The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 3, Chapters 40–42 : The Ill-Made Knight | Summary



Part 3, Chapter 40

When Lancelot returns from Corbin castle, Guenever is still enraged at him. They have a heated argument, during which she falsely accuses him of sleeping with Elaine. Then they find out that Elaine committed suicide. With her son and lover gone, she did not have enough to live for. Lancelot feels shame for not being more of a support to her. Even Guenever asks him why he wasn't kinder to Elaine. After Elaine's death, Guenever feels pity for her.

Part 3, Chapter 41

During a tournament Lancelot unhorses Agravaine and Mordred, increasing their animosity toward him. A cockney knight named Sir Meliagrance is in love with Guenever but annoyed about being treated by the court as a second-class knight. He and his accomplices ambush Guenever and her knights. Meliagrance captures the queen, but she is able to give her ring to a page. The page escapes and gives the ring to Lancelot. He understands it is a plea for help and immediately prepares for battle.

Part 3, Chapter 42

Realizing Lancelot will come to rescue Guenever, Meliagrance arranges for the knight to be ambushed. At his castle, Meliagrance makes the lodgings as luxurious as possible for Guenever. She makes sure her wounded knights are cared for, too. Lancelot arrives riding in a cart with his wounded horse trailing behind him. He has escaped the ambush and is ready to kill Meliagrance to save Guenever. Seeing Lancelot arrive, Meliagrance pleads to the queen for mercy. Guenever forgives Meliagrance and tells Lancelot her captor has repented. She would prefer Lancelot not fight Meliagrance. Lancelot decides to please Guenever.


In Part 3, Chapters 40 to 42, White examines the theme of perfection versus fallibility by having Guenever and Lancelot lose what they are fighting against. Lancelot has been enmeshed in a struggle to seek perfection by loving God and denying his love for Guenever. His striving for perfection has acted as a defense against Guenever's accusations about his betrayal and being a weak man. However, when Meliagrance pleads to her for mercy, Guenever wants to convince Lancelot not to harm him. She decides to stop being angry at Lancelot and to give in to his desire to love God instead of her. With Guenever's hostility gone Lancelot no longer needs to struggle to resist her. He therefore lowers his defenses, allowing himself to be vulnerable to Guenever. When he does this he lets himself feel his intense love for her and her love for him. In this way Guenever wins back her lover. The narrator says, "In truly yielding, she had won the battle by mistake."

White uses a similar dynamic with Guenever. While Elaine was alive, Guenever saw her as a rival for the love of Lancelot. As a result she hated Elaine and was jealous of her. However, when Elaine commits suicide, Guenever no longer needs to hate her because she no longer poses a threat. Guenever allows herself to be vulnerable and to pity Elaine. She feels a strong connection with her former rival. Both of them are women who offered their love to Lancelot only to have their love rejected.

In Part 3, Chapter 41, White uses a distinctive technique to depict Lancelot and Arthur. The author says he doesn't know what Lancelot was thinking when he was laying in the woods. Later White claims he's not sure why Arthur attacked Lancelot during a tournament. However, Lancelot and Arthur are fictional characters, and White can make them think whatever he wants. In using this method White makes Lancelot and Arthur seem like real, historical figures, rather than fictional characters. (Historians see no historical basis for either Lancelot or King Arthur. They are legendary heroes.)

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