The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 3, Chapters 31–33 : The Ill-Made Knight | Summary



Part 3, Chapter 31

One by one, dejected knights return from the quest for the Holy Grail. However, Lancelot has not yet returned. Rumors spread about his being knocked off his horse by his son, Galahad; being killed by a black knight; and even being captured and hanged. Many of the knights have been killed on the Grail quest. During a rainstorm, Lancelot returns to Camelot with a bowed head, leading an emaciated horse. He brings news that Galahad, Bors, and Percy found the Holy Grail. Bors will return to Camelot, but the others will never come back.

Part 3, Chapter 32

Queen Guenever overdresses and wears too much makeup to hide her age as she prepares to meet Lancelot. At dinner Lancelot tells her and King Arthur about his quest for the Holy Grail. He tilted with his son Galahad, who knocked his father from his horse in a fair duel. Afterward, a holy woman called Galahad—not Lancelot—the best knight in the world. Lancelot felt crushed by this humiliation. He had always seen himself as a bad man, but took pride in being the best knight. Once this, too, is taken away from him, he has nothing left. Lancelot confessed what he thought were his sins. However, he still was defeated during a tournament. He then made a more thorough confession, including his pride in being the best knight. After this he was knocked off his horse by a black knight. Arthur and Guenever are confused about why Lancelot would be defeated again if he confessed his sins. Lancelot says it was God's will to withhold victory from him.

Part 3, Chapter 33

King Arthur objects to the ignominy Lancelot has endured during his quest for the Holy Grail, but the knight tells him to be quiet. Lancelot continues his story about the quest. He boarded a magical boat. While on this vessel, Lancelot smelled and saw things with an acuteness that gave him great joy. A dead woman (Aglovale's sister) holding a letter was also on the boat. Galahad joined him on the ship, and they sailed together for six months. During this time, Lancelot got to know his son well. Eventually a white knight led Galahad out of the boat to the Holy Grail. Lancelot was not chosen to find the Grail, which Guenever and Arthur think is unfair. However, the boat took Lancelot to Carbonek Castle, where he saw Galahad, Bors, and Percy in a chapel with the Holy Grail on a table. Lancelot, though, was not allowed to enter the chapel.


In Part 3, Chapters 31 to 33, White examines the theme of perfection versus fallibility through Lancelot's quest for the Holy Grail. The ordeal Lancelot goes through is based on medieval theology, which splits the flesh and the spirit. According to this approach, the flesh is basically sinful and corrupt, and the spirit is pure and holy. Therefore, for a Christian person to attain perfection, he or she must suppress the flesh and desire and focus on the spirit and its transformative power. As a result the quest for perfection, which in this case involves a search for the Holy Grail, requires a person become less human and more divine. The human and divine oppose each other. The result of this approach can be seen with Galahad, who becomes so perfect that he at times acts inhumanely toward other people.

Lancelot, therefore, sees his pride in being the best knight in the world as sinful because it is based on the very human desire to receive praise from other people. The knight knows his quest for perfection up to this point has failed miserably. He is no longer a virgin and, as a result, cannot strive for perfection and performing miracles. He is sleeping with his best friend's wife, which is a mortal sin. Lancelot sees himself as a bad man, reaffirming his view of his inner self since childhood. However, during the quest for the Grail, Lancelot is given a second chance at perfection. He suffers a series of defeats by other knights that crushes his pride. He repents of all his sins, including his affair with Guenever. Even so he is denied the chance to find the Grail. Lancelot can only guess that somewhere inside himself, he unconsciously did not have the proper attitude. He is not bitter about being denied the Grail, but grateful about being shown his weaknesses. He accepts the medieval view of the flesh as sinful and the spirit as holy.

Arthur, though, has a different viewpoint. He views Lancelot's ordeal during his quest as cruel and unfair. He knows Lancelot is a kind, gentle person who is never haughty despite being a great knight. Lancelot often helps peasants and servants and, as a result, is revered by them. Arthur also sees Lancelot as a better person than Galahad, Bors, or Percy, all of whom were allowed to find the Grail. The narrator says Arthur views Lancelot not as sinful, but as "the best of them, plodding along behind these three supernatural virgins." For Arthur the quality of a person is defined by how he or she treats other people. The flesh is not inherently evil, but rather something to give thanks to God for. In this way, Arthur is a Christian humanist. (Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and free rational inquiry are compatible with—and even necessary to—the practice of Christianity.) He sees Lancelot's ordeal as a form of unnecessary spiritual and physical torture.
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