The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 4, Chapters 4–6 : The Candle in the Wind | Summary

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Summary

Part 4, Chapter 4

Sitting in a tower by a window, Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever sing a song. After they finish, Lancelot says he and Guenever should be honest with Arthur about their affair. He would like to take Guenever to his castle, where they would live out the rest of their days. Guenever refuses to do this, saying it would lead to war between Lancelot and Arthur. Guenever is fond of Arthur and has promised to stay with him.

Arthur enters and wants to talk to both of them. Arthur relates how he unknowingly slept with his half-sister Morgause, which resulted in a son, Mordred. Many people warned Arthur, who was 19 at the time, about Mordred bringing great sorrow on the king. Afraid of this, Arthur had the baby Mordred and other infants born around the same time placed on a ship and sent adrift in the hope his son would die. However, the ship was wrecked on an island. Many babies died, but Mordred survived. He was given back to his mother, who convinced her son of Arthur's wickedness. When the adult Mordred arrived at court, Arthur was filled with remorse, so he welcomed him and since then has treated him kindly. However, Arthur knows Mordred wants revenge and will use anything to get it. Arthur warns Lancelot and Guenever to be careful and not give Mordred a handle to use. As king, Arthur says he would be willing to execute people he loves if his justice system required it.

Part 4, Chapter 5

In the Justice Room at Camelot, Gawaine, Gareth, and Gaheris try to convince Agravaine and Mordred not to confront Arthur about Lancelot and Guenever's affair. Agravaine and Mordred, however, refuse to listen. Arthur arrives, and Gawaine, Gareth, and Gaheris kneel before him. They want no part of what their brothers are about to do. The threesome then leaves. Mordred tells Arthur that the queen and Lancelot are openly having an affair. Arthur wonders if Mordred and Agravaine are willing to defend this accusation through trial by combat. Agravaine says they want to prosecute the case in the law courts. If the accusation is proven, Arthur says he will have to execute Lancelot and Guenever. However, if the accusation fails to be proven, Arthur will execute Agravaine and banish Mordred. Agravaine and Mordred willingly accept these terms. Agravaine explains that they plan to catch Lancelot in Guenever's room while Arthur is on a hunting trip.

Part 4, Chapter 6

In Lancelot's room Gareth arrives to warn Lancelot about Mordred and Agravaine setting a trap for him. Lancelot dismisses it as nonsense. Gareth says Arthur left on a hunting trip to give Mordred and Agravaine a chance to catch Lancelot with Guenever. Lancelot doesn't believe Arthur would do this, but he says he'll handle whatever happens. Lancelot hears a scratching sound at the door—a signal that Guenever wants to see him. He and Gareth leave the room, but Lancelot forgets his sword.

Analysis

In Part 4, Chapter 4, White casts a mood of reflective sadness to explore how age has affected Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur, and, in the process, comments on the theme of perfection versus fallibility. All three characters seem to have accepted their fallibility as a part of who they are and have learned to smooth over the rough edges. For instance, when Guenever and Lancelot quarrel, she does not throw him out in a huff as she would have when she was younger but instead tries to smooth the situation over. She knows her anger has caused problems in the past and she now curbs her impetuousness. Lancelot is able to ease the pain of not having Guenever for himself. Arthur accepts the imperfections of the two people he loves most, Lancelot and Guenever, knowing how imperfect he is himself. He allows them to continue their affair and treats them both with kindness. Arthur knows all people have strengths and weaknesses. Even though Mordred is plotting against the king, Arthur refuses to let Lancelot and Guenever vilify his son. He acknowledges the hardships with which Mordred has had to deal, being raised by Morgause and having his father try to kill him. Indeed Arthur sees many of his own qualities in Mordred, including ambition, honor, courage, and loyalty.

Lancelot and Guenever show their acceptance of fallibility by their reaction to Arthur's confession about trying to kill the infant Mordred. They realize Arthur made this decision when he was young, and they accept his humanity because they are fully aware of their own humanity. Arthur is surprised by their compassion, saying, "You would not call me a wicked man?" Guenever replies, "Of course not."

White conveys the folly of war in Part 4, Chapter 5, through the accusation of Mordred and Agravaine. Mordred wants revenge on the king; Agravaine wants revenge on Lancelot. Starting a war for personal vendettas is despicable. However, when Mordred makes the accusation to Arthur, he does so with an air of lofty nobility, as if he is one of the few who is willing to stand up to the truth. Mordred probably has convinced himself that he acts nobly. Although he admits he wants revenge on his father, he firmly believes he is bringing down a contemptible, hypocritical tyrant and is standing up for the right. Instigators of wars often couch their selfish motives in idealistic terms.

At the end of Part 4, Chapter 6, White uses situational irony with Gareth and Lancelot. Situational irony occurs when something happens that has the opposite effect of what is expected. Gareth has come to warn Lancelot and thus to protect him. However, in the process, he distracts Lancelot, causing him to forget his sword. As a result Gareth's warning has the opposite effect of the one he intended; he has caused Lancelot to be in more danger, not less.

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