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Elaine has decided to become a nun and does not think
much about Lancelot anymore. One day, she comes across the wild
man asleep in her father’s robe and immediately recognizes him as
Lancelot. She tells King Pelles, and he summons doctors to heal
Lancelot’s spirits. Lancelot finally wakes from his madness, completely
unconscious of anything that has occurred since he went berserk.
Lancelot and Elaine eventually move into Sir Bliant’s
castle, and Lancelot goes by the name of Le Chevalier Mal Fet, which
means “the ill-made knight.” A young knight tells Lancelot that
he has uncovered Lancelot’s true identity. Lancelot asks him to
respect his wish to remain incognito. The young knight apologetically
promises to keep Lancelot’s secret.
In the spring, Elaine arranges a huge tournament. Lancelot,
in disguise, defeats everyone else at the tournament, and the others
leave, grumbling about the mystery knight. Elaine cries at this
social fiasco, then finds Lancelot standing on the castle ramparts,
where she sees that the symbol on his shield is that of a knight
bowing before a queen. One day, two knights come to Bliant Castle
and ask to fight with the mysterious Chevalier Mal Fet. They are
amazed by his prowess, and he eventually reveals that he is Lancelot.
The two knights turn out to be Sir Degalis, one of the Round Table
knights, and Sir Ector de Maris, who, not to be confused with Arthur’s
old guardian, is one of Arthur’s knights and also Lancelot’s brother. Elaine
watches the joyful reunion, knowing that these knights will break
her heart by taking Lancelot away.
Sir Degalis and Sir Ector de Maris urge Lancelot to return
to Camelot with them. Lancelot feels doggedly obliged to Elaine
and says he will return. One day, a squire appears and sits at the
castle moat, saying he is waiting for Lancelot. Elaine asks Lancelot
what she should do about Galahad if Lancelot does not return. Pretending not
to know what she is talking about, Lancelot assures her he will return. The
squire turns out be Uncle Dap, who has brought all of Lancelot’s
armor, polished and patched. Guenever has stitched a mantle onto
the back of his helmet, and when he sniffs it, Lancelot is reminded of
her. He rides away with Uncle Dap without looking back.
Fifteen years pass and England has grown much more civilized. Instead
of thieves and murderers and towers going up in flames, the new
civilization has scholars and hospitals. Arthur is now accepted as
a great king, and Lancelot as a legendary hero. A new and eager generation
of knights comes to Camelot, among them Gareth and Arthur’s son,
Arthur tells Lancelot a little about the Orkney boys and
describes how they are so violent and unhappy because of Morgause.
Of Morgause’s children, Lancelot thinks the least of Mordred, though
he is unaware that Morded is Arthur’s son. Lancelot casually tells
Arthur that Morgause has seduced King Pellinore’s youngest son,
Lamorak. Arthur is aghast—it turns out that Pellinore killed Lot
by accident in a tournament and was in turn killed by one of the
Orkney clan. Arthur worries that Lamorak may be in danger.
Gareth enters crying and tells Arthur and Lancelot that
Agravaine has killed their mother after finding her in bed with
Lamorak. He adds that Agravaine, Mordred, and Gawaine have hunted
down Lamorak as well.
Gawaine and Mordred return to Camelot. Gawaine still thinks Lamorak
got what he deserved, but he feels bad about violating Arthur’s
principles. Mordred is more evil, and he asks the king for pardon
only with great insolence. Arthur halfheartedly forgives them and
orders them to leave. To strengthen the weakening Round Table, Arthur
decides to send his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, the copper
cup or platter, according to medieval legend, from which Christ
ate at the Last Supper. Lancelot then learns that Galahad is about
to be knighted.
After two years, the knights who give up the search for
the Holy Grail straggle back to Camelot. Gawaine is the first to
return, and he does so in a bad mood, having come across no traces
of the Holy Grail. He speaks bitterly of Galahad, who seems to be
a knight of great piety, which Gawaine mistakes for arrogance. Gawaine shakes
his head at the fact that Galahad does not eat meat or drink alcohol
and is a virgin. Gawaine recounts how he and his companions slew
seven knights laying siege to a castle of maidens, only to find
that Galahad had already beaten them without having to kill anyone.
In two hermitages, Gawaine reports, the priests lectured him for
killing too many people and failing to repent. Arthur listens patiently,
observing that Gawaine does seem to have been more interested in
bloody adventures than in finding the Holy Grail.
Sir Lionel returns next and talks with a mixture of love
and exasperation about the adventures of his brother, Sir Bors.
According to Lionel, Bors’s honor was tested by a series of trials.
In the first of these, Bors defeated a knight without taking his
life. Bors was then forced to choose between rescuing a maiden or
saving Lionel himself, and he chose the strange woman over his brother.
Then a fiend in disguise told Bors that unless he slept with a certain
lady, she would kill herself; Bors refused, however, even when she
threatened to kill her servants as well. Guenever is particularly
appalled by this part of the story. A while later, Bors and Lionel
met again, and Lionel, enraged that his brother chose to rescue
the maiden instead of him, tried to kill Bors. Bors refused to fight
back, even after Lionel killed a hermit and another knight who was
trying to help Bors. As Lionel was on the verge of killing Bors,
God came between them, and they made up. Lionel expresses
regret for his killings and remarks that if anyone is pure enough
to find the Holy Grail, it is Bors.
Until now, the third book has centered exclusively on
Lancelot, but once he returns to sanity, the narrative switches
tracks to tell us how much the rest of the kingdom has changed during
Lancelot’s absence. The tone of these chapters is a strange combination
of optimism and apprehension. The violence and brutality of the
past are quite vividly recollected, and White paints disturbing
pictures of murders and wars, drawing on classic writers of the
period such as Geoffrey Chaucer, the fourteenth-century English
poet who wrote The Canterbury Tales. The book’s present is described
in far more gratifying terms, but there is a sense that this tranquility
is temporary. We hear of newly safe roads and of scholars sitting
down to write learned texts, but shortly after the novel describes
these improvements, Arthur is mourning the fact that his kingdom
will soon crumble. This peaceful period is fleeting; though we have
just gotten to know England as a tranquil place, we are already
being told that this peace will soon be gone.
Arthur’s vision of a peaceful kingdom is a noble one,
but his idea of harnessing might for right has limits that reveal
themselves during the quest for the Holy Grail. Now that England
has been civilized, Arthur’s knights are still chomping at the bit
for action. Arthur needs to keep coming up with ways to keep them
occupied, but this plan cannot go on forever. The quest for the
Holy Grail, as told by Gawaine and Lionel, proves that harnessing
might on behalf of right is not enough, and that true tranquility
lies in dispensing with force altogether. Gawaine and Lionel are
integral members of the Round Table—both of them are faithful to
Arthur’s ideas—but they are not worthy of the Holy Grail because
they still rely on violence as a way of life. Galahad emerges as
the most perfect knight, in part because of his chaste and austere
way, but even more so because he is more interested in sparing lives
than in taking them. The same can be said for Lionel’s brother,
Sir Bors. What both Gawaine and Lionel have never understood is
that even killing justly is worse than not killing at all. The fundamental
flaw in Arthur’s plan is that it tries to steer violent men to use
their talents for the common good, when true good, the kind that
is needed to find the Holy Grail, can be achieved only by abandoning
Overall, The Once and Future King is
more sympathetic to what Arthur is trying to achieve than to the
perfection represented by the Holy Grail. Both Galahad and Bors
are very holy and noble, but they also seem selfish. Bors refuses
to fight his Lionel, even though other people die as a result of
Lionel’s sins. Gawaine tells us that Galahad defeats his own father,
Lancelot, and is generally cold to the other knights. White’s vision
of the otherworldly perfection of the Holy Grail feels very clinical:
the Holy Grail’s champions may be perfect, but we feel very removed
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!