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Lancelot is unable to act on his love for Guenever because
his religion and Arthur’s own principles about fairness and justice,
in which Lancelot believes deeply, forbid him to do so. While everyone else
thinks Lancelot is a great man, he hates himself.
Lancelot stays at Arthur’s court in Camelot for several
weeks, but he cannot bring himself to do anything about Guenever.
He is afraid that if he sleeps with her, he will lose his strength
and his position as Arthur’s best knight. Uncle Dap advises him
to go on another quest, so he makes his way to the haunted castle
of Corbin, which is owned by King Pelles. On the way, Lancelot is
stopped by villagers who tell him that fairies, among them Morgan
le Fay, have put a spell on a local girl and placed her in a vat
of boiling water, from which she can be saved only by the best knight
in the world. Lancelot tries to refuse, but they insist, and he
ends up pulling a naked young woman named Elaine out of the vat.
Afterward, they are greeted by Elaine’s father, who turns out to
be King Pelles. Pelles invites Lancelot to stay. Excited by Elaine’s
great beauty, Lancelot cannot yet understand that he has performed
At the castle of Corbin, Lancelot is miserable and thinks
of Guenever. Pelles’s butler cheers Lancelot with wine. While Lancelot
is intoxicated, Pelles’s butler tells Lancelot that Guenever is
staying at a nearby castle, waiting for Lancelot. Lancelot rushes
off to see her. The next morning, he wakes up and sees that the
woman in bed with him is Elaine. Realizing that he has been tricked,
Lancelot threatens to kills Elaine. He thinks that his strength
lies in his virginity and that he will now no longer be able to
work miracles or be the best knight. Elaine tells Lancelot that
she loves him and wishes to bear his child, whom she will name Galahad.
Lancelot says that since she tricked him the baby will be hers alone
and that he is leaving.
At Camelot, Guenever thinks of Lancelot as she stitches
a new shield cover for Arthur. Convinced that Elaine has ruined
him, Lancelot sees no point in not furthering his destruction, and
he races up the stairs to Guenever. Before they realize what is
happening, they have slept together.
King Ban, Lancelot’s father, is under attack and writes
Arthur to ask for help. Arthur leaves for France after asking Lancelot
to stay behind and guard his kingdom. While Arthur is away, Lancelot
and Guenever spend twelve happy months together. Lancelot tells
Guenever that when he was little, he was a very holy little boy,
always punishing himself for the slightest faults. Lancelot tells
Guenever that he originally stayed away from her because he was
worried that by sleeping with her he would lose his ability to perform
miracles. He adds that he is giving her his God-given gifts as a
present for her love, and that he does not regret it.
When Guenever learns, however, that Elaine has given birth
to a baby boy named Galahad—Lancelot’s first name—she realizes that Lancelot
and Elaine have slept together. Hurt, Guenever becomes petulant,
lashing out at Lancelot and threatening to have Elaine executed.
Eventually, Lancelot and Guenever are tearfully reconciled, but
a seed of hatred and distrust has been planted in their love affair.
Lancelot is conflicted by two contradictory passions—his
love for Guenever and his love for Arthur and chivalry. Elaine’s
sudden appearance makes balancing these two passions impossible. Already,
everything that Lancelot does to try to distance himself from Guenever
only deepens his love for her, but at least he has managed to keep
his two worlds separate. He is always an unsatisfied lover, but
on his earlier quests, he is also a knight and can take refuge in
a world that is all about fighting and ethics. Once he meets Elaine, however,
even this line becomes blurred. His quests can no longer honestly
be said to be about fighting and remedying injustice, since his
tryst with Elaine has filled them with the kind of amorous intrigue
from which he has been running. The effects of this tryst are irreversible.
Among other things, Lancelot loses, or at least thinks he has lost,
his power to perform miracles, since only virgins are supposed to
be allowed to perform miracles. Even on a less mystical level, sleeping
with Elaine has so contaminated Lancelot’s quest that he thinks
of his entire knighthood as having been corrupted and ruined. Now
that Lancelot’s two worlds have been forced to mingle, Lancelot
sees no reason not to ruin them altogether, and rushes into Guenever’s
The figure of Elaine in these chapters, as well as our
developing understanding of Guenever’s character, raises some questions
about the novel’s treatment of women. As much as The Once
and Future King seems to be a rejection of the machismo
of earlier Arthurian tales, it is very much a man’s world, where
even the best-intentioned women have a destructive effect. Guenever
and Elaine are certainly not as evil or unlikable as Morgause, whom
the novel portrays quite misogynistically. Nonetheless, the novel
treats Guenever and Elaine more like the Orkney family than like
Arthur or Lancelot. Like Gawaine, Guenever and Elaine have good
hearts, but their circumstances force them to be petty, demanding,
and conniving, whereas Lancelot and Arthur are still portrayed as
selfless and noble. The novel explains that Guenever has good reason
for her behavior, but she is still overwhelmingly depicted as mean
and spiteful. Elaine is described as a sweet girl who is smitten
by Lancelot, but she tricks him and her demands on him only increase
with time. To a certain extent, these are flattering portrayals
of both women, allowing them to be human beings instead of boring,
saintly figures. Since the story of Arthur was written well before
White wrote The Once and Future King, he had only
a limited amount of room to shape his plot without veering away
from the Arthurian canon. One could argue, however, that the novel
still treats women disrespectfully and that, however objective White
may want to be, we cannot help but despise his two main female characters.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!