The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Book III: “The Ill-Made Knight,” Chapters 30–37

Summary: Chapter 36

With Lancelot gone, it becomes even clearer that Camelot is no longer the place it once was. The best knights have either succeeded in finding the Holy Grail or have died. At the court, fashions are silly and infidelity is the norm. Mordred and his friends now dominate Camelot, and Guenever is widely despised. In an attempt to win some popularity, she throws a dinner party for the knights and leaves out a tray of apples, Gawaine’s favorite fruit. A distant relative of the Pellinores tries to avenge Lamorak’s death by poisoning one of the apples, but an innocent knight eats one first and dies. Guenever is accused of trying to poison Gawaine. Each side picks a champion to fight for their cause.

Summary: Chapter 37

Sir Bors agrees, reluctantly, to be Guenever’s champion. In the days before the fight, however, he finds Lancelot in a nearby abbey. Lancelot takes Bors’s place and easily defeats the knight who accused Guenever. He spares the knight’s life, but insists that no mention of the incident be made on the poisoned knight’s tombstone.

Analysis: Chapters 30–37

The episode with Sir Aglovale in Chapter 30 is important because it reveals that, even after it has been in place for so long, King Arthur’s government still relies on sacrifices made for the common good. Arthur has committed himself to a system of government that is moral, but he has also inherited a country in which wrongs are committed every day and the system of justice in place is still not strong enough to deal with all of them. Arthur is not yet in a position to punish his strong men, so he must appeal to individuals such as Aglovale to forego their vengeance. The old system is based on avenging any wrongs that a person commits against one’s family. The system is so ingrained that Arthur has to ask some of his knights to forgive others’ wrongs against them until a new system of justice can be established.

In this section, we also gain a better understanding of Guenever. Until now we have seen her as more of a target for Lancelot’s affections than an individual in her own right, and the portrait of her had previously been more flattering. In these chapters, however, Guenever begins to seem like a furtive, jealous, and secretive woman. She fears Arthur’s retribution if he finds out about her affair, but she nonetheless continues the affair even after Lancelot tries to call it off. As her behavior worsens, so does her physical appearance, and she begins to use makeup to try to keep Lancelot attracted to her. The image of Guenever putting on makeup to cover her age suggests that she is trying to hide her true, immoral self. The narrator tries to temper such an unattractive picture of Guenever by telling us that Arthur is ten years older than she and that their marriage was arranged. With this qualifying description, we sympathize more with Guenever’s situation, though we still do not applaud her lack of morals and honor.

The other major development in these chapters is Lancelot’s newfound humility and piety. His failed quest for the Holy Grail has taught him that there are some goals that cannot be accomplished through skill in battle. Lancelot’s son, Galahad, comes to exemplify this new knightly ideal instead. Since he is pure, pious, and virginal, only Galahad is able to accomplish the quest for the Holy Grail. Even though Galahad is the product of a union that was corrupt and dishonorable, he rises to become a highly moral figure. White, however, is more interested in humanity than in heroism, and he keeps Galahad as a minor character while Lancelot remains a pivotal figure. Like Malory, White is principally interested in the tragic aspects of King Arthur’s story and in the circumstance that bring about the demise of Camelot and England’s golden age. Galahad seems fairly cold, and almost inhuman, in his perfection. Lancelot, on the other hand, realizes his own mortality and his human failings, and sees that he can never reach the sterile perfection of his son. Lancelot’s understanding of the limitations of his character demonstrates his maturity and humanness.