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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 8

Summary and Notes

One week later, the remaining Orkney brothers sit in the great hall to watch Guenever’s execution from the window. She will be burned to death. All but Mordred and saddened by the necessity of the event. Mordred callously remarks that it is law that Arthur must personally watch the execution in order for it to be valid.

The brothers argue with Mordred, and accuse him of cowardice. They retell the remainder of the previous chapter: Lancelot had killed all of the knights who were breaking into the chamber, but somehow Mordred escaped with only a broken arm. The brothers infer rightly that Mordred ran away because he was frightened of fighting Lancelot, and they are right. Mordred, weeping, tries to defend himself against the accusations.

Arthur enters on this scene, and sooths Mordred. It is quite unbelievable that Arthur has any residual tenderness for his son, especially considering that Guenever is about to be burned at the stake, but White wishes to underscore again Arthur’s extreme generosity as a human.

Mordred tells the King that his brothers should go defend the Queen against Lancelot’s inevitable rescue attempt. Gawaine refuses; he doesn’t care about justice, he tells the king; he is fond of the Queen and hopes she is rescued. Gareth and Gaheris reluctantly agree to fight for the king against Lancelot, and sorrowfully leave.


Mordred also leaves the room to tell the executioner to begin with the burning. Gawaine and Arthur sit alone together, sad and nostalgic, and talk together about days past. Arthur asks Gawaine if it is ever possible to undo to effects of a bad action, and whether he should have ignored justice in this case to save his wife; he is intensely morbid and depressed, and Gawaine, while fully sympathetic, cannot sooth the old king.

Because law demands it, Arthur watches the execution from the window. Lancelot, of course, comes in the nick of time to rescue here, and the reader learns of the dramatic scene through Arthur and Gawaine’s narration from the window. The two are ecstatic as they watch Lancelot kills men by the dozens in an effort to get to the Queen; he succeeds and rides off with her on his horse, and Arthur and Gawaine celebrate.

In the midst of the revelry, Mordred enters in a furious daze; he has bad news. Gaheris and Gareth have been killed in the melee below; both were unarmed and Lancelot himself slaughtered them. Mordred does not seem as upset by his brothers’ deaths as by this insurmountable evidence that Lancelot is a beast who deserved the worst kind of vengeance. Gawaine’s reaction is total: he moves from glee to shocked wrath in a few lines, and sobs like a child at the news of his brothers’ deaths.

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