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The Once and Future King

Summary Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 10–15
Summary Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 10–15

Analysis: Chapters 10–15

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 arms.

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.