Wart, a foundling, was in the charge of Sir Ector, and was tutored with Sir Ector’s son Kay (who got special treatment because when he grew up he would be Sir Kay). Kay lost a hawk in the woods by flying him before he was ready, and Wart stayed in the woods to catch him. Catch him he did not, and he got lost. He did find King Pellinore, who like all Pellinores spent his life pursuing the Questing Beast (or Beast Glatisant). The King was tired of chasing the Beast, which he rarely saw, as his brachet (dog) would wind herself around trees, his armor was either freezing or searing, he never got to sleep in a bed with pillows, and there was always the smell of fewmets (droppings of a pursued beast, which all Questors kept in order to show how pursuit-worthy the beast was). He had almost persuaded the King to lead him back to Sir Ector’s castle when the Beast Glatisant came by, and after much effort of untangling the brachet, he promptly left in hot pursuit.
The wood back in those days was not the cheery place an English wood is in modern times. It was much thicker and hard to walk through, plus it was inhabited with dangerous outlaws and people like Wat, who had his nose cut off and went crazy. Continued wandering brought Wart to the cluttered house of Merlyn. Merlyn aged backwards, so his house had various items from the future scattered about the more normal items. He also tended to wear future fashion—not particularly well, either. He had a owl named Archimedes who took a while to warm up to Wart. After a hearty breakfast, Merlyn announced that he was to be Wart’s tutor. His arrival was greeted warmly back at the castle, both because Sir Ector was in need of a tutor for the boys and because Wart had been gone a rather long time and Sir Ector was worried about him.
Merlyn tutored the boys in academic subjects, and Sir Ector trained them in the chivalrous subjects like jousting, armor polishing, coats of arms, and other such things. While watching Kay learn jousting, Wart wishes he could be a knight. Though Merlyn disliked the whole notion, he did take Wart to King Pellinore in the woods, where after short pleasantries, Sir Grummore came up and the two decided to fight. “For the usual reasons,” Pellinore said, and they performed a liturgy where Grummore refused to tell his name and so Pellinore attacked him, for surely only a knight with some shame would not disclose his name when courteously asked. First they jousted each other, managing to unseat each other. Then they banged on each other’s metal surroundings for a while, which got them mad, and they went began running at each other. But they had too much momentum to stop when they missed, and couldn’t see much afterwards, so they mostly lost each other. Afterwards Sir Grummore invited King Pellinore to his castle, and Pellinore being tired of fewmets and hard ground gratefully accepted.
Merlyn had been given the ability to change Wart into animals for his education (which made the future Sir Kay somewhat jealous). On one hot summer day Wart wanted to enjoy the cool water of the moat, so Merlyn changed them into fishes. Wart practiced swimming for a while, then Merlyn took him to see the king of the fish. “The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch—by cruely, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains.” (47) The king gave a short lecture on might makes right and attempted to eat Wart, who swam off as fast as he ever could, and he and Merlyn were back on the drawbridge in their hot clothes. (Merlyn’s magic always happened in such a way that it seemed like it could have just been a daydream.)
One day when Wart wanted an adventure with Kay, Merlyn advised them to go out past Hob’s chase, and follow the glades. They went along a series of glades, which seemed natural except for the fact that there were stumps of trees that had been cut that were mossed over or hidden by bushes. Eventually they found a large man apparently sleeping, who turned out to be Little John, and he told them to continue on, where they met Robin Wood (mispronounced as Hood) with his head in Maid Marian’s lap, singing a duet with her. Marian told the boys that Morgan le Fey, the greatest of the faeries, had taken one of their men prisoners. The boys went with them to the castle, and were the ones that had to go in to the castle to do the rescuing, which they accomplished by the iron of their iron knives, which pained the great Faerie. Then Morgan’s griffin attacked them, and despite Robin’s men shooting hundreds of arrows at it, none pierced the hide. It was Kay’s arrow into the eye that felled it, and he carried the griffon’s head back to the castle the next day in great pride.
A few days later Merlyn changed him in ant, after having him place a leaf between the two ant cages in his room. Ant life was entirely dictated. No one had thoughts of their own, and questioning something was taken as a sign of insanity. There were constant broadcasts of songs, which Wart liked, until he found that they just cycled in a loop of three songs. The conversations were equally forumulaic: the ants exclaimed that the “Mammy-mammy-mammy” song was on again and how much they liked it, then how high class the leader was, then how horrible the ants from the B nest were, then about the executed ants, and back again. Even Wart’s stomach was not his own: he was part of the mash group, which chewed up food, and then when any ant was hungry, they came to him, he opened his mouth, and they ate out of it. Eventually one of the B ants found the leaf bridge and wandered into the nest, where it was promptly killed. The songs changed to songs about how great their nest was and how awful the B nest was and deserving of being wiped out. The words were the jingoistic sort of words that have spurred on many a human war, and were essentially “our this-ness is being threatened by their other-ness” which was held up as a justifiable reason to try to wipe the other nest out. There was even a religious service with psalms like “Blow up your heads, O ye Gates, and be ye blown up, ye Everlasting Doors, that the King of Glory may come in. Who is the King of Glory? Even the Lord of Ghosts, He is the King of Glory.” But the ants were not moved to emotion, it was a ritual. Just as the fighting started Wart found himself back in his bed, still convalescing from the wounds the griffin had given him.
At Christmas, King Uther Pendragon’s boar-master came and requested a boar for the King’s table. So they went on a boar hunt. The hounds killed the boar, but not before it killed the hound-master’s favorite dog, and when he blew the mort it was notes of sadness rather than victory. King Pellinore made the mistake about asking when the hounds would be given their quarry, but since the quarry is the entrails served to the dogs on the hide, and boars are taken with the hide on, there is no quarry. Rather, the hounds are given the entrails roasted with bread. So he was spanked with the flat of the sword, as is customary when one makes a highbrow mistake. It made him upset, and he wandered off, muttering, only to come back shortly yelling for everyone to come. When they came, he was caressing the snake-head of the Beast Glatisant, her leopard legs lying in the snow. He said the she was pinin’ away because he had not been doin’ his part, of questin’ after her, because he was lyin’ in feather beds. He promised to resume his role of questing after her, after taking her back to the castle and nursing her to health. He told Sir Grummore that he hope he would be smothered in his feather beds.
One night Merlyn turned Wart into an owl when he ate a dead mouse Merylin had magicked, and Archimedes taught him to fly. Then Merlyn had him spend time among the geese. He made friends with one of the geese (despite the fact that she was a girl; Wart wanted to be a knight, but didn’t want to a wife, although he did admit that he would probably need a lover just so that he would have someone whose favor he would wear and for whom he would do noble deeds), who taught him how to be a goose. Each goose is an individual. If there is food you want, you take it. But you don’t take someone else’s food. Yet at the same time, a goose is not territorial. The only private space is its nest, but there are no borders. Geese fly where the admiral (elected as a guide due to his experience in migrating) takes them. The settle wherever, and then they leave for wherever; there are no borders, no land that is “mine”. Wart enjoyed his days as a goose, but when he arrived at the goose island in the north sea at the end of the migration, he woke up to Kay complaining that he snored, and it sounded like he honked.
When they had grown, and Kay was to be knighted, Wart wished to Merlyn that he could be a knight, too. He would keep his three day vigil alone, and ask to be set against all the evil in the world. Merlyn said he would be conquered, but Wart said he could ask, anyway. And Merlyn chewed his beard, because that is sort of what he knew would happen. Then a few days later he turned Wart into a badger to complete his education, for it was finished as soon as Kay would be knighted. The badger lived in a nicely paneled old, sprawling burrow, with portraits of old badgers and the family Founder until they came to his room, where he read Wart his treatise on Man (merely a work in progress, with lots of changes in the future, to be sure).
It was a sort of parable myth. All embryos look the same, and so, on the fourth day of Creation, God told all the embryos that they could choose to be altered when the grow up in to things that would help them. They all went away and thought, and some asked for wings, others asked for offensive weapons (teeth and tusks and all), the badgers asked for their skin to be a shield and for the hands to be digging tools, a desert toad asked simply to be a water bottle. Man waited until everyone else had made their requests, and then, on the afternoon of the sixth day (the requesting process had taken a while), he said that he thought it would be rude the change the shape God had chosen, so he asked simply to be able to use tools to make anything he might have need of. God was thrilled that he had guessed His riddle, and give him Dominion over all the other animals, and then blessed him. But the badger said that lately he had been wondering whether Man was really blessed, because all the other animals flee from him as he is a tyrant, and besides he is the only animal that goes to war. No other animal attacks its same species, it only attacks other species. And even within humans there were some groups, like Eskimo and Gypsies that do not war among themselves because they recognize no borders. Wart said that he still wanted to be a knight and do great deeds. “The learned animal thought for a long time, gazing into the fire. In the end, he seemed to change the subject. ‘Which did you like best,’ he asked, ‘the ants or the wild geese?’” (197)
After Kay’s knighting, King Pellinore arrived with the news that King Uther Pendragon had died, without heir. And there were strange tidings that a sword had appear in an anvil outside a church in London, with golden words announcing that whoever pulled it out would be King of England. No one could, of course. Kay persuaded his father, Sir Ector, to visit London (despite his protestations about it being so incredibly far away), to see the pageantry of the knights vying to be king. While there, Kay and Wart happen across the sword while everyone else was at the tournament, and Wart pulls it out. Wart knew nothing about the sword, having been out telling the guard to put the flag at half-mast when Pellinore had mentioned it. Kay claimed that he had done it, but Sir Ector had reservations. So they all went back to the place, stuck the sword back in, and tried again. Wart was the only one who could pull it out, and so, he was crowned King of England.
While Wart was learning to be King Arther, Morgan le Fey’s sister, the Queen Morgause of Lothian and Orkney, had been raising her children to hate the English. King Uther had raped the children’s Cornish grandmother (he had fallen in love with her, but she fled to her husbands castle, but her husband had died in battle as Uther besieged it.). Now, unbeknownst to anyone besides Merlyn, King Arthur—Wart—was the resulting child of Uther and their grandmother. Morgause was very beautiful, but also a man-chaser. She did not spend much time with her children, who were left to raise themselves for much of the time. But she did instill in them a deep sense of hatred for the English, which King Uther had ruled, and they developed a deep sense of Orkney clan unity among the three of them: Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine.
Meanwhile, Merlyn had been trying to get Arthur to think, namely that Might make Right is wrong. Eventually he succeeded in getting Arthur to see that it was not all knightly glory, that these men in their metal suits were pretty much invulnerable to anyone else, and so they could do what they wanted, as Uther and the Normans had done. And so Arthur conceived of the Round Table, where he would collect the best of the knights, and build a culture of using the might for noble deeds like serving the helpless and those in distress. This was sore needed, because those Norman knights were making far too much Right with their Might and oppressing everyone in their area.
Some of these sent an army to attack Arthur. Now in those days, war was sort of a game: the knights would fight, but could not really do each other much harm since they were human tanks hitting each other with swords, and the common people, who were foot soldiers, would be the ones killed. Arther, with Merlyn’s advice, did away with the games; he waged total war and attacked everyone. And he did so at night, when they weren’t ready for him, and so the knights did not have enough time for their pages to do their armor properly. So Arthur won that battle. Then the people of the north, including those of Orkney attacked him, and also lost.
Before they lost, King Pellinore had been Questing in France (it is not mentioned how the Beast crossed the Channel) and fell in love with a French queen. Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides were with him, and at one point the three of them got into a boat the drifted away from the shore, eventually drifting all the way to Orkney. The three did not know that there was a war on, and they just wanted to get back. Morgause tried fishing for one of them by leading them on a unicorn hunt, but they did not find a unicorn, nor did she bag one of them. (But her children did catch a unicorn to try and get her attention. They used a maid as bait, and when the unicorn came and laid its head on her lap trustingly, Agravaine, the bully, killed it. Gareth was sad about the unicorn, which was beautiful, and angry at Agravaine. And their mother did not notice the unicorn head they brought back, and punished them when she found out.) Then, in a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Grummore and Sir Palomides dressed up as the Questing Beast to try to cheer King Pellinore out of his love-sickness, since the hunts had not helped. As they were practicing at night, the Questing Beast herself arrived, and fell in love with their false Beast and besieged the Orkney castle. Merlyn arrived briefly and suggested psychoanalysis, which worked, except that she transferred her affection to Sir Palomides. In the end King Pellinore had to resign all rights to her to Sir Palomides.
King Pellinore married the French queen, and Morgause attended with her boys. She brought with her a spancel, a magic strip of human flesh that would make someone fall in love with you if you tied it around their head without them waking up (and if they did not, they would be dead within a year). After the wedding, Arthur woke up to her putting something away with a smug look. She was tremendously beautiful, and she had him. Then she had his child, Mordred. The problem was, Morgause was Arthur’s sister (both being children of the Cornish Earl’s wife, Morgause legitimately, and Arthur by Uther). “[Arthur did not know that he had slept with his own sister], and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.” (323)
Now Galahad Lancelot Dulac was a son of a French noble, and he had a notably ugly face. He also did not feel that he was good enough, so he spent all his time training for knighthood, and since his trainer was one of the best, Lancelot grew up to be the most able knight there was. Of course, he had heard about Arthur’s knights, which Arthur had been cultivating for the last ten years of Lancelot’s childhood, so naturally he came over to England to join. Shortly after landing, he skillfully unseated a knight, who turned out to be Arthur. Arthur was amazed at the consummate skill that had delivered his fall, and knighted Lancelot right there, and took him to London.
Lancelot was emotionally cold, at least in the early years, and had taken a disliking to Guenever, Arthur’s wife. But in one of their interactions while she was helping Lancelot train a falcon he hurt her. Seeing the hurt revealed her humanness and gentleness, and brought her to his attention. Guenever loved Arther dearly, but she was ten years younger than him, so there was a certain detachment there. With Lancelot, however, there was a definite attraction, mutually felt. Lancelot resisted for several a while, but could not. Arthur had become good friends with Lancelot on his Roman conquering tour, and disregarded Merlyn’s prophecy about Lancelot as incorrect (Merlyn having been imprisoned by Nimue, by now, as he had foreseen, and in fact, seems to have enjoyed.) Having failed to conquer his emotions, Lancelot persuaded Arthur to let him go questing, to take the ideals of the Round Table out. Lancelot felt strongly that he should be honorable, and the quests were not his attempt to gain honor, as is often thought, but his attempt to save his honor.
“People have odd reasons for ending up as saints. A man who was not afflicted by ambitions of decency in his mind might simply have run away with his hero’s wife, and then perhaps the tragedy of Arthur would never have happened. An ordinary fellow, who did not spend half his life torturing himself by trying to discover what was right so as to conquer is inclination towards what was wrong, might have cut the knot which brought their ruin.” (353)
In the year that he was a way, he rescued several damsels in distress. He defeated several knights of Might makes Right. He rescued several of the Morgause’s sons (the Orkney clan), who were by now knights of the Round Table, much to their thankfulness but also to their annoyance. And when Might makes Right tried to fight back by putting Lancelot in a position where he was without his armor, Lancelot fought with a tree branch, and when his opponent’s sword stuck in it, he took the sword and cut the man’s throat. And he sent all his prisoners to be prisoner’s of Queen Guenever, which naturally brightened her eye.
Guenever loved both Arthur and Lancelot, but with different kinds of love. Lancelot was torn. “[It would be impossible, nowadays], when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please. Why did not Lancelot make love to Guenever, or run away with his hero [Arthur]’s wife altogether, as many enlightened man would do today?” (383) One reason that he was a Christian, and the Church taught that it is wrong to do that. Another reason was that taking your neighbor’s wife is really just another variant of Might makes Right, which Lancelot opposed, and which was why he had sought out Arthur. And he loved both Arthur and Guenever, and hated and was ashamed of himself. Furthermore, the medieval explanation for when people had the strength of ten—which Lancelot did—was because of their purity and holiness. Were Lancelot to sleep with Guenever—Jenny between themselves—he would lose his greatness.
Lancelot left again, and went to Castle Corbin. “[King Pelles of Corbin] was the sorth of man who would become and British Israelite nowadays, and spend the rest of his life prophesying the end of the world by measuring the passages in the Great Pyramid” (384) Arthur had sent Lancelot there to investigate his haunted castle. In the village, the people implored him to rescue Elaine, King Pelles’ daughter. She had been magically confined to a bath of boiling water by Morgan le Fey five years prior because the Faerie queen was jealous of Elaine’s beauty, Only the best knight could save her. Sir Gawaine had tried just recently but had not been able to. Lancelot tried to demur, but the people insisted, and indeed, he saved her. At her suggestion they went to the church to thank God, and Lancelot realized that he had been allowed to do a miracle, as he had always wanted. (Of course, miracles can only be done by the pure of heart.) King Pelles insisted that he stay a while.
Elaine was in love with her rescuer. Unfortunately for her, while she was the second-most beautiful girl he knew, Jenny was the first. As he continued to not respond to her, Elaine and the butler took things into their own hands. The butler brought some good wine, and drank with him. Perhaps the butler’s wife put a love potion in it. A message arrived, ostensibly from Guenever, which said that she was in a nearby castle and requested that he come. It had kisses on it. So he came, spurred on a bit by the butler suggesting that he wouldn’t. In the morning he woke up (with no hangover, since he had good constitution), and realized that Elaine had stolen his virginity, and along with it, his strength of ten and ability to work miracles. He threatened to kill her, but relented when he saw the fear in her eyes. She deflect his anger into blame on herself. She said that if she had a child, she would name him Galahad. Lancelot said that if she had a child, it was all hers, as “it is unfair to bind me with pity” (393), he said.
He went back to London and Arthur asked him to stay, to keep a watch over the factions while he went to war. The Round Table was taking a while to be successful, as the knights were still games-obsessed, as Merlyn called their one-upmanship score-keeping. And since he had already lost everything he had to lose, he and Jenny had a pleasant year together. One night he told her that he had always wanted to work miracles as a child, and now that was over, and he had given his hopes and dreams to her.
But the next week, after Arthur arrived back in victory, she found out about Elaine, who had given birth to a son, and named him Galahad as she had promised. The Queen was angry with him, but he told her how he was tricked and that she meant nothing to him. They made up and continued happily in love. “They thought that they understood each other once more—but their doubt had been planted. Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were the seeds of hatred and fear and confusion growing at the same time: for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury.” (403) Now that Arthur was back, Lancelot had a constant reminder that he was betraying his friend. Guenever was jealous of Elaine and her baby, and was cruel to Lancelot. Arthur unconsciously knew that they were sleeping together, but he had been loved as a child, and was incapable of jealousy. Also, he loved both of them, so he would not want to execute them for treason. So he got in the habit of not noticing. And so when he asked about Lancelot’s health he did not pause long enough that Lancelot would answer the question, and asked about Elaine, who was said to be coming to London with Lancelot’s baby, a much easier subject for Lancelot to answer. And the Queen said that he should not sleep with her until she left—he should see if he could love her, since the Queen and him could not ever be married, but he and Elaine could. But, when Elaine had her handmaiden trick Lancelot again into coming, the Queen was jealous and angry. It made Lancelot insane (as Elaine insightfully observed to the Queen as he jumped out the window).
Lancelot had not been seen in a year, but a wild man came to Castle Corbin one day, and Elaine recognized him as Lancelot, and had him put in a bed. After his sanity returned, he knew he could not go back to court, where the Queen was. So he was honest with Elaine and told her that he did not love her, but that he would try to live with her if she wanted, until the day came that he had to go away. He felt it was a demeaning offer, but she was happy. King Pelles gave them a castle, and Lancelot took the name Le Chevalier le Mal Fet (the ugly knight, or also the cursed knight). He tried to love Elaine, but was never really successful at it. The Queen spent a lot of money trying to find him, and at last one of her men found him, and persuaded him that if the Queen had forgiven him, he should at least come back to court. “He did not look back as he rode away from Bliant Castle—and Elaine, standing on the barbican tower, did not wave. She watched him going with a still-struck concentration, like somebody who, shipwrecked, gets as much fresh water into the little boat as possible. She had a few seconds left, to make her store of Lancelot that must last her through the years. There would be only this store, and their son, and a lot of gold. He had left her all his money, enough to bring a thousand pounds a year for life—in those days a huge sum.” (440-441)
Fifteen years later, the situation in the kingdom had changed. The Might makes Right people had all been defeated. Virgins could safely walk the entire kingdom without worrying about their person, either from thieves or forceful amor. A new generation had grown up which adopted Arthur’s virtues. Gareth had gone to court secretly, in defiance of his his mother, and only Lancelot respected him and saw the strength in him, knighting him and earning Gareth’s admiration. Mordred, even had come to court. But when he found that his mother had seduced Pellinore’s son, he stabbed both in the back. Arthur always tried to see the good in everyone: “it must be hard to see all your sons go to serve the man you despise,” he said. But the problem now was that, while the Might had been harnessed to Virtue, the Might was still reckless and breaking out in painful ways. And so, Arthur came upon the idea of redirecting it spiritually, announcing the Quest for the Holy Grail.
The knights all left for the search. Two years later, half had died, and most of the rest straggled back with tales of demons and boats that moved by themselves and other fantastical tales. Sir Gawaine was the first knight back who was believable, and told the tale in his thick Scottish accent. He had ridden for a long time in search of adventures, but England was played out, he said. But eventually in other lands he found adventures, and ended up killing someone. Later he found a priest who said he needed to be repentant, because one should not kill and especially not on this quest. Gawaine was not repentant, and Galahad (Lancelot’s son) defeated him and he came back nursing an injury.
Sir Lionel, one of Lancelot’s cousins came back next. He, too, had journey around and been called a murder by priests, but he told the story of his brother, Sir Bors. Bors had four trials. The first was riding along in the forest and finding his brother, Lionel, being whipped to death by thorns. As he was going to rescue him, a maiden pursued an armed man fled by and called to help. Bors reasoned that Lionel was his brother but a bit of an ass, while the maiden was a maiden, so she was more important, and he left Lionel to be whipped and rescued her. The second trial was a priest who said that there was a woman in a nearby castle who would die unless Bors made love to her, and reminded him that he had already killed his brother Lionel (Bors had found Lionel’s lifeless body and placed it at an abbey) by not saving him. But Bors remembered a catechism at a service given by a wandering mission growing up, and realized that he was not responsible for the lady’s actions, but he was responsible for his own actions, so he refused. Then the lady (who was gorgeous) forced her twelve ladies-in-waiting to the top of the castle and said that she would force them to all jump off together if he did not sleep with her. Just one night she said, and all the ladies cried and implored him. But he let them jump, and it turned out that all the women and the priest were demons, as was shown when the castle turned upside down and vanished. The fourth trial was when Lionel, who had recovered from being almost dead, found Bors. He was quite angry, murderous in fact, that his own brother should leave him to die, and challenged him to fight. Bors refused, and so Lionel raised his sword to kill him. A hermit came and threw himself in front of Bors, so Lionel killed the hermit. (“‘Passive resistance,’ said Arthur with intense interest. ‘It is a new weapon. But it seems difficult to use.’” ) Bors simply asked for love, and then Sir Colgrevance turned up and chastised him for trying to kill his brother, so Lionel killed him, albeit in a fair fight this time. Then Lionel tried again to kill his brother, but Sir Bors prayed, and God showed up. Bors’ shield became bright light and his heart changed and he loved his brother again. Bors told Lionel his story, then sailed off in a magic ship.
Sir Aglovale, King Pellinore’s other son turned up next. He had come back from the quest, finding his father killed by the Orkneys, and his brother already dead by Mordred, and he came back seeking the death of the Orkneys. Arthur said he would not stop him, but pointed out that the Orkneys killed his family, so he would kill them, and then more would kill him, and when would it stop? And he asked about his quest. It had not fared well, and he had found a magic boat with his sister dead and a long letter about Sir Percival. Galahad had shown up and rescued Percival and (insufferably, to Aglovale’s mind) ridden off without a word. Percival was advised to follow Galahad, and since Galahad was a hero of Percival’s, he needed little persuasion. But he had difficulty in doing so, and eventually found himself on a horse (which turned out to be demonic) that vanished when he fortuitously crossed himself, but by then he was in a desert. He happened across a lady, who offered him wine, and between his thirst and his inexperience at drinking, he had a wild party and ended up asking her to sleep with him. But he crossed himself again upon seeing the cross on his sword, and the lady and her pavilion turned upside-down and disappeared, as she roared in anger. He was remorseful, so he stuck himself with his sword. The next day the magic boat showed up and he got in it. (Guenever complained that Percival had not really done anything, but Arthur observed that he had kept his integrity and was innocent, and that God wanted us as little children. “‘But such a muddle!’ [she said.] Arthur was annoyed. ‘If God is supposed to be merciful,’ he retorted, ‘I don’t see why He shouldn’t allow people to stumble into heaven, just as well as climb there.’” )
At this point Aglovale said that God had given a vision to his sister, who was a nun. She had been told to keep her hair when it was cut off at her wedding-to-God ceremony. Now she was told to take it and find Galahad, which she did, and they found the magic boat, with a grand sword waiting for the insufferably perfect Galahad, with two rather less grand swords for Bors and Percival, and she made a halter for the sword with her hair and fastened it on him—a virgin presenting the sword to a virgin. On the way, they rescued a old man kept prisoner in a castle by evil men. The fight resulted in them killing a number of people, to the distress of Bors and Percival, but Galahad said it was okay because they were not christened. Galahad consented to the old man’s request to let him die in Galahad’s arms. Later they arrived at a castle where a lady had measles that could only be cured with the blood of a virgin of noble birth. Aglovale’s sister consented, so they took her blood, and then placed her body on the holy boat with the letter. At the end of telling his tales, Aglovale consented to Arthur’s request to forgive the Orkneys.
Lancelot returned last of all. He had met his son, Galahad, and had been promptly unhorsed by him, much to his surprise. A lady appeared and praised the greatest knight, but she was looking at Galahad. Lancelot, having no longer his Honor nor his miracles left to him, relied on his strength at arms for his self-worth. So he found a hermit or priest and confessed all his sins. (Here he wanted to confess before Arthur, but Guenever thwarted him, and Arthur probably did not really want to know.) But he was unhorsed a second time, indicating that he was still not in a state of grace. He found a confessor again, and confessed his pride in his fighting ability. He was unhorsed a third time, and there he lay in the stream and thanked God. He had a dream telling him about a boat, which he found with his son in it. They sailed together for many months, and Lancelot got to know his son, even asking Galahad to pray for him. Galahad was given adventures, but Lancelot was not invited, but it was enough. Galahad finally was instructed to depart, but the boat took Lancelot to the back side of a castle. There were lions guarding the entrance, and he drew his sword to fight them, but then felt that he needed to entrust himself to God, which he did and the lions did not attack. He found the chapel and through the entrance saw Galahad, Bors, the dead lady he had journeyed with in the boat before Galahad arrived, and a number of European knights. He was prevented from entering by a sword, but when the priest was carrying something to heavy for him, he tried to enter and was struck unconscious with a blast.
Having practically seen God, Lancelot was more in love with God than Jenny. She was patient, knowing that he would come back to her, but the weeks dragged into months, and she got upset and sent him away. After she was gone, a knight tried to kill Sir Gawaine with a poisoned apple, but another knight ate it instead and died, and for various reasons, Guenever was accused. Arthur had progress from chivalry to basing his court on Justice, on Law. So when Guenever was accused of treason and challenged to find a champion to fight for her, he could do nothing to save her. Fortunately, Lancelot came back, fought, and won. “This knight’s trouble from his childhood—which he never completely grew out of—was that for him God was a real person. He was not an abstraction who punished you if you were wicked or rewarded you if you were good, but a real person like Guenever, or like Arthur, or like anybody else. Of course, he felt that God was better than Guenever or Arthur, but the point was that he was personal. Lancelot had a definite idea of what he looked like, and how he felt—and he was somehow in love with this Person.” (509-510) So Lancelot was not in a love triangle with Guenever and Arthur, but in a quadrangle, including God as the fourth. Her returned because Guenever needed him more than God did at that moment.
Some time afterwards Sir Meliagrance abducted Guenever to have her, aggrevated by Agravaine. Lancelot promptly armored up, helped by Arthur, and went to the castle. He fell into an ambush, which killed his horse, and he rushed the rest of the way to the castle, despite his armor, commandeering a cart along the way. He arrived before the gates were shut, bashing with his iron fist the man who tried to shut them on him. Sir Meliagrance realized he had to contend with Lancelot, so he begged the Queen’s forgiveness, and invited her to stay the night and leave the next day. She acquiesced, and went down to see Lancelot, where they bantered and were in love again. That night he climbed up to her window on a ladder. But he cut himself deeply on one of the iron bars, after having cut through them, and left blood on the bed. The next day Meliagrance noticed and accused the Queen of betraying her husband. Lancelot said she had not, but Meliagrance insisted. So they went to London and fought it out. Guenever insisted to Lancelot that he be killed, but Lancelot wanted to do it honorably, since the man refused to fight, having immediately knelt down in the arena. The people all wanted him dead, too, since it was a grievous offence to suggest about Guenever. He only agreed to fight when Lancelot offered to take off his helm and all the armor on his left side. It did not do Meliagrance any good; Lancelot opened his left side for the stroke, but when Meliagrance took it, he pivoted to his right side and dealt the killing stroke.
Sir Urre of Hungary had a wound that would not heal except by the hand of the greatest knight. Wherever he went, people said he should find Sir Lancelot. He came to Arthur, who set up a great show, where all his knights would attempt to heal him, with everyone attending in their best clothes, so that it should be a great moment when his friend succeeded. Lancelot, though, knew he would fail. First of all, if you are the greatest of knights, sooner or later you will fail fending off all comers. And, for 25 years you have been hiding a shame. “The people outside are waiting for you to do this miracle because you have traded on their belief that your heart was pure—and now, with treachery and adultery and murder [of Sir Meliagrance, because he did killed him because Guenever wanted it] wringing the heart like a cloth, you are to go out into the sunlight for the test of honour.” (542) All the other knights failed, and Lancelot asked Arthur not to go, but he would have none of it. And when Lancelot touched the wound it closed up by itself. Everyone cheered, and wept, for “the miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.” (544)
Now Mordred hated Arthur, because Arthur had tried to kill him as a baby (and many other babies besides). And he finally got together with Agravaine, who hated Lancelot, to force the issue of Lancelot and Guenever’s adultery. Arthur, in his quest for a better system of government, had created Law courts instead of trial by feat of strength. All the Orkney brothers were together in the Hall of Justice, with Gawaine trying to persuade his brothers not to do it, when Arthur walked in. Agravaine formally accuses Lancelot of sleeping with Arthur’s wife. Arthur tries to dissuade him, and Mordred says they want justice. Arthur observes that there never is true justice, because if it is trial by arms, then whoever has the money to hire the best knight wins, and if it is trial by argument, then whoever has the money to hire the best arguer wins. But they insist, so Arthur tries again, noting that it is not something the courts can take up, because there is no proof. They say they can catch him in the bedroom. Arthur agrees that would qualify, but he warns them that Lancelot has proven himself able to defend himself against many in this situation, and that if they fail to produce evidence, he will pursue them with that same Law they tried to invoke.
So the King went away on a one-day hunting expedition, and Guenever sent for Lancelot. Gareth came in to Lancelot and warned him not to go, but Lancelot knew the King and knew that there was no danger, so he went. And he did not take his sword. After Lancelot and Guenever had been talking a while in her chamber, Mordred knocked on the door with 14 knights at his side, and told him that the game was up. Lancelot lamented that he had no armor, the two exchanged wishes for a less hopeless situation, Lancelot told her to contact his cousin Sir Bors for protection if he was killed, and they exchanged rings. Then he opened the door a little until one knight came in, then in one smooth move he closed and barred the door, pulled the knight forward and then bashed him over the head with a stool, took his sword, and killed him through the visor. It was Agravaine, suffering the fate that Arthur had foretold. Guenever helped Lancelot into the armor. He asked for grace from the crowd without, and receiving none, he opened the door in a fell humor, setting upon them all and killing all 13 knights. Mordred escaped with just broken arm, as Arthur said later, because some days prior he had come to Lancelot and Guenever, informing them that Mordred wish ill of Arthur, asked them not to give Mordred and hand-hold, and had asked Lancelot not to kill his son. (Lancelot had suggested it as an expedient solution to the problem, but Arthur said that a King must not simply kill people because they are inconvenient: when the king is a bully, his people are, too.)
Guenever was, of course, condemned to burn at the stake, and the King must witness it in order for it to be official, so he watched the proceedings from a small window in the castle. He asked Gawaine to be part of the guard against Lancelot showing up to rescue her, since it would not due to knowingly have a guard that is weak. Gawaine refused. Gareth and Gahereth eventually agreed to go, but they refused to wear armor. Well, Lancelot did indeed come, and he rescued Guenever without problem, but in the confusion, somehow he killed Gawaine’s two brothers without realizing it. Mordred uses Gawaine’s grief to slowly poison him against Lancelot and the King.
Of course, Arthur must besiege Lancelot in his castle Joyous Gard, which is in France. Jenny comes up with the idea that if the Pope were to order the sides to forgive each other on pain of excommunication, then Arthur would have to accept them. The Pope does this, and Arthur accepts Guenever back, but Gawaine refuses to forgive and insists that Lancelot be banned for killing his brothers. And so, Lancelot leaves a banished criminal, who must walk from London to the boats at Dover carrying only a cross, which if he puts it beside himself, or tarries longer than 15 days, can be killed on sight. Gawaine persuaded Arthur to attack Lancelot. The siege lasted much of a year, because Lancelot refused to attack Arthur’s men, and only occasionally met\ a challenge from them because his defenders insisted that it is bad form not to. But nobody could touch Lancelot, and since he refused to attack, the siege is a stalemate. Arthur kind of lost his mind, entrusting everything to Gawaine, who is now a tool of Mordred. On one battle Lancelot hit Gawain on the head precisely where he had been injured several times, putting him out of action.
Mordred, appointed Lord Protector by Arthur, decided he wanted to follow in the pattern that his family had been down, to hurt Arthur, so he told the Queen that he intended to sleep with her. She managed to flee back to London and sent a letter to Arthur in France, informing him of the situation and that Mordred had proclaimed himself King. Arthur receives the letter while attending to Gawaine, and Gawaine—never the quickest wit—sees the reality of what his brother has done. Gawaine dies of his wound, but before he does, he sends Lancelot a letter telling the situation and forgiving him for killing his brother, signing it in blood.
Arthur returned to England, he successfully won two battles, but his health was worsening. “His wife was a prisoner. His oldest friend was banished. His son was trying to kill him. Gawaine was buried. His Table was dispersed. His country was at war. Yet he could have breasted all these things in some way, if the central tenet of his heart had not been ravaged. ... He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin.” (665 - 666) He had tried to end Might, to end Tyranny, but no matter what he did, the river surged around the dam. He had tried fighting Might by Might, but two wrong don’t make a right. Then he had tried harnessing Might with chivalry, but once the kingdom had been cleansed of unchivalry, Might remained. He had tried sending Might on service to God, with the result that the best—the ones who achieved the Grail—were taken into God’s presence and no longer a part of the world, but those who failed, had not returned as better men. He had tried to bind Might with Law, even willing to sacrifice his wife and Lancelot to Justice. “He had bound the might of units, only to find that it was assumed by pluralities [groups of people]. He had conquered murder, to be faced with war. There were no Laws for that.” (667)
He thought that perhaps there really was original sin, in which case his whole life had been a fool’s errand. Perhaps, Might was actually a force of nature—against which it is impossible to oppose—because nature needs fit survivors. Maybe it was evil leaders that led the innocent masses into evil, but perhaps the evil population actually chose the leaders that matched their hearts. At a deeper level, perhaps the wars were caused by all the actions in the past: Mordred, Morgause, Uther, all the way back to Cain, but also the actions of Lancelot, Guenever and everyone else. But how could this be broken? After every major war men promised “we cannot build the future by avenging the past” (669) yet could not actually achieve it. Perhaps men do not have the skill to build this way. Maybe it was the Haves versus the Have-Nots: Arthur had and Mordred did not. But what seemed to resonate most was the geese: when we fence in a corner of the world to call Ours, we create borders, and the borders create Us and Them, so the solution is a world without borders. Unfortunately, Arthur was tired, and he would die soon. Mordred would be slain, Lancelot would become a monk and Guenever a nun. And Arthur would be taken to Avalon, where he would wait until he could come back to try it again.
The Once and Future King is a great re-telling of Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, and he combines rich characters, witty dialogue, insightful observations, and philosophical discussion into, frankly, a page-turner. It is a combination of four books, but the first, The Sword in the Stone, is the most obviously different. It was a children’s book written before the others, and is kind of a tongue-in-cheek telling of Arthur’s childhood that manages to give a picture of medieval life while also weaving in Robin Hood, Faerie, and animal fantasy. He reworked it a bit for this volume, but it is really book two that begins the serious part. From then on it reads like a summary and retelling of Mallory, with White frequently commenting on Mallory.
But White makes the tale his own with his dialog and characterizations. The dialog feels lifelike in a way that is rare, yet at the same time is also very humorous. Furthermore, the emotions of the characters comes through clearly in the dialog (although some of it needs to be explained in narration), even though much of the interactions are told briefly. White spends a fair amount of space explaining why Lancelot carries on this affair even though he believes it is wrong, why Arthur lets it happen, and how Guenever can legitimately love two people at once. He does a great job, and every character in the book is emotionally motivated so well that their actions do seem somewhat inevitable. The three main characters, though get especially insightful comments on human nature and the differences between modern and medieval thinking, which I have tried to include in the summary above.
White insights have a sort-of C.S. Lewis quality to them, and similar wry observations about modern morals. He also includes a fair amount of Christian allusions, such as having Merlyn say the Nunc Dimittis after Arthur finally sees his point the the glory of knighthood is an unworthy goal and rather, Might makes Right is the problem—but you need to know that the Nunc Dimittis is what Simeon said when he finally held baby Jesus after waiting years for God to fulfill his promise that he would see the salvation of Israel. (He says “Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for I have seen your salvation”, which you can easily imagine a man saying after his pupil finally understands what you have been teaching after ten years.)
After some reflection on finishing the book, though, I have to conclude that it is not a “Christian” book. (Not that White was necessarily intending that) I have been trying to figure out what makes a “Christian” book, because “Christian” seems to mean “telling the gospel” far too frequently. White tells a tragedy, and in it, the characters are tortured by their sin, but unable to prevent it, and so, a pathetic (in the pathos sense) tragedy results. But if you step back, the tragedy is not inevitable, but brought on by the characters. Man is not a slave to his emotions and the Christian view is that God always provides a way out of temptation, and, indeed, sin results when we are dragged away by our own evil desires. Lancelot need not have taken his hero’s wife, and was Arthur really his hero if he was willing to violate Arthur so easily and deeply? Likewise, Guenever could have chosen to love Arthur only; there are many marriage stories where one of the partners grows into romantic love. And Arthur did not honor his own heart; he sought Justice for his kingdom but he never allowed himself Justice. Instead, he was nice, and avoided the issue. Kind of a Neville Chamberlain to Lancelot’s underhanded Might makes Right. At no point is there really any opportunity for the characters to change. Lancelot wants to tell Arthur, but is stymied because Arthur doesn’t really want to hear and Guenever definitely does not want him to tell. Well, Lancelot, man up! You are not a victim of Guenever, you can be bold and do the right thing. But instead, all parties choose passivity and then justify it to themselves.
Furthermore, there is no sense of redemption, nor a real need for redemption. I cannot imagine C. S. Lewis telling the story this way; perhaps the characters would have chosen the same thing, but they would have owned it and clearly rejected an opportunity. Or, more likely, Lewis would not have told this story. Is it even possible for there to be a Christian tragedy? Tragedy implies inevitability, but the gospel brings redemption, it makes broken things whole. White even discusses the idea of original sin, that something is broken in humanity. But instead of concluding that war is a result of our own evil desire—which then requires a solution, of which none have been suggested except Jesus—he concludes that the problem is that we keep borders and make Us and Them. But the New Testament (James, in particular) makes it clear that it is the evil within us that comes out and creates the evil around us. A “Christian” book cannot offer such cheap hope as war is caused by borders (as if humanity has ever really been able to be borderless). No, a Christian knows that the problem is deeper and is not something that we can cure ourselves; Arthur’s Round Table was doomed to failure from the beginning. Yet, a Christian can offer expensive hope, and quality hope: a solution is available, Jesus’ death and the Holy Spirit who will lead us to righteousness. It is not fast hope; it is hope that is painful for the giver as it also is to the receiver, who must face the fact that they cannot fix themselves; but it is high-quality hope that offers transformation.
The Once and Future King is excellent tragedy. It leaves one with a poignant sadness, even a sense of loss, but it is a journey with rich conversation, living humanity, brilliant insight, and recurrent humor. The writing is brilliant, and even creates a sense of suspense—what will the characters choose—even when he tells us what the end will be. (Arthur’s conversation with Lancelot and Guenever is a great example: it highlights Arthur’s love, his gentleness, his denial; it is clearly a warning, which Lancelot and Guenever perceive but do not understand, just how such warnings are frequently given and received in real life.) It is one of the best writing I have encountered.
|Arthur||Simple, loving, devoted to stamping out Tyranny, or Might makes Right|
|Lancelot||Makes the knightly ideals his aspired values, and lives them out except to the most important people in his life. Is the mightiest knight, even in old age. Loves God as a person, but like he loves Arthur—in second place.|
|Guenever||Sweet, but never faithful to Arthur, who she sees as a loving friend.|
|Merlyn||Ages backwards, which makes him apt to be confused. Comes across as a bit incompetent (for comedic effect), but does accomplish his goal. His magic is very effective, even when he is careless with is words (“Castor and Pollux blow me away!” and vanishes because they did blow him away, even though he was simply swearing).|
|Elaine||A simple girl who is only able to love Lancelot, and uses manipulation and control to try to get his love, instead of facing the reality that he does not love her.|
|Gawaine||Speaks with a heavy Scottish (or Cornish?) accent. Acts with true knightly values, even being willing to go against his brothers, with the exception of when his brothers are killed. Even forgives Lancelot at the end.|
|Mordred||Not really a knight, he lives at court and is one of the people that lead the fashions of the day, while secretly undermining those who trust him.|
|Morgause||Seems to be driven by sex. Does not reliably love her children, even though they crave her love. Hates Arthur simply because his father raped her mother. Does not forgive, unlike most of the other characters.|
|King Pellinore||Not the most competent knight, but devoted to the role he has been assigned—questing after the Beast Glatisant. He repents of his decadent desires after the Beast pines away because of not being chased.|
|Kay||Accepts Might makes Right, and is a bit of a bully (but is not really in the story after Arthur becomes king).|