The Once and Future King By T.H. White Overview: The Ill-Made Knight

As The Sword in the Stone examines educational issues and The Queen of Air and Darkness explores political ones, The Ill-Made Knight is a novel whose focus is love — including, but not limited to, the forbidden love of Lancelot and Guenever. The novel abounds in different strains of love and lovers. There is, foremost, Lancelot and Guenever's affair, but there is also Arthur's blind love of his best knight, Gawaine; Agravane's violent love of their mother; Merlyn's inescapable love for Nimue; Elaine's hopeless (and eventually deadly) love for Lancelot; and Galahad's love of his own righteousness. However, the greatest love affair in this novel is not between Lancelot and Guenever, but between Lancelot and God, whose love eventually wins over the great knight. Thus, The Ill-Made Knight explores the ways that different kinds of love and devotion (to people, chivalry, and God) affect one's character, and how one man — Lancelot — struggles with the different loves in his heart until he finds peace in a love greater than any worldly affection.

Before examining the intricacies of Lancelot's heart, however, a reader may wonder why White devotes a whole volume of The Once and Future King to this particular character. Recall Arthur's idea (in The Queen of Air and Darkness) to reform his nation after quelling the present rebellions: "I will institute a sort of order of chivalry . . . And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right . . . The knights in my order will ride all over the world . . . but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good . . . ."

Arthur's version of chivalry is one designed to make its practitioners more like God, who uses "Might" only on "behalf of what is good." (The quest for the Holy Grail emphasizes the spiritual nature of Arthur's denomination of chivalry.) Therefore, the more a knight fulfills the ideals of chivalry, the closer he grows to God. Lancelot is such a knight, invincible in combat and always ready to rescue any number of damsels in distress; however, he also succumbs to his own desires and places the wants of his own heart above those of God's. Like God, Lancelot wants a "Word," thinking it "the most valuable of possessions"; unlike God, however, he is unable to keep his "Word" and remains a fallible human.

This combination of the desire to attain divine godliness and the impurities of human nature marks Lancelot as the most interesting of Arthur's knights. Even more important is the idea that his contradictions also epitomize chivalry as a whole: a desire for men to reach impossible levels of goodness while, at the same time, struggling with their own fallibility. Thus, in Arthurian myth, Lancelot's sin is sleeping with the Queen — a sin that may not be the most heinous one imaginable but certainly a squalid and "unholy" one. Lancelot's giving in to his flesh reveals the "fallen" state of man as well as his need for something like chivalry to restore him to his former glory. As White explains, "It is the bad people who need principles to restrain them," and "bad," in this context, means "everybody," because even a man like Arthur's greatest knight can wander off the path of righteousness. Only Lancelot, the greatest, yet most "ill-made" knight, embodies the best and worst of chivalry and human nature, making his story a valuable part of the Arthurian myth.

Lancelot's relationship with chivalry — and his love for Arthur, its inventor — is complex. He trains for three years in order to join Arthur's order "because he was in love with it." Chivalry, he is sure, will give him the spiritual "push" he needs to remain in the good graces of God. Lancelot also hopes that chivalry will allow him to redeem some of his inadequacies: The opening chapter presents "the French boy" looking into the polished surface of a kettle-hat, "trying to find out who he was" and "afraid of what he would find." His unarticulated but identifiable fear here is being rebuffed by Arthur: "He was in love with him" and wants to prove himself worthy to the English king. His dream of a "beautiful well" reveals young Lancelot's self-doubts: "as soon as he stopped his lips toward it, the water sank away. It went right down to the barrel of the well, sinking and sinking from him so that he could not get it. It made him feel desolate, to be abandoned by the water of the well."

The beautiful water found in this well is the fulfillment of Arthur's chivalric ideals — throughout The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot will come close to quenching is thirst for holiness, but (because of his own sins) will be forbidden to drink (an idea made apparent when Lancelot is allowed to see — but not approach — the Holy Grail). White repeatedly stresses Lancelot's physical unattractiveness (a new spin on the legend) in order to stress the knight's contradictory nature: He is the greatest in terms of heroics and tilting, but "ill-made" in terms of morality. His face reveals his soul. After he is knighted, the fact that Lancelot begins embarking on quests in order to avoid Guenever suggests that such adventures "were his struggles to save his honor, not establish it." As he becomes a knight to avoid the "ugliness" he fears lies within him, he uses chivalry to avoid committing a terrible (yet inevitable) sin. For his momentary victory over himself, God rewards him by letting him perform a miracle, as he always wanted, and Lancelot saves Elaine from the cauldron of boiling water. At this point, the greatest knight is very close to God and glories in his deep love of chivalry; White describes the miracle as "the turning point of his life."

However, the impact of this "turning point" fades over time, and, as everyone familiar with the legend knows, Lancelot betrays both Arthur and Arthur's ideals by sleeping with Guenever. Lancelot's moral compass becomes skewed; he sacrifices all for which he has worked and proven for the sake of worldly (rather than divine) love. However, Guenever's and Lancelot's love is never portrayed by White as unseemly or lustful (as is the seduction of Arthur by Morgause in The Queen of Air and Darkness). Instead, White implies that their love is as fated as that of Merlyn and Nimue: the tragedy of Camelot lies in this idea. Motivated by his having been tricked by Elaine into sleeping with her, Lancelot justifies his racing toward Guenever with the logic that "He was a lie now, in God's eyes as he saw them, so he felt that he might as well be a lie in earnest." He knows, as he approaches the Queen's bedchamber, that he will no longer be "the best knight in the world," have the power "to work miracles against magic," or have some "compensation for ugliness and emptiness in his soul." Her earthly love is too strong for him to resist and Lancelot finds the inevitability of his own fall quite painful: He tells the Queen, "I have given you my hopes, Jenny, as a present from my love." Fully aware of his betrayal of Arthur and of God, whose ideals are embodied by the King, Lancelot accepts the "ill-made" nature of his soul. "He believed as firmly as Arthur did, as firmly as the benighted Christian, that there is such a thing as Right." Because of this unshakable belief, Lancelot "loved Arthur" (who embodies Godliness) "and he loved Guenever" (who embodies human desire) "and he hated himself" (whom he views as a man unable to live up to the demands of his own ideals and conscience).

To this point, White's retelling of the affair keeps in fairly strict accordance with the legend. White's innovation, however, lies in his shifting the narrative at this point to how God enters Lancelot and Guenever's affair as a rival for the great knight's love. As The Ill-Made Knight proceeds, the presence of God becomes greater with each passing chapter, beginning with Lancelot's childhood desires to perform miracles, moving through Arthur's decision to (figuratively) "send you all to the Pope" on a crusade for the Grail, to the testing of Sir Bors and Sir Percivale, and finally to the discovery of the Grail by Galahad, whom Lancelot describes as an "angel."

God hovers in the background of the novel, just as His ideas, found in Arthur's chivalry, hover only in the background of Lancelot's soul as he commits the sin of adultery. After Lancelot returns from his two-year quest for the Grail, however, he describes the epiphany that refocused and clarified his relationship with God: a "stroke of a correction" for which he is thankful. Through a series of events, orchestrated by God, Lancelot realized that his worst sin was his very desire to be the greatest proponent of Arthur's chivalry. Even after confessing his affair with Guenever to a priest, Lancelot was still "beaten and disgraced" at a tournament, because, as he explains to the King and Queen: "It was pride that made me try to be the best knight in the world. Pride made me show off and help the weaker party of the tournament. You could call it vainglory. Just because I had confessed about — about the woman, that did not make me into a good man."

After confessing this sin, Lancelot was again knocked down, this time by a black knight. Guenever cannot understand why God would have allowed this to happen, if Lancelot "really was absolved this time." Lancelot's explanation — that God was not punishing him, but simply "withholding the special gift of victory which it had always been within His power to bestow" — is the core of his new relationship with God. It is a relationship that Guenever, a worldly woman, cannot understand, because it hinges on Lancelot having "given up" his glory to get nothing back. She lives in a world of quid pro quo (or "something for something") and lacks the insight that Lancelot, now touched by God, possesses. Because of his past sins, Lancelot is ultimately forbidden from entering the chapel where Galahad, Bors, and Percivale celebrate Mass with the Grail — but he does not resent God for this decision because he now recognizes his own sinful pride.

As mentioned earlier, God then becomes a rival of Guenever for Lancelot's love. Lancelot, in his "innocent love of God," attempts to hold on to his new, divine love, arguing to Guenever that "they could not very well go back to their old way, after the Grail" and that "had it not been for their guilty love, he might have been allowed to achieve the Grail." Guenever eventually recognizes Lancelot's newfound spirituality and tells him, "I feel as if I were sacrificing you, or us if you like, to a new sort of love." Lancelot still yearns for Guenever, however, and White presents this as the crux and key point of the entire Lancelot story.

Despite her initial understanding of Lancelot's epiphany, Guenever's need for human companionship eventually proves too strong for her. She finds the fact that "Lancelot persisted in remaining loyal to his Grail" simply unbelievable, and becomes a jealous and embittered castaway. Guenever can only think of love in terms of human qualities, and her bitterness dramatizes the issues at stake in the novel: worldly comfort at odds with spiritual grace. The fact that Lancelot again sleeps with Guenever (when he rescues her from Sir Meliagrance) only serves to stress the fickle, yet ironically earnest, nature of a man who knows what is right yet keeps turning away.

Even a novel with such a protagonist as Lancelot, whose allegiances are constantly shifting, has to end, and White meets the challenge of providing an ending in which Lancelot retains his ties to both the human and the divine forces that have governed his life. Sir Urre, a knight from Hungary, suffers from a curse in which none of his wounds can ever heal; he has come to Camelot because the only cure for his wounds is if "the best knight in the world had tended them and salved them with his hands." Everyone, including Arthur, is sure that Lancelot will be able to cure Sir Urre; however, Lancelot, who has fallen back into Guenever's bed, knows that he is far from "the best knight in the world" and is sure that his inability to cure the knight will be viewed, correctly, as his "punishment." When confronted with Sir Urre, Lancelot utters a short prayer in his mind: "I don't want glory, but please can you save our honesty?" The crowd erupts as Lancelot heals Sir Urre's wounds, but White offers his reader a different, final glimpse of Lancelot's triumph: "The miracle was that he was allowed to do a miracle."

Lancelot is overcome with tears because he has learned another fundamental truth about God: He still loves Lancelot, despite the knight's forsaking Him for the warmth of a worldly, human bed. The miracle here is a paradox (a human behaves in a divine way) because the love of God is paradoxical as well: A man (or Man) can fall — repeatedly — yet still receive the love (and even grace) of God. Lancelot's tears are those of joy, but not pride, because he has learned that even the "greatest knight in the world" — and all of his chivalric ideals — cannot ever reach the perfection of a God who offers the true, unconditional love for which humans are constantly in search.

As Sir Lionel remarks early in the novel, "Give me a man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn't get out of." What The Ill-Made Knight makes clear is that no man — not even the best — can do "the right thing all the time." Only God can make such a claim, and judging from what Lancelot tells Arthur and Guenever about pride, He would not ever make such a boast in the first place. Man's love, as seen in Guenever, is wonderful yet flawed; only God's love offers the moral perfection that chivalry attempts to replicate.

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