The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Important Quotations Explained

[H]e had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. . . . For one thing, he liked to hurt people.

This description of Lancelot comes from Book III, Chapter 6. White describes the inner conflict that drives Lancelot—namely, a commitment to holiness that develops because of his inclination to be cruel. White explains how the clash between Lancelot’s good and bad selves leads to his heroic behavior. Lancelot has some terrible characteristics, including cruelty and a love of violence, but he is committed to his desire to be honorable. Thus, he transforms his hidden insecurities and guilt into an outward drive to commit good deeds and heroic acts. White explains that Lancelot is a merciful warrior not despite his cruelty but because of it. Whereas a knight like Gawaine has no problem ending a vanquished enemy’s life, Lancelot views such an unmerciful deed as caving in to his despicable side. Lancelot’s deep self-hatred causes him to act gently and nobly whenever he can, since he wants to deprive himself of the pleasure that cruelty gives him. If Lancelot did not want so badly to be cruel, he would not act so mercifully. This paradoxical arrangement is typical of Lancelot’s conflicted personality, which causes him intense suffering. White calls Lancelot a “poor fellow” and an ill-made knight because of his inability to handle this inner conflict.