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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 4

Summary and Notes

Lancelot and Guenever are still gazing out the window and singing to each other, but rather than describing the scene below, the author turns within to describe the lovers and how they are in old age.

The two are happy, in the pure, peaceful way of old people, and there is a touch of foreboding in their peace. Lancelot asks the Queenís permission to visit her that night, and she denies him, because Arthur is home. Lancelot does not understand, and Guenever explains that that if Arthur catches them in the act, he will have to kill them. She is not exactly right, but this statement serves as effective foreshadowing, and demonstrates the Queenís understanding of their predicament.

Lancelot reacts with jealousy and disbelief, but the two do not quarrel. Instead, Guenever articulates her discomfort about deceiving Arthur, and the two commiserate in their mutual love for Arthur and their sorrow at cuckolding him for so long.

It may be unbelievable to the reader that these two characters should persist in this conversation after thirty or forty years of infidelity but this is just a device: Arthur is eavesdropping accidentally, and this conversation only exists to make it clear to the King - as if he did not know - that his wife and best friends and lovers.

Arthur, embarrassed at the evidence, sends a page in to break up the loversí conversation; then he enters the room. The Queen and her knight are still surprised; although they do not know that he has overheard them, they are still ashamed that they have been caught talking in a room together.

The tension is quickly broken as the three friends joke with each other. The reader will again notice Arthurís extreme kindness and generosity - he does not want his wife and his friend to feel uncomfortable, and he eases their nerves by discussing mundane and humorous matters initially.Soon, however, his tone changes, for he is worried. He is suddenly deadly serious, and he begins to discuss his familial background with his two friends. This section is an effective review of the Orkney feud for the reader, for Arthur describes the conflict between his father Uther and the Earl of Cornwall, and then between Morgause and himself. With Lancelot and Guenever listening avidly, Arthur describes then Morgauseís seduction and trickery, Mordredís conception, and then his decision to kill Mordred. This will be a tremendous surprise for the reader. Mordred had mentioned in earlier chapters that Arthur attempted to drown him, but chalked it up at that point to some propaganda of Morgauseís. Not only is this true, but the young Arthur, when he discovered that Morgause had given birth to a boy, decreed that all infants of that year should be put on a boat and sent to sea to die.

This decree is, of course, a wild abuse of kingly power, and horrific in its scale and manner besides. The reader has followed Arthur from his boyhood through his old age, and that this incredible crime was withheld from the readerís knowledge until the last 50 pages of the book is shocking. It should give the reader pause, and allow him to reconsider the character of the king and the validity of Mordredís wrath.


Lancelot and Guenever, as generous souls, react with sympathy and support. They both understand all too well the nature of sin, and may be privately relieved to understand that the King has sinned grievously too. However, the King has carried this terrible burden of his sin for the last forty years, and is sharing it with his friends for a reason.

Mordred, of course, did not die, but was saved ďby God,Ē and sprung on the King later. Mordredís persistence in living not only echoes Arthurís own birth (and Merlynís saving him), but alludes to great literary characters such as Moses, Perseus, and Oedipus. Mordredís desire to avenge his birth (and supposed death) assumes Greek proportions here.

The King explains to his friends that because of this terrible sin Mordred wants to kill him. Lancelot suggests that the King simply execute Mordred, and Arthur responds sternly. Arthur explains that one sin is enough on his conscience, and that he must, as the king rule with complete and pristine justice. He cannot simply execute anyone at will, but especially not his own son.

Arthurís tone becomes quite grave, and he explains to Lancelot and Guenever that Mordred should never be given any reason to destroy the King. This is a direct warning to Lancelot and Guenever, because Mordred can use their treason and leverage against Arthur. Whether or not the Queen and the knight understand the veiled warning, the reader will see in coming chapters. For now it is important to see Arthur as old, repetent, and completely aware of the situation at hand.

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