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Even though both knights follow a code of honor and share many similarities, Arthur and Lancelot are vastly different in their values and characters. Lancelot strives to be the best knight he can be, but ends up committing more sins than he ever imagined, tainting his spiritual stability. Arthur is a noble and just king, but tends to lack the power to bring justice upon those he loves. In his book, The Once and Future King, T.H. White presents the reader with the very different lives of these two men and shows their actions in a way that allows the reader to formulate their own opinions about them. While both men display flaws in judgment and achieve great things, Lancelot is clearly the more flawed of the two.
The integrity and honor of a man is based on many aspects in life. One may look at the actions of a person to determine how they react in certain situations. Actions are not, however, the only things that contribute to a person's character. The way that person manages their friendships and keeps to their principles and moral standings shows the true nature of the person's character. While many people believe that Arthur and Lancelot are the most honorable men in Camelot, they have many of their own demons to face. Arthur is able to accomplish many positive things such as using might for right and staying loyal to his friends, even when they may not deserve it. Lancelot is truly one of the fiercest and strongest knights the world has ever seen, but tends to be a disloyal friend and dishonorable knight. It is very interesting to delve into the lives of these characters, and as we do, we see that they represent many characteristics still seen in all people today.
The childhoods of these two men reveal much when analyzing their characters. Arthur was fortunate enough to be brought up by a grand wizard named Merlin. Through magical journeys and metaphorical lessons, Arthur learned many things about friendship, leadership, and morality. Merlin would often transform the young Arthur, or Wart, into various animals in hopes that he would learn from nature itself how to rule a nation and live his life. He learned that it not only took strength and bravery to be successful, but he also needed to use his head and be strong in intelligence. Merlyn once told Arthur that "Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance." (32, Online Text) This was the foundation for a very knightly and honorable life. Some, such as Lancelot, however, were not so lucky in their childhood.
Lancelot did not have a mentor such as Merlyn. He was raised by his foster mother, The Lady of the Lake. His birth parents lost him while they were driven from their homeland. Without a true father figure, Lancelot had no man to look up to and try to be like. He was deprived of the vital life lessons that are necessary in becoming a man of sound judgment and reason. This idea of having no real role model could contribute to the future flaws seen in his character.
Having a good childhood did not completely absolve Arthur from the temptations of evil. Though he did learn much through his childhood, he also learned from his experiences as king. Many of the things he learned came from mistakes. One of Arthur's biggest faults was in being seduced by his half-sister, Morgause. In order to kill the child they have, Arthur sends all of the children in England of a certain age out on a boat to be killed. He does this for the supposed good of the people and claims, "I wanted to destroy Mordred for his own sake" (417, Online text). Arthur didn't want his son to be raised as a mistake between he and his half-sister. This was one decision which his country's citizens frowned upon.
Arthur's intense devotion and loyalty those he loves becomes evident when he discovers the way he was betrayed by his wife Guenever and Lancelot. Even when he knows his best friend is sleeping with his wife, he has the decency to warn them of upcoming danger. He tells them, "Mordred is an unhappy young man, and I am afraid he might try any means of giving me an upset. If, for instance, he could see a way of getting at me through you, dear, or through Gwen, I am sure he would try it. Do you see what I mean?" (419, Online Text). We see here that Arthur is noble enough to warn his friend of a trap, even after being betrayed in such an awful way. This shows that Arthur values friendship more than anything else. This is a quality of a good king and a good man.
Arthur also shows many good leadership qualities that tend to outweigh his mistakes. He is a just leader who stresses the technique of using might for right, which was necessary for Camelot to evolve. The times are described, "When the old King has came to his throne it has been an England of armored barons, and of famine, and of war" (402). King Arthur's efforts were to change society in a way that would benefit all. His intentions were to emphasize a code of chivalry and knighthood in which all who sat around the Round Table should abide by. He was able to stop the mayhem in which knights had more freedoms than anyone else, killing and raping whomever they wanted with no consequences. These all contribute to the common belief of Arthur being one of the best leaders of all time. Some of his followers, however, couldn't help but to disobey these ideas and lead a life of sin and betrayal.
Arthur shows himself to be increasingly respectable through the book. The one time when Arthur goes against his loyalty to his friend, it is because he has given him too many chances before and now must uphold justice. When the bishop of Rochester decides to make Lance walk back to France to be banished from England, Arthur goes with Gawaine instead. One day back at the castle a maid asks why King Arthur has gone with Gawaine and Guenever explains, "I think the King goes with Sir Gawaine because he is trying to be just. He thinks that the Orkneys have a right to demand justice for Gareth's death-and I suppose they have" (471, Online Text). This could be seen as disloyal to Lancelot but he is trying to keep the order that he has been fighting for his whole life. Arthurs resoning for going against Lancelot is just; Lancelot killed two unarmed men, breaking the chivalric code. If he did not pursue justice here then all the steps he has taken to create a justice system would have been meaningless. Every action that Arthur takes tends to have much thought and reason behind it.
Lancelot was supposedly Arthur's best knight. He was the strongest and most skilled knight in Arthur's court, able to defeat any man who opposed him. For this, many people looked up to him and saw him as a hero. What the majority of people did not see was his unfaithfulness to his King. After sleeping with Elaine, who he thinks is Guenever, Lancelot rushes to Guenever to sleep with her for what he thinks to be a second time. He thinks "He has slept with Guenever already in deceit, already had been cheated of his tenfold might. He was a lie now, in God's eyes as he saw them, so he felt that he might as well be a lie in earnest" (293, Online Text). Even though Lancelot knows the punishment of treason is beheading, he still decides to move upon his impulses. After Lancelot sleeps with Elaine he rushes to sleep with Guenever because he knows he cannot be a pure knight anymore. He is not even concerned with the fact that Guenever is his king's and best friend's wife.
Another one of Lancelot's flaws is his ignorance of danger. Even though he is forewarned about the trap set by Mordred to catch him sleeping with Guenever, he decides to go to her room anyways. Lancelot talks to Guenever about Arthur saying, "But he doesn't want to have things upset. He would never catch us unless he was made to" (541). Lancelot's ignorance leads to Mordred and Agravaine trapping him in her room, thus letting the kingdom know of his treason. Lancelot takes advantage of Arthur's kindness and abuses it to the point where he should be killed. Lancelot's poor decisions and attitude finally catch up to him in the end.
The two are eventually caught in the act of cheating. He escapes for a while though, and during his process of rescuing Guenever from being burned at the stake, he kills two unarmed men. This greatly breaks the knightly code that Lancelot had sworn to. When there is a question about what happened, Gawaine comes into the chamber announcing, "It is true! It is true! I found a man wha' saw it done. Poor Gaheris and our wee brother Gareth-he has killed them both, unarmed" (454, Online Text). This breaks the hearts of all who hear it. The one aspect of purity that Lancelot had kept up until this point was not to kill unarmed men. With this last sin, Lancelot seals his fate of being known as a narcissistic murderer throughout the land.
In the end, we see that Arthur is able to accomplish many positive things such as using might for right and staying loyal to his friends. As an inexperienced leader, he does make some mistakes, but through these errors, he is able to become a more able leader. His main goal is to improve his kingdom and remain loyal to those he loves. Lancelot shows many more flaws as a disloyal man whose only loyalty is to himself. He is a more flawed man because in the end, he cannot get his priorities straight. He goes from being the land's most feared and respected knight to a man that betrayed his best friend, and in doing so, betrayed his entire nation. We can learn a lot from both of these characters, in the importance of morals, how to govern, even how to live our own lives, or rather how not to.