The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 3, Chapters 28–30 : The Ill-Made Knight | Summary

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Summary

Part 3, Chapter 28

The Knights of the Round Table set out on the quest to find the Holy Grail. During the next two years, many knights return bruised and dejected. Half do not return at all or are presumed dead. Sir Gawaine returns with his head bandaged and tells a tale of woe. He describes to King Arthur and Guenever how Sir Galahad is a conceited prig he has come to despise. Outside of the Castle of the Maidens, Gawaine, Uwaine, and Gareth slew seven knights. Galahad had driven these knights from the castle without killing one of them. As a result Galahad views Gawaine and his companions as sinful. Over the next few months, Gawaine had contact with priests who said the knight should repent of his violent ways because the Holy Grail cannot be found by killing people. Gawaine rejected these calls to repentance. Finally he fought in a tournament that was stopped by Galahad, who opposed the killing of people by knights. Gawaine fought Galahad, who gave him a severe blow to the head. Gawaine then returned to Camelot. Arthur tells him to think about his adventures seeking the Grail.

Part 3, Chapter 29

Sir Lionel, Lancelot's cousin, returns to Camelot from his quest for the Holy Grail. He tells Arthur and Guenever that he tried to kill his brother, Sir Bors. Lionel explains how this came about by describing his brother's ordeals. Bors felt as if he were being given a series of spiritual tests to see if he is worthy to find the Holy Grail. First, he rescued a lady who was being attacked by Sir Pridam. Bors wanted to kill Pridam but refrained. Second, Bors faced a dilemma about whether to rescue his brother Lionel, who was being whipped, or a maiden who was being chased by a man. Bors chose the maiden, which infuriated Lionel. Third, Bors came upon a castle in which a lady was doomed to die unless he made love to her. Bors refused to sleep with the lady, who turned out to be a fiend sent to tempt him. This story disturbs Guenever. Finally, Lionel tracked down Bors, wanting to kill him, but Bors refused to fight. Two men tried to prevent Lionel from killing Bors, and Lionel slew both of them. Lionel then tried to kill Bors, but a shining light prevented him. Lionel believes the light was God. Arthur and Guenever contemplate Lionel's story.

Part 3, Chapter 30

Sir Aglovale, King Pellinore's son, returns to Camelot, seeking Gawaine, Agravaine, and Mordred. He wants to kill them for murdering his father and brother. Arthur asks Aglovale to reconsider this course of action. Aglovale says his mother has died from grief about the death of her husband and son. Aglovale's sister also was found dead in a boat with a letter in her hands. Aglovale reads the letter, which deals with her brother Sir Percivale (Percy). A hermit advised Percy to find Galahad but not to fight him. Eventually Percy finds a magic boat with Bors on board and joins him. Meanwhile Aglovale's sister, who was training to be a nun, receives a vision telling her to find Galahad. She does so, and the two of them ride off and find Bors and Percy in the magic boat. The sister and Galahad get on the boat, which sets sail for the Holy Grail. During the voyage, they come upon a woman who has the measles. She can only be cured by bathing in the blood of a "clean virgin of royal lineage." The sister volunteers to give her blood and dies during the operation. Aglovale tells Arthur that he'll have dinner with Gawaine and Mordred, which pleases the king.

Analysis

White interrelates the themes of might versus right and perfection versus fallibility in Part 3, Chapters 28 to 30. In the process, the author reveals how the quest for the Holy Grail is a no-win scenario. Most of the knights who seek the Grail fail to strive for the spiritual perfection needed to find it. Sir Gawaine epitomizes this tendency. As he searches for the Grail, Gawaine is repeatedly told by priests and Galahad that he cannot find the holy relic unless he repents of his violent ways and promises not to kill anyone during the quest. Gawaine ignores all this advice and continues to use might. Eventually he is bashed on the head by Galahad and returns to Camelot frustrated and demoralized. Many other knights apparently had similar experiences. They come back to Camelot injured in battle. Half don't return at all, indicating they were killed. Most of the knights, therefore, cannot give up might to find the Grail and remain stuck in the old ways.

On the other hand, the knights who do seek spiritual perfection while searching for the Grail often end up acting inhumanely toward others. Sir Galahad provides a strong example. Gawaine rightly accuses Galahad of being a righteous prig who views himself as being above most mortals. Galahad often preaches to people instead of helping them. For example, Gawaine once refused to listen to Galahad's advice and, as a result, is assaulted by another knight. Instead of helping Gawaine recover from his injuries, Galahad tells him he should have listened to his counsel and rides off. When Galahad does help people in peril, he rides off immediately after rescuing them; he never stays to exchange pleasantries or help them recover. Through this action, Galahad seems to be saying he doesn't help people because he sympathizes with them but rather because God directs him to help them. Lionel has a similar frustration with Bors. At one point, Lionel remarks, "It may be ... well to be holy ... but don't you think ... people might be ... human." Indeed Guenever is disturbed by Bors's inhumanity when he refuses to sleep with a woman to save her life. The woman turned out to be a fiend, but Bors didn't know that.

The inhumanity of perfection is caused by dogma. Dogma is a principle set by an authority figure as being undeniably true. This principle, therefore, should be followed to the letter in all circumstances. Arthur recognizes the effect of dogma with the story about Bors not sleeping with the woman. The king mentions Bors's decision is sound dogmatically; he strictly follows the dogma of not having sex out of wedlock, even though this decision could result in the death of a woman. Galahad constantly seems to rely on dogma. He rescues people because it is what he should do, but he shows no humanity toward the people he rescues. Galahad also has no qualms about slaughtering people who are not Christian. According to his dogma, he should only refrain from killing Christians. Theoretically Galahad could kill thousands of non-Christians and feel no remorse. However, according to the medieval view, Galahad has achieved perfection because he follows dogma at all times.

The quest for the Holy Grail thus seems to pose a dilemma. Knights on the quest either ignore the call to not use might, or they become inhumane perfectionists. White offers a solution to this problem with Sir Aglovale. Arthur asks Aglovale to do what he thinks is right about dealing with Gawaine, Agravaine, and Mordred. In other words the king appeals to Aglovale's conscience. Based on the laws of might-is-right, Aglovale should avenge the deaths of his father and brother. However, he knows this would lead to continued feuding between his family and the Orkney family. Aglovale is too human to adopt a dogmatic approach. Listening to his conscience, he decides on a humane answer: he plans to have dinner with the Orkney faction. In other words, he decides to get to know them as people who have their own difficulties.

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