The conquered knights file into the palace, each stopping to kneel at Guenever’s feet—not at Arthur’s. All of the knights have been conquered by Sir Lancelot—“the courtly, the merciful, the ugly, the invincible.” Lancelot is widely known as the best knight in the world and is even more skilled than Tristram. Lancelot himself enters, and a hush falls over the palace.
Tristram is another widely known medieval figure, and his story parallels—and actually predates—that of Lancelot. Tristram was King Mark’s best knight but carried out an affair with his wife, Iseult. In calling Lancelot even more skilled than Tristram, the story emphasizes that Lancelot’s abilities are superhuman and a thing of legend while also foreshadowing his relationship with Guenever.
King Arthur breaks the silence, warmly greeting Lancelot. Avoiding eye contact with Guenever, Lancelot asks how things are going in the kingdom. Arthur quickly turns somber and admits that things are going poorly with the Round Table. He had originally created the Table as a way to combat violence and establish civilization, justice, and morality—but “in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood.” The knights have distorted the Table into a matter of “sportsmanship,” competing with one another over things like who can save the most virgins.
Here, King Arthur reveals how he can’t effectively control violence or justice—the Round Table was meant to quell violence (“might”) and establish justice (“right”) in its place, but Arthur’s idealism just couldn’t hold up in the real world.
King Arthur explains that the Orkney boys are particularly obsessed with seeing their knighthood as a game—Arthur thinks this is because they’re so desperate to win their mother Morgause’s attention and love. Lancelot brushes off King Arthur’s concerns and proudly declares that “The Round Table is the best thing that ever happened.” Arthur, who had been holding his head in his hands in defeat, looks up and catches Lancelot and Guenever “looking at each other with the wide pupils of madness.”
Lancelot and Guenever’s budding romance is a strong undercurrent in this chapter, and here Arthur witnesses it for himself. Lancelot’s love for Guenever is at odds with his love and respect for Arthur—Lancelot lauds Arthur’s Round Table as “the best thing that ever happened” and is quick to bolster his friend in a time of wavering confidence. Lancelot’s dilemma—wanting to live honorably and respect Arthur while pining after his wife—emphasizes that he is a deeply human character and not the perfect knight people assume him to be.