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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 29

Summary and Notes

The next account is via Lionel, Lancelot’s cousin, who was introduced early in Book Three during the Turquine episode. Lionel has a brother named Bors, and he is angry with his brother.

Lionel criticizes Bors for being “too moral.” He apparently has only once made love to a woman, and he is a prig, and a “saint,” according to Lionel. Lionel tells Arthur that his own story amounts to nothing, but Bors’ is interesting and so he’ll relate that second hand to the court.

In contrast to many of the other knights, who did not take the spiritual aspect of the quest seriously enough, Bors immediately went to confession and began living purely, eating only bread and water. The immediate result was that he started having visions - different animals that represented aspects of theology. After the visions, he rescues a lady and has an opportunity to kill a knight, which he declines.

Bors told Lionel that he felt as though he were being put through trials; not killing the knight (Sir Pridam) was a test and he passed and was allowed to continue on his quest.

Bors’ next trial has to do with Lionel. Bad knights are persecuting both Lionel and a virgin lady, and Bors has to choose which one to save. Bors chooses the maiden, because he believes her to be purer than Lionel, who has sinned. Lionel is furious at being passed over by his own brother, and he tries to kill Bors. Apparently, though, this was the best decision for Bors, because he survives and is allowed to continue with the quest.


Bors’ third trial is a fascinating one, a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. A lady held captive in a castle tells him that she is cursed and that if Bors does not make love to her, she will die. Bors chooses to let her die. Then, the beautiful woman climbs to the top of her castle with twelve other fair ladies, and tells Bors that they will all commit suicide if he doesn’t relent.

Bors is torn, but refuses to sleep with the lady, and they all jump, turning into a collection of fiends - they fly off into the air and the castle implodes.

Arthur muses about the moral: you must not commit mortal sin, even if 12 lives are dependent on it. Both he and Lionel are unsure whether they understand the lesson correctly.

Bors’ fourth trial relates back to Lionel: Lionel searches him out to kill him. He finds his brother at a chapel and tells him that he is going to kill him. Bors tells him that he will not fight him back. Bors kneels and asks for mercy in the face of Lionel’s anger. As Lionel prepares to cut off his brother’s head, a hermit appears and lays himself across his brother’s body, pleading for Bors’ life. Lionel kills the defenseless hermit. Bors doesn’t react, but continues to plead for love and mercy, which muddles Lionel’s intentions - he doesn’t know what to make of this passive resistance.

A knight named Sir Colgrevance shows up to defend Bors, and Lionel kills him as well. Bors holds his shield over his head, but does not struggle. Suddenly, “God came,” Lionel tells Arthur, because Bors prayed, and his shield burns. The two brothers suddenly being to laugh filled with love, and they kiss and make up. At that point, Bors goes on with his quest and Lionel returns to court to tell his brother’s tale.

In this chapter, complex theological issues are brought up briefly. Is it ever right to kill? Is it ever right to commit a sin to save others? Is it ever right to fight back? Many of these ideas were anticipated far in the beginning of the novel (for example, Merlyn's pacifism and the Wart’s experience with the geese and ants); they are all burning moral imperatives for a British intellectual in the late 1930s. If ever a time seemed simultaneously right and wrong to fight, is must have been the eve of World War II against the monstrosities and tyrannies of Hitler; any learned person in those times must have been preoccupied with the question of whether violence is ever justified.

Furthermore, White recognizes the power of passive resistance and anticipates its use during the second half of the 20 th century as a sometimes substitute for warfare. Ghandi, King, and many other successful peace movements were dependent on passive resistance as a powerful negotiation tool. Bors is successful against his brother’s mindless violence by doing nothing, in effect, but pleading for love and mercy. Of Course, the mediating power of “God” cannot be discounted in this scene; it is clear that there is a divine plan at work through which only the best knights will be allowed to continue to search and the flawed will have to return to court.

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