Much time has passed. Agravaine is now fifty-five years old, fat and a borderline alcoholic. Mordred hates Arthur because he believes that Arthur abandoned him to die as an infant and because of the long-running feud between his mother’s family and Arthur’s. Agravaine hates Lancelot because Lancelot has defeated him in jousts countless times. They decide that the best way to get revenge on Arthur and Lancelot is to make Lancelot’s affair with Guenever known to Arthur. Arthur will then have to prosecute Lancelot under the new system of laws he is trying to establish, and they will then destroy each other.
Gawaine, Gaheris, and Gareth enter the room. When Gawaine finds out about Mordred and Agravaine’s plot, he forbids them to go through with it. Mordred refuses to follow his orders. Agravaine, still a coward, pulls his sword on his unarmed brother, and Gawaine goes into a rage. He is on the verge of killing Agravaine when Arthur walks in, smiling benevolently at all of them.
Lancelot and Guenever sit by a window in Arthur’s castle. The narrator describes the new England that they see before them. Arthur’s reign has put an end to the horrors of the past. There is a burgeoning of artistic accomplishment, and different kinds of people mingle on the city streets.
Lancelot tells Guenever that Arthur knows all about their affair and will not punish them, but Guenever says they must be careful nonetheless. Lancelot is troubled because he loves Arthur too much to hurt him, but loves Guenever too much to leave her. Arthur steps into the door and hears them talking, but he quietly disappears to get a page to announce his presence. When Arthur returns, he, Lancelot, and Guenever have an awkward conversation about the Orkney family. Arthur tells them that Mordred is his son. He tells them too that he had heard horrible prophesies about Mordred and tried to kill him. Arthur, who was only nineteen at the time, ordered that all the babies of a certain age be put out to sea, but somehow Mordred survived. Arthur regrets his decision now and warns that Mordred is out for revenge and for the throne and that Mordred might try to use Guenever or Lancelot against him. He informs them that if he catches either of them working against his kingdom, he will be forced to prosecute the offender as the law sees fit.
Arthur goes to the Justice Room to work on the new laws. Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Mordred are there when he arrives. Gawaine, Gareth, and Gaheris have been trying to persuade Agravaine and Mordred not to tell Arthur about Lancelot and Guenever’s affair, but when Arthur arrives, they tell him anyway, insisting that the matter should be decided by the new jury laws and not by combat. They say that if they can produce proof of the adultery, then Arthur is legally bound to bring the matter to trial. They tell Arthur that they will try to capture Lancelot in Guenever’s room while Arthur is away hunting. Arthur eventually consents to their plan, but hopes aloud that Lancelot will kill all of his accusers. He also tells Agravaine and Mordred that if their accusation cannot be proven, he will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.
The first night that Arthur is away, Lancelot prepares to go to Guenever’s quarters. Gareth warns him that Mordred and Agravaine plan to trap him in her room, but Lancelot ignores his warning.
The fourth book of The Once and Future King, “The Candle in the Wind,” chronicles the tragic end of King Arthur’s reign, and therefore the tone is serious. There are a few playful moments, such as when Lancelot and Guenever sing a duet together, but a feeling that doom is imminent for Camelot overshadows any satirical or comical interactions. As the book opens, Mordred and Agravaine are plotting to put an end to Arthur’s rule, indicating the central role of revenge in this book’s plot.
In the first two books, Arthur and Lancelot are young, ambitious, idealistic, and innocent. By the fourth book, they have developed what White calls the “seventh sense,” a world-weariness that is the product of mistakes, sins, compromises, and betrayals. In these chapters, we see the heavy effect of this weariness on the main characters. Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur have all come to depend on each other so much that the only real solution—for one of them to leave the situation—is impossible. Their joint histories of dishonor and sin—Lancelot and Guenever’s affair, Lancelot’s pride, Guenever’s jealousy, Arthur’s early massacre of infants, and Arthur’s unwillingness to take a stand on the affair—irrevocably bind them together. Now that Mordred and Agravaine have united, it seems necessary for Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot to stick together, although this inevitably makes things worse. The destruction of Camelot and the end of King Arthur’s reign are now inevitable.
White’s description of Arthur’s character is compelling because Arthur’s actions are so confusing and the right path so obscure. It is difficult to understand, for example, why Arthur does not warn Guenever and Lancelot that Mordred and Agravaine are setting a trap for them. Part of the explanation for Arthur’s behavior is that he is still in denial of the affair, not willing to admit that he knows of it. The other explanation is that if Arthur were to warn Lancelot and Guenever, he would be undermining his new system of justice. By warning them, Arthur would be helping them escape prosecution and would make himself their accomplice. Arthur’s laws are the culmination of his conversations with Merlyn about the use of might and right; to abandon his faith in these laws would be to reject everything for which he stands. Mordred and Agravaine are aware of Arthur’s commitment to justice, so they are able to trap him by his own rules and laws. Arthur does not want to unravel the society he has built, but to preserve it, he must sacrifice the two people he loves most.
Gareth’s decision, in Chapter 6, to warn Lancelot about Mordred’s plot is a stunning break with the Orkney faction and strong statement of loyalty to Lancelot. It is a sign both of Gareth’s decency and of the respect that Lancelot has earned over the years. Lancelot’s decision to ignore Gareth’s advice, on the other hand, is a reminder of his pride. Despite his humiliation in the search for the Holy Grail, Lancelot still arrogantly assumes he knows what Arthur is capable of. Lancelot’s brash faith in Arthur becomes more presumptuous than touching and has disastrous results.