The myth of King Arthur has been recounted in many different texts—including Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Chrétien de Troyes' Four Arthurian Romances and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. In all these accounts, knights are depicted as heroic and highly chivalrous: knights are bound to the chivalric code and are portrayed as honorable, loyal noblemen. The chivalric code is a code of conduct associated with the medieval tradition of knighthood; the code entails following the ideals of honor, courtly love, courtesy, gallantry and service to others. However, in The Once and Future King, White systematically undermines the ideal of the chivalrous knight—both by satirizing the chivalric code and revealing its paradoxes and flaws.
The first way in which White undermines the notion of chivalry is through satirizing the knight and portraying him as a clown. The first Knight that Wart encounters in the text is King Pellinore; Wart, in his naivety, is awed by the figure of King Pellinore. However, White describes King Pellinore as a clumsy, idiotic figure on the quest for something that does not exist. Another component of knighthood is the quest—a journey for some ultimate goal that entails many challenges. Upon first meeting King Pellinore, Wart learns he has been pursuing the 'questing beast' for many years. However, as soon as Sir Grummore invites him to Camelot, King Pellinore immediately gives up this quest in return for a clean bed. King Pellinore's weak adherence to the challenge of questing illustrates the arbitrary nature of the values of knighthood—King Pellinore's quest is purposeless and his dedication to it lackluster.
Knighthood is governed by the chivalric code (which White pays a great deal of attention to), but also by a series of practices associated with medieval life—all of which White seeks to satirize. For example, early on in the text, King Pellinore and Sir Grummore challenge one another to a jousting match. White describes the pair as clumsy and idiotic—their armor is so heavy they are unable to canter with much speed, and when they are both dismounted they proceed to charge at each other using their bodies as weapons. Moreover, White describes their jousting tournament as though they were simply acting out a script; they consistently remind one another of the line they must say next. In this manner, White represents the so-called honor of jousting—and therefore honor in general—as simply a form of superficial rote learning, or the act of unthinkingly following a set of rigid rules.
If King Pellinore is one representation of knighthood and one way in which White undermines the ideal figure, then the character of Sir Lancelot is the other. It is through Lancelot's representation that White reveals the true flaw of the knighthood ideal: Knights must commit enormous acts of violence, but must also stay true to the code of honor and chivalry—something innately incompatible. In this manner, Lancelot is simultaneously supremely insecure about his honor, but commits huge acts of violence. His is an incongruous figure and reveals the paradox of the knightly ideal.
White's depiction of medieval life is a complex and evolving one: when Arthur first comes to the throne, the medieval England depicted is one very much in the dark ages—knights commit acts of violence unchecked, life is dark, harsh and illiterate. However, by the end of Arthur's rule, medieval England has altered radically: knights are bound to a different honor code where they can only commit acts of violence in the name of justice, men are educated, and life is far more enlightened. Although the medieval life depicted towards the end of Arthur's reign is arguably better, White still satirizes many of its ideals, such as its excesses and political intrigues.
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Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Quotes in The Once and Future King
The Wart was not a proper son. He did not understand this, but it made him feel unhappy, because Kay seemed to regard it as making him inferior in some way…Besides, he admired Kay and was a born follower. He was a hero-worshipper.
Before the clink there were just the beeches, but immediately afterward there was a knight in full armor, standing still and silent and unearthly, among the majestic trunks…All was moonlit, all silver, too beautiful to describe.
Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean and nearly everything in the world goes forward too…But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.
There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind's power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.
The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as a scabbard.
Gareth was a generous boy. He hated the idea of strength against weakness. It made his heart swell, as if he were going to suffocate. Gawaine, on the other hand, was angry because it had been against his family. He did not think it was wrong for strength to have its way, but only that it was intensely wrong for anything to succeed against his own clan.
What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armor, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like.
For one thing, he [Lancelot] liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented. One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes.
The effect of such an education was that he had grown up without any of the useful accomplishments for living—without malice, vanity, suspicion, cruelty, and the commoner forms of selfishness. Jealousy seemed to him the most ignoble forms of vices. He was sadly unfitting for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife.
"You see, Lance, I have to be absolutely just. I can't afford to have any more things like those babies on my conscience. The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice. Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends."