The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 4, Chapters 7–9 : The Candle in the Wind | Summary

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Summary

Part 4, Chapter 7

Sir Lancelot comes to Queen Guenever's room. He lovingly brushes her hair as they talk about the legendary lovers Tristam and Iseult. As Lancelot relates the warning he received from Gareth, Guenever has a sense of foreboding. She suspects Mordred and Agravaine used Arthur's sense of justice to convince him to leave on a hunting trip, thereby allowing Guenever and Lancelot to be trapped. Suddenly they hear pounding on the door and the sound of men's voices yelling. Mordred shouts orders for Lancelot to surrender. Without his sword or armor, Lancelot is defenseless. He briefly opens the door, allowing a knight to plunge into the room, and then quickly shuts and bolts the door. Lancelot easily kills the knight and takes off his helmet. The knight is Agravaine. Guenever helps to dress Lancelot in Agravaine's armor. Armed with Agravaine's sword, Lancelot opens the door, revealing numerous knights holding torches.

Part 4, Chapter 8

In the Justice Room, Mordred, Gawain, Gareth, and Gaheris wait for the execution of Guenever. The site where she is to be burned at the stake can be seen from the window. Arthur must watch the execution from this window in order for it to be legal. Gawaine claims Lancelot will rescue Guenever, which upsets Mordred. When Arthur arrives, Mordred insists the king increase the guard. Wanting to uphold justice, Arthur asks Gareth and Gaheris to join the guard. They hesitate because Lancelot is their friend, but they agree, provided they wear no armor and remain unarmed. Arthur accepts these terms. Mordred leaves with Gareth and Gaheris for the execution site.

Gawaine and Arthur look out the window and see the procession leading Guenever to the stake. Arthur feels torn between wanting to uphold justice and wanting to rescue the queen. Finally Lancelot and his knights arrive and, after a fierce melee, rescue Guenever. Arthur and Gawaine are ecstatic. However, Mordred enters and says Gareth and Gaheris have been killed. Arthur insists Lancelot would not have killed them because they were unarmed. Gawaine rushes away to find his brothers. Soon he returns with a mortified expression. Witnesses saw Lancelot slay Gareth and Gaheris.

Part 4, Chapter 9

In Joyous Gard, Lancelot's castle, Lancelot and Guenever stand before a fireplace and consider their plight. The castle is now surrounded by Arthur's and Gawaine's troops. Lancelot claims he killed Gareth and Gaheris by accident. Gawaine and Mordred, though, refuse to believe him. Lancelot doesn't want to kill Arthur or Gawaine, but feels he should support his soldiers. Arthur doesn't want war, either. Lancelot says he and Guenever would give themselves up if he thought it would stop the fighting, but he knows it wouldn't. Guenever gets the idea of appealing to the pope to stop the war, and they agree to send messengers to him tomorrow.

Analysis

In Part 4, Chapters 7 to 9, White examines the theme of might versus right in two ways. First the author shows how Arthur has become trapped by his own creation. For decades Arthur has striven to eliminate the rule of might-is-right with something more just. He ends up establishing a legal system in which disputes are not decided by might but rather by the rule of law. As king, Arthur must uphold this system of justice. Because of this, as with the quest for the Holy Grail, he becomes trapped by his own efforts to do good. He must see that justice is done concerning Lancelot and Guenever even though doing so tears his soul apart.

Next White emphasizes how trying to do what is right creates complex, contradictory situations. Technically Mordred is in the right: Lancelot and Guenever have committed treachery by having a love affair, and the letter of the law justifies their prosecution. However, Mordred is motivated by his hatred of Arthur, causing him to want to destroy everything his father has established. Although Mordred uses Arthur's legal system to his advantage, he really wants to abolish it. Such motivation can be seen as evil. Lancelot and Guenever are the two most loyal subjects of the king. Arthur has no stronger supporter of his ideals than these two people. They are basically good and strong leaders. White, thus, questions what is good and evil and shows how the two can be mingled. Lancelot and Guenever are good people who have done a technically bad act. Mordred is a despicable person who technically is doing a good act by seeking justice. Readers root for Lancelot and Guenever even though they have broken the law. For example, when the knights come to arrest Lancelot and Guenever, readers want Lancelot to escape even though the knights are carrying out justice.

In the middle of this moral quandary is Arthur. He is torn between his love for Lancelot and Guenever and his desire to be just. At one point he cries, "What is right? What is wrong?" Even though Arthur is ecstatic that Lancelot has rescued Guenever, he still wages war against the knight. Indeed, during a battle, tears of sadness fill Arthur's eyes because he is fighting against the two people he loves the most.

White examines the folly of war through the conflict between Lancelot and Arthur. Neither man wishes harm to the other, but they still send troops into battle against each other. White depicts Lancelot and Arthur as controlled by forces beyond them. Lancelot rightly points out that even if he and Guenever surrendered, the war would continue. His relatives, including Bors and Lionel, would want to continue the feud, as would people on Arthur's side. The treachery of Lancelot and Guenever is just an excuse for war. According to White, war does not solve problems; it just leads to more war. Violent acts beget to more violent acts.

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