In his castle, Lancelot has just received a letter from Gawaine, who is now in England, telling him what Mordred has done. Gawaine writes that Guenever and her allies are defending themselves in the Tower of London, which Mordred is attacking with cannons. Gawaine forgives Lancelot for killing Gareth and Gaheris and asks him to return to England to help Arthur. He adds that his wound from Lancelot has reopened in battle and that he has been “hurt to the death.” Lancelot and his comrades decide to return to England at once.
Arthur is in his pavilion on the battlefield at Kent, where his forces are fighting Mordred’s army. It is late at night and he is working on his laws. Arthur begins to think about the reasons for war and what can be done to stop it from occurring. He calls for a page named Thomas Malory and tells him that Malory must remember the story of King Arthur, particularly the idea that might must be used for right. Arthur asks Malory to spread Arthur’s message of justice and peace. Malory agrees to do so, and after Malory leaves, Arthur begins to cry. He thinks of the lessons he learned from the animals when he was a young boy. He wakes up with a fresh mind, hopeful for the day when his dream will be fulfilled. He stands up and prepares himself for his final battle.
In this section, the delicate relationships between Arthur, Guenever, Lancelot, and the Orkney faction quickly unravel. The first step in the final destruction of Camelot is Mordred and Agravaine’s discovery of Lancelot in Guenever’s room. Although Lancelot saves himself from being killed, he has promised Arthur that he will not kill Mordred, and he is forced to leave one witness alive. Mordred then accuses Guenever of adultery. Arthur must follow his own laws and honor the accusation. Arthur’s deeply ambivalent feelings about the situation are reflected in his unwillingness to take any personal action to save Guenever and in his fervent hope that Lancelot will rescue her. The second step in the collapse of Arthur’s reign is Lancelot’s accidental killing of Gareth and Gaheris. Since the only account of their deaths comes from Mordred, we are never sure that Lancelot is their killer. Lancelot does not think he killed the two men, but he lies about why he was in Guenever’s room, and thus we cannot be certain that he is not simply concealing an evil deed. The ambiguity of Lancelot’s guilt makes Arthur’s position even more difficult. He cannot be sure that his best friend is guilty of killing Gareth and Gaheris, but he has to take decisive action against him.
The tone and pacing of the narrative in these last chapters differs from the tone and pace of the narrative in the earlier books of The Once and Future King. Unlike the slow, satirical, and sometimes frivolous description of the Wart’s childhood in Book I, or the fast-paced action scenes of Lancelot’s numerous quests and battles in Book III, the narrative in Book IV is jumpy, episodic, subtle, ominous, and mysterious. White constantly switches the narrative from one conversation to another, and we learn about events from a wide variety of perspectives. For example, we hear about Gawaine’s battles with Lancelot and Guenever’s flight from Mordred after they occur. White shapes the narrative in this way for a reason: the final book is extremely short, but its plot is complicated, so there is not enough space for the kinds of descriptions that we find in Book III. The length of the book is not the only reason for its choppy, fragmented style, however. Another reason is that the story is no longer trying to sidestep the issue of Camelot’s demise, since its downfall is now imminent and unavoidable. Instead, the novel describes what is left of Arthur’s empire in a manner that reflects how fragmented the kingdom has become.