The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 3, Chapters 1–3 : The Ill-Made Knight | Summary

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Summary

Part 3, Chapter 1

Part 3 begins with an epigraph taken from Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

In France, in the castle of Benwick, a 15-year-old Lancelot looks at his reflection in a kettle hat. He is trying to get an impression of what he looks like and is afraid of what he will see. He has just returned from King Arthur's court, where he fell in love with everything about the English king, even though he only talked to him once. Arthur noticed the lad's skill at winning games and asked him if he would like to join an order of knights that fights against the rule of might when he grows up. Lancelot said he would. Later the boy has a dream in which he is beaten, forced to wear clothing filled with knots, and attempts to drink "the fairest waters he had ever seen" from a well—but the water recedes away from him. Lancelot continues to look at his reflection and admits he is ugly. Because of this, he will call himself the Chevalier Mal Fet (the Ill-Made Knight).

Part 3, Chapter 2

Lancelot practices for three years to become an outstanding knight. First he spends hours perfecting certain moves without handling a weapon. After this he's allowed to use a sword and shield against a stake in the ground. Finally he takes part in mock combats with his brother and cousins. In addition Lancelot learns how to move while wearing a heavy suit of armor. He strives to become the best knight in the world so Arthur will love him. Striving for "purity and excellence," he hopes to eventually perform a miracle, such as healing a blind man.

Part 3, Chapter 3

Lancelot, now 18 years old, trains with an expert swordsman named Gwenbors (called Uncle Dap). One day, Merlyn and Nimue visit Lancelot's mother, Queen Elaine. Merlyn informs Lancelot that Arthur has married Guenever and begun the Knights of the Round Table. Twenty-nine knights have already been chosen, but 21 seats remain open. Lancelot wonders if Gawaine is one of the knights, and Merlyn says he is. Merlyn and Nimue vanish into the air, despite the queen's insistence they stay the night. Later Lancelot informs Uncle Dap that he will be leaving for King Arthur's castle. Lancelot doesn't want his parents to know of his departure because they will only make a fuss.

Analysis

In the epigraph Lancelot speaks about shame in battle. However, shame can also apply to his debilitating sense of inferiority. Although he tries to compensate for this by striving for perfection, he can never achieve this goal. Shame also foreshadows his future love affair with Guenever.

In the first three chapters of Part 3, White explores the theme of perfection versus fallibility through the character of Lancelot. The young Lancelot feels a deep sense of insecurity and is ashamed of his ugly appearance. The lad assumes his unsightly face reflects something wrong deep within his soul. Lancelot feels this sense of fallibility or sin throughout his life, despite his many great accomplishments. Indeed it motivates Lancelot to become a great knight. He becomes obsessed with his training, spending many more hours practicing than the other boys. Lancelot feels he must become the greatest knight in the world to earn Arthur's love. In a way he hopes to create a dazzling surface appearance, like a shiny suit of armor, that will distract from or cover up his inner inferiority. The boy feels Arthur could never love him for who he really is but only for what he can achieve as a Knight of the Round Table. In other words, Lancelot strives to achieve perfection to compensate for his imperfection. His quest for perfection involves not only combat skill, but also spiritual perfection so that he can eventually perform a miracle.

Because of this search for perfection, Lancelot is not only willing to endure physical hardship, but he actively seeks it out, pushing himself in his training to the limits of endurance. The narrator says onlookers might wonder what self-hatred could compel the boy "to break his ... body so young." This tendency to seek out physical punishment will also be seen in Lancelot's later life.

Lancelot's dream in Part 3, Chapter 1 speaks to both his search for perfection and his inclination toward punishment. The reason for this punishment is unclear, but Lancelot accepts it nonetheless. The receding water he tries to drink signifies Lancelot's search for perfection: beautiful, but always out of reach.

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