Analysis: Chapters 1–6

In the third book of The Once and Future King, White introduces Lancelot, a staple figure of English literature; however, White takes a very different approach to the great knight than that of the romantic interpretations we are used to seeing. Traditionally, Lancelot is a handsome and brave fighter, and his affair with Guenever, while forbidden, is portrayed as sweepingly romantic and passionate. White offers no such portrayal. From the very beginning, everything about the Lancelot he shows us is painful and distorted. As a young boy, Lancelot is incredibly ugly, and although he is touchingly loyal to Arthur, he is a sullen loner. Even the title of the book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” signifies a character who is poorly put together. Lancelot is a talented fighter, but this quality never seems to be particularly great or triumphant. Instead, it appears as though Lancelot fights well because he is incapable of anything else. Furthermore, everything that Lancelot does to escape his fate only traps him further in it. By immersing himself in quests to try to forget Guenever, Lancelot becomes a hero, which in turn makes her fall more in love with him.

The similarities between Lancelot and King Arthur highlight the eventual contrast in how each man reacts to Guenever’s infidelity. Each grows up an outsider: Arthur is a runtish orphan dubbed “the Wart,” while Lancelot suffers insults for his ugliness. Frustrations of youth spur both men to hone their natural talents: Arthur engages in political discussions with Merlyn; Lancelot pursues chivalric ideals under the tutelage of Uncle Dap. Arthur and Lancelot are both outsiders pursuing abstract systems of individual perfection—one political wisdom, the other chivalry—and, respecting each other’s commitment to personal excellence, they develop a close friendship. Lancelot’s eventual treachery with Guenever is insidious because it is a betrayal of a friendship and of the values on which that friendship is established. Arthur’s esteem for others and his trust in their adherence to a shared code proves to be his undoing, because he cannot suspect his wife and good friend of transgressing this code.