The fourth book of The Once and Future King, “The Candle in the Wind,” chronicles the tragic end of King Arthur’s reign, and therefore the tone is serious. There are a few playful moments, such as when Lancelot and Guenever sing a duet together, but a feeling that doom is imminent for Camelot overshadows any satirical or comical interactions. As the book opens, Mordred and Agravaine are plotting to put an end to Arthur’s rule, indicating the central role of revenge in this book’s plot.
In the first two books, Arthur and Lancelot are young, ambitious, idealistic, and innocent. By the fourth book, they have developed what White calls the “seventh sense,” a world-weariness that is the product of mistakes, sins, compromises, and betrayals. In these chapters, we see the heavy effect of this weariness on the main characters. Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur have all come to depend on each other so much that the only real solution—for one of them to leave the situation—is impossible. Their joint histories of dishonor and sin—Lancelot and Guenever’s affair, Lancelot’s pride, Guenever’s jealousy, Arthur’s early massacre of infants, and Arthur’s unwillingness to take a stand on the affair—irrevocably bind them together. Now that Mordred and Agravaine have united, it seems necessary for Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot to stick together, although this inevitably makes things worse. The destruction of Camelot and the end of King Arthur’s reign are now inevitable.
White’s description of Arthur’s character is compelling because Arthur’s actions are so confusing and the right path so obscure. It is difficult to understand, for example, why Arthur does not warn Guenever and Lancelot that Mordred and Agravaine are setting a trap for them. Part of the explanation for Arthur’s behavior is that he is still in denial of the affair, not willing to admit that he knows of it. The other explanation is that if Arthur were to warn Lancelot and Guenever, he would be undermining his new system of justice. By warning them, Arthur would be helping them escape prosecution and would make himself their accomplice. Arthur’s laws are the culmination of his conversations with Merlyn about the use of might and right; to abandon his faith in these laws would be to reject everything for which he stands. Mordred and Agravaine are aware of Arthur’s commitment to justice, so they are able to trap him by his own rules and laws. Arthur does not want to unravel the society he has built, but to preserve it, he must sacrifice the two people he loves most.
Gareth’s decision, in Chapter 6, to warn Lancelot about Mordred’s plot is a stunning break with the Orkney faction and strong statement of loyalty to Lancelot. It is a sign both of Gareth’s decency and of the respect that Lancelot has earned over the years. Lancelot’s decision to ignore Gareth’s advice, on the other hand, is a reminder of his pride. Despite his humiliation in the search for the Holy Grail, Lancelot still arrogantly assumes he knows what Arthur is capable of. Lancelot’s brash faith in Arthur becomes more presumptuous than touching and has disastrous results.