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The Once and Future King

T. H. White

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

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

Book IV: “The Candle in the Wind,” Chapters 1–6

Summary: Chapter 38

The day after Lancelot defends Guenever’s honor, Nimue arrives and confirms that Guenever is innocent of poisoning the knight who died. This announcement comes as part of her promise to Merlyn to look after Arthur. Arthur decides to hold a tournament to celebrate Guenever’s acquittal.

Summary: Chapter 39

Lancelot visits Elaine, who tells him that he must now stay with her. He agrees to wear her favor, a red sleeve, on his helmet during the tournament. Lancelot fights valiantly, but is wounded near the end of the tournament when three knights attack him at once. When Guenever hears about Elaine’s favor, she becomes jealous and angry, convinced that Lancelot loves Elaine.

Summary: Chapter 40

When Lancelot returns to Camelot, he and Guenever fight. Finally aware that Lancelot does not love her and will never return to her, Elaine commits suicide. Her body is put in a barge, which drifts down to Camelot for all to see. At the sight of her dead rival, Guenever is filled with pity.

Summary: Chapter 41

At another tournament soon after Elaine’s suicide, the lines between the Round Table’s factions become clear. Arthur sides against Lancelot for the first time, and Gareth sides with Lancelot against his own brothers. One day, Lancelot and Arthur hear that Guenever has been captured by a knight named Sir Meliagrance who has secretly been in love with her.

Summary: Chapter 42

Meliagrance sets an ambush for Lancelot, but Lancelot manages to get through it and into the castle where Guenever is held captive. Meliagrance, knowing he will lose any battle with Lancelot, gives up and begs Guenever to forgive him. Lancelot consents to Guenever’s request not to kill Meliagrance.

Summary: Chapter 43

That night, Lancelot cuts through the bars of the window of Guenever’s room, and the two sleep together for the first time in a long while. Lancelot cuts his hand as he breaks into her room. The next morning, Meliagrance discovers Lancelot’s blood on Guenever’s bed and accuses her of sleeping with one of the knights who guard her chamber, many of whom were wounded when she was kidnapped. Guenever denies the accusation. Her denial is accurate, since Lancelot is not one of the knights guarding her chamber. Lancelot offers to defend Guenever’s honor in combat. Meliagrance, knowing he is no match for Lancelot, traps him in a dungeon in his castle.

Summary: Chapter 44

Lancelot manages to persuade the girl who serves his meals to help him, and he escapes Meliagrance’s dungeon and shows up for the challenge. Lancelot knocks Meliagrance off his horse in their first joust. Meliagrance begs for mercy. Lancelot looks to Guenever, who indicates that Meliagrance should be killed. Although the crowd agrees with Guenever, Lancelot does not kill Meliagrance outright. Instead, he handicaps himself by removing half his armor and tying his left hand behind his back. He then fights Meliagrance again and wins easily, cutting Meliagrance’s head in half.

Summary: Chapter 45

After the incident with Meliagrance, Camelot seems to be at peace again. Lancelot and Guenever are happy together, and Arthur does his best to ignore their affair. A man named Sir Urre, who has been cursed with wounds that will not heal, comes to Camelot in the hope that the best knight in the world will be able to heal him. All the knights place their hands on him, but to no avail. Finally Lancelot, who has been hiding in his room, afraid of failure, lays his hands on the man and cures him. The room bursts into a frenzy of celebration, except for Lancelot, who cries to himself like a child who has been beaten.

Analysis: Chapters 38–45

A lot occurs in these short, transitional chapters, but we get the sense that these are only loose ends being wrapped up before the story comes to its conclusion. Whereas “The Queen of Air and Darkness” ends with the disastrous liaison of Morgause and Arthur, “The Ill-Made Knight” concludes somewhat happily. The book ends with a burst of jubilation, and Camelot feels like a place of uneasy but real peace. After the chaos of the Holy Grail period, Camelot returns to the status quo. Certain story lines are brought to a close, and some secondary figures make their final exits. For example, Elaine commits suicide and thus no longer interferes with Lancelot’s relationship with Guenever, eliminating a source of tension in Lancelot’s and Guenever’s lives.

The tone of these last chapters, however, feels almost sad, and even the greatest deeds are tainted. Lancelot is finally able to perform a miracle as the best knight in the world, but he does so in spite of his sins, not because of his accomplishments. Guenever is acquitted on a technicality of committing adultery with one of her knights. Her honor is defended, but only because her champion proves to be stronger than her accuser. The three main characters, despite their sins, are able to remain in their roles, but only because they become resigned to the lie they live. The optimistic sense that things will resolve themselves is gone. When Lancelot heals Sir Urre, he cries because it seems to him that even miracles have lost their sincerity. Lancelot is not perfect, and the fact the he is allowed to perform miracles despite his sinfulness makes the whole endeavor seem cheap to him.

In these chapters we see also that Lancelot is a man who is fundamentally torn. He is both humble and proud, both ambitious and self-loathing, and he feels that his love for Arthur, Guenever, and God are in conflict. These contradictory impulses force him to lie to his best friend, kill a man for rightfully accusing his mistress of adultery, and ignore the mother of his only son. Lancelot is so afraid of his own failure that he hides in his room instead of trying to heal the man who needs his help. He expresses confidence and power to the world even though he feels insecure and unworthy inside. Despite all of his sins and despite his inner lack of confidence, Lancelot is still able to perform a miracle and cure a man who is mortally wounded. But he can save only others and is so steeped in sin that he feels he can no longer save himself.

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