He leaves Camelot the next morning.

Summary: Chapter 36

With Lancelot gone, it becomes even clearer that Camelot is no longer the place it once was. The best knights have either succeeded in finding the Holy Grail or have died. At the court, fashions are silly and infidelity is the norm. Mordred and his friends now dominate Camelot, and Guenever is widely despised. In an attempt to win some popularity, she throws a dinner party for the knights and leaves out a tray of apples, Gawaine’s favorite fruit. A distant relative of the Pellinores tries to avenge Lamorak’s death by poisoning one of the apples, but an innocent knight eats one first and dies. Guenever is accused of trying to poison Gawaine. Each side picks a champion to fight for their cause.

Summary: Chapter 37

Sir Bors agrees, reluctantly, to be Guenever’s champion. In the days before the fight, however, he finds Lancelot in a nearby abbey. Lancelot takes Bors’s place and easily defeats the knight who accused Guenever. He spares the knight’s life, but insists that no mention of the incident be made on the poisoned knight’s tombstone.

Analysis: Chapters 30–37

The episode with Sir Aglovale in Chapter 30 is important because it reveals that, even after it has been in place for so long, King Arthur’s government still relies on sacrifices made for the common good. Arthur has committed himself to a system of government that is moral, but he has also inherited a country in which wrongs are committed every day and the system of justice in place is still not strong enough to deal with all of them. Arthur is not yet in a position to punish his strong men, so he must appeal to individuals such as Aglovale to forego their vengeance. The old system is based on avenging any wrongs that a person commits against one’s family. The system is so ingrained that Arthur has to ask some of his knights to forgive others’ wrongs against them until a new system of justice can be established.

In this section, we also gain a better understanding of Guenever. Until now we have seen her as more of a target for Lancelot’s affections than an individual in her own right, and the portrait of her had previously been more flattering. In these chapters, however, Guenever begins to seem like a furtive, jealous, and secretive woman. She fears Arthur’s retribution if he finds out about her affair, but she nonetheless continues the affair even after Lancelot tries to call it off. As her behavior worsens, so does her physical appearance, and she begins to use makeup to try to keep Lancelot attracted to her. The image of Guenever putting on makeup to cover her age suggests that she is trying to hide her true, immoral self. The narrator tries to temper such an unattractive picture of Guenever by telling us that Arthur is ten years older than she and that their marriage was arranged. With this qualifying description, we sympathize more with Guenever’s situation, though we still do not applaud her lack of morals and honor.

The other major development in these chapters is Lancelot’s newfound humility and piety. His failed quest for the Holy Grail has taught him that there are some goals that cannot be accomplished through skill in battle. Lancelot’s son, Galahad, comes to exemplify this new knightly ideal instead. Since he is pure, pious, and virginal, only Galahad is able to accomplish the quest for the Holy Grail. Even though Galahad is the product of a union that was corrupt and dishonorable, he rises to become a highly moral figure. White, however, is more interested in humanity than in heroism, and he keeps Galahad as a minor character while Lancelot remains a pivotal figure. Like Malory, White is principally interested in the tragic aspects of King Arthur’s story and in the circumstance that bring about the demise of Camelot and England’s golden age. Galahad seems fairly cold, and almost inhuman, in his perfection. Lancelot, on the other hand, realizes his own mortality and his human failings, and sees that he can never reach the sterile perfection of his son. Lancelot’s understanding of the limitations of his character demonstrates his maturity and humanness.

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