The Once and Future King
Book II: “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” Chapters 11–14
Summary: Chapter 11
In Orkney, King Pellinore is walking along the beach when he comes across Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore trapped on a cliff ledge. They are still in costume, and the Questing Beast has fallen in love with what she thinks is her mate. She watches them adoringly from the foot of the cliff. Pellinore, unwilling to kill the beast, holds her by the tail while the two knights make a run for Morgause’s castle. They make it safely into the castle, but the beast escapes from Pellinore and waits outside for them to exit. Pellinore returns to the castle with Piggy, the daughter of the queen of Flanders. She tells them that she and the Questing Beast rode the magic barge from Flanders to find Pellinore. Their joy at being reunited is not shared by the inhabitants of the castle, since it appears that the Questing Beast intends to wait outside until what she thinks is her mate comes outside.
Summary: Chapter 12
In his great battle against Lot and the rest of the Gaels at Bedegraine, Arthur ignores the knightly rules of war: he attacks during the night and attacks the knights directly, ignoring the foot soldiers. Arthur’s army is much smaller than the Gaelic kings’, but his forces swell when he calls in his allies, two French kings named Bors and Ban. The French kings bring their armies to support Arthur in exchange for help with their own battles in France. With the help, Arthur’s army swiftly defeats the Gaelic army.
Summary: Chapter 13
Back in Orkney, the Questing Beast continues to guard outside the castle. King Lot’s defeated army returns home, and Sir Pellinore, Sir Ector, and Sir Grummore are surprised to learn that England and Orkney have been at war. Merlyn stops by, looking sleek and happy because he has begun a fateful love affair with Nimue. The knights ask Merlyn for advice on how to make the Questing Beast go away, but Merlyn is troubled because he cannot remember a particular warning he wants to give Arthur and can only tell them to psychoanalyze the beast. Under the pretense of reconciliation, Morgause makes plans to travel to England with her children. As she packs, she sinisterly fingers her spancel, a magic tape made of human flesh that is designed to make men fall in love with her.
Summary: Chapter 14
It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. . . . It is the tragedy . . . of sin coming home to roost.
Morgause, her children, and the English knights make the journey to England. King Arthur, who still has fond childhood memories of Pellinore, has prepared an extravagant marriage for Pellinore and Piggy. Meanwhile, in North Humberland, Merlyn suddenly remembers what he has forgotten to tell Arthur: his mother was Igraine, who was also the mother of Morgan le Fay and Morgause. Thus, Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister, and Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth are his nephews. Merlyn is too sleepy and muddled to take care of the problem immediately, however, and before Merlyn can warn Arthur, Morgause uses the spancel and her own charms to get Arthur to sleep with her. Nine months later, she gives birth to their son, Mordred. The narrator notes that what makes the Arthurian story so tragic is that a simple, unwitting mistake by Arthur tears him and his dreams apart many years later.
Analysis: Chapters 11–14
King Arthur’s battle with King Lot is strange since it seems to lack a real sense of glory or triumph and appears more methodical instead. There is no honor in the way that Arthur wins his victory, primarily because he attacks at night, when few of his enemies are fully armored. As treacherous as this attack might strike us, however, we still want Arthur to win, and his sneakiness seems far preferable to the cruelty of earlier wars. Arthur has a clear purpose in battling King Lot’s knights; he is not just indulging in the thoughtless slaughter of foot soldiers. Because he has a mission, we can understand his desire to sidestep the code that has made war into a sporting event for so many years. If Arthur hurt the weak foot soldiers, he would be acting cruelly. Therefore, the fact that the description of the battle feels more bureaucratic than military can be read as a sign that Arthur’s vision of glorious peace is well under way.
In an interesting footnote, the number of kings participating in the battle vividly illustrates why England has been so torn apart by civil war. Most of the knights on each side are barons, but a number of Arthur’s enemies are also kings. Lot, for example, is king of Orkney. So many of Arthur’s enemies call themselves kings that the term appears to have lost all meaning for them—one of them, the king of the Hundred Knights, does not even seem to have a territory to call his own. Our contemporary understanding of the word king is of a monarch who controls a vast expanse of land and is the only person in the empire who has such a title. In the world Arthur has inherited, however, king is a common title, which indicates how many of Arthur’s rivals consider themselves so powerful that they answer to no one else.
Family ties are generally viewed as an integral source of support for a struggling monarch, but Arthur’s seduction by Morgause reveals that family can be a source of destruction. Until now, Morgause’s connection to Arthur has been murky. There are hints, earlier in the novel, that they are related, but White hopes that Morgause’s relation to Arthur will be as much of a mystery to us as it is to Arthur. We have seen Morgause only as the cruel mother of four unruly boys and the seductive hostess of several silly English knights. Suddenly, however, she is revealed to be Arthur’s half-sister. This news does not bring about a reconciliation between them but rather transforms Morgause into a figure of destruction. Although Arthur’s reign has barely begun and is yet to see its most glorious years, his affair with Morgause is the first step in the reign’s collapse. The incest is not intentional, at least not on Arthur’s part, but it is a sin so grave that ultimately he cannot escape punishment for it. Arthur’s project to build a just and lawful kingdom is doomed before it even begins. This tragedy is heightened by the fact that his downfall is brought about by his own friends and family. The instruments of Arthur’s destruction are Morgause, his half-sister; Agravaine and Mordred, his nephews; Guenever, his wife; and Lancelot, his best friend.
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