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On one quest, Lancelot rescues Gawaine, who has been captured
by an evil knight named Sir Carados. Later, left alone one morning
at the home of his cousin, Sir Lionel, Lancelot is captured by four queens—one
of whom is Morgan le Fay—but he refuses their demands to take one
of them as his mistress. He escapes with the help of the girl who
serves his meals, and in exchange, he agrees to fight in a tournament
on behalf of her father, King Bagdemagus.
Fighting with a shield that has no insignia so no one
will recognize him, Lancelot steers King Bagdemagus’s side to victory
in the tournament. Lancelot then sets out to find Lionel. He discovers
that Sir Turquine, Sir Carados’s brother, has captured Lionel and
sixty-three other knights. Lancelot and Turquine fight a fierce
battle, and Turquine is so impressed by Lancelot, whom he does not
recognize, that he agrees to release his captives as long as the
unfamiliar knight is not Lancelot. Lancelot informs Turquine of
his identity, and after fighting for two more hours, manages to
kill him. Gaheris is among the freed captives, and he marvels at
how Lancelot keeps helping the Orkneys. Another of the captives,
he tells Lancelot, is Agravaine.
One day in the summer, a beautiful lady asks
Lancelot to climb a tree to retrieve her falcon. When Lancelot removes
his armor, the lady’s husband, a fat knight, attacks him. The fat
knight is a member of the upper classes losing power under Arthur’s
rule, and he refuses to listen to Lancelot’s pleas for a fair fight.
Lancelot eventually kills the fat knight. Later, Lancelot meets
a knight who is trying to kill his own wife for adultery. Lancelot
rides between them, but the knight tricks Lancelot into looking
in a different direction and then cuts off the wife’s head. The
knight then begs for mercy, and Lancelot, unable to kill a man begging
for his life, spares him. Lancelot has a number of other adventures, and
he always sends his prisoners back to Arthur’s court, at Carlion,
to bow before Guenever rather than before Arthur.
Guenever is pleased at these signs of Lancelot’s love,
and she is so swept away by them that when Lancelot returns, they
are drawn to each other instantly. She still loves Arthur, but with
a sort of awed affection. While Lancelot tries to repress his feelings,
Arthur worries that his knights have become too fixated with what
he calls “games-mania,” in which every knight compares his prowess
to everyone else’s. He worries particularly about the Orkneys, whose
father, Lot, was accidentally killed by Pellinore. Now that her
husband is dead, Morgause is trying to seduce every knight she can,
and the Orkney knights are becoming uncontrollable as a result.
With Lancelot’s adventures, White gets to the heart of
the Arthurian tradition, but his interpretation of the classic stories
goes in a purposefully different direction. Malory’s influence on
White is more apparent here than in any of the novel’s other books,
and he is cited in almost every one of Lancelot’s quests. Even Malory’s
fifteenth-century language colors White’s narrative. On Lancelot’s
first adventure, when he finds Gawaine held captive by Sir Carados, Gawaine
tells Lancelot that his current situation is “Never so hard, unless
that ye help me, for without ye rescue me, I know nae knight that
may.” In earlier passages, Gawaine speaks modern English with a
Scottish accent, but this snippet of dialogue written in archaic English
is taken straight out of Malory’s fifteenth-century text. All of
the later episodes in Chapters 7 and 8 are
told, with matching details, in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. In the
first two books of the novel, White tries to produce his own version
of the Arthurian legend. But the first chapters of “The Ill-Made
Knight,” the third book, try more specifically to interpret Malory’s
work on King Arthur. These chapters take events from Malory’s Arthurian
story and, without changing any details, make us wonder if there
is more to them than Malory might have thought.
This third book elaborates on the evil knight, a topic
that is only hinted at earlier in the novel. Arthur has enemies
in earlier chapters, most notably King Lot, but these early enemies
are primarily motivated by power rather than a difference in ideology.
Early on, we hear about the old philosophy of might makes right,
but we do not see examples of this idea until now. Sir Carados and
Sir Turquine are both prime examples. They ride around the country
and take knights hostage for their own amusement. They are variations
on the character of Sir Bruce Sans Pitié, the backstabbing knight
who is mentioned, but never appears in earlier chapters. Even kings
such as Lot follow certain rules, but now we see knighthood at its
most corrupt, used only to bully other people. Chapter 8 presents
two more examples, even more appalling, of this abuse. One knight
uses his lady to persuade Lancelot to scale a tree, and then he
tries to kill Lancelot with no armor or weapons handy. The other
knight takes advantage of Lancelot’s gullibility to cut off his
own wife’s head. A number of Arthur’s knights, including Gawaine,
Agravaine, and Kay, seem petty and malicious, and we may wonder
what they are doing at Arthur’s court. In comparison to the figures
in Chapter 8, however, Gawaine and his companions
shine, and we can see why Arthur might enlist them to put down worse
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!