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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 5

Summary and Notes

The author repeats that King Arthur’s main desire in his waning years is to revamp the justice system in England. Whereas the previous method of settling disputes was generally trial by combat (as evidenced by the Lancelot and Meliagrance duel), Arthur would like a trial by jury - something on the order of English Common Law.

With that in mind, the Orkney brothers summon Arthur to a meeting. The brothers are still arguing before Arthur arrives in the great hall at the appointed time. Agravaine and Mordred intend to accuse Guenever of infidelity publicly and first in front of Arthur. Agravaine makes it clear that his anger is directed at Lancelot, not at Guenever, for saving him so many years ago, and thus, presumably, ruining his honor. Mordred, of course, has a private vendetta against Arthur himself. The other three brothers vehemently disagree with the anger and vengeance; Gareth calls Lancelot “the greatest man I know.” When Arthur enters, Gawaine, Gaheris and Gareth excuse themselves and tell Arthur they want no part of what Mordred and Agravaine are about to say.

Arthur sits humbly, and, as he knows what is about to happen, submits his will in a Christ-like manner. Mordred makes his accusation, and Arthur reminds him that he will need to defend that accusation against Sir Lancelot. The King furthermore reminds Mordred of what happened to the last two people who accused the knight of infidelity - they were killed without compunction.


Mordred has planned for this, and he and Agravaine retort that they would like to use the King’s new reforms to settle the matter - they would like a Trial by Jury to decide whether Guenever has been unfaithful. They are triumphant in this coup de grace, and Arthur is visibly shaken and upset to have his own goodness used against him and those he loves most.

The old King collects himself and tells Mordred that it is all well and good to have a trial by jury, but that he shall need evidence. Mordred explains that the next time the King is out of town, Lancelot will go to Guenever’s chamber, and Mordred and a band of guards will catch them in the act. Mordred warns Arthur that the King cannot interfere in the manner in anyway, as that would constitute an abuse of his kingly power; Arthur therefore cannot postpone going out of town or warn his wife and Lancelot.

Arthur ends the meeting by telling Mordred and Agravaine with dignity that he hopes that Lancelot and Guenever will persevere, and that if they do, he shall pursue vengeance against his son and nephew with all of his power.

The Greek tragic influence is strongly evident in this chapter: Arthur cannot escape his fate, his demise at the hand of his son; he sits, mutely, and with great dignity and helplessness as the plot has its way with him. He assumes the stature of any number of classical and Biblical heroes in this chapter. The reader may take this time to review the unraveling of events that were put into motion in Book Two.

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