"We must breed up a new generation of chivalry for the future." (White 203) Throughout T.H. White's novel, The Once and Future King, King Arthur develops the concept of chivalry and wants to pass his beliefs and ideas onto others, for generations to come. The idea of chivalry presents a set of rules and values that the Knights of the Round Table must live by and uphold. The thread of chivalry can be traced throughout the course of the novel, from when Arthur first develops the idea as a young boy, to when the kingdom flourishes under the chivalric code, to its downfall towards the end of the novel. Even though it prospers in the beginning, the idea of chivalry fails because of the betrayal of Lancelot, the most chivalric knight of Arthur's reign, and the actions of the Orkney brothers, who are determined to cause Arthur's demise.
These rules, later on in the novel, play an important role in the downfall of chivalry and betrayal against the kingdom. In the beginning though, it took many lessons from the magician, Merlyn, to guide Arthur in the development of this chivalric system.
In The Sword in the Stone, the first book of The Once and Future King, King Arthur is just a boy, referred to then as Wart. As a child, Wart viewed fighting as the only way to solve problems and achieve his goals. " 'I like fighting,' said the Wart. 'It is knightly' ". (White 131) However, when his new tutor, Merlyn, arrives, Wart begins to develop a new outlook on life and learns several important lessons. These lessons help shape Wart's values and allow him to develop his idea of chivalry for his future kingdom. Most of all, Merlyn wants Wart to realize that, "instead of [M]ight making [R]ight, [M]ight should now stand up for [R]ight". (Cochran par. 2)
In one lesson, Merlyn transfigures the boy into an ant, hoping to change his views on fighting, and show that Might does not always make Right. After Wart encounters a sign outside of the ant colony stating, "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY", he realizes that the ants' way of life is harsh, and does not want to follow in their footsteps. (White 96) To show Wart how to live life peacefully, Merlyn allows the by to spend time with a flock of geese. When Wart asks one of the geese Lyo-lyok, if her flock ever fights against other geese, she responds, "[h]ow ridiculous!", and laughs at the idea of geese fighting one another. (White 130) This lesson begins to work its way into Wart's brain, as he begins to change his ways of thinking and develop his idea of chivalry.
At the end of the first book, Wart has pulled the sword, Excalibur, from the stone, making him the rightful King of England. With power now in his hands, Arthur, as he is now known, can put his ideas into motion and begin to change England for the better. As the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, begins, King Arthur summons his old tutor, Merlyn, into his chamber to discuss the topic of chivalry. " 'I have been thinking,' said Arthur, 'about Might and Right. I don't think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.' " (White 187) With this new mindset in place, the king begins to plan out the formation of the Round Table, in order to "harness Might so that it works for Right." (White 189)
Arthur wants his Table to stand for something, to show the nation that Might can be used for Right. "The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords (. . .) but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good" (White 189) The king wants his knights to be examples of chivalry, by being honorable, noble, and loyal to the throne. Many new knights join on and the ideas of chivalry and the Round Table begin to spread. But, with the rise of the Table, also comes the rise of the Orkney brothers, who throughout the novel, want nothing more than revenge on Arthur, whose father had killed their grandfather many years before.
In many regards, the Orkneys are the exact opposite of King Arthur. Instead of chivalry, they stand for revenge and wickedness due to their poor upbringing. In this book, the boys come up with a plan to slay a unicorn in the hopes of impressing their mother, Morgause. They even tie an innocent virgin, Meg, to a tree against her will to be live bait. At the last moment, three of the Orkney brothers, Gawaine, Gareth, and Gaheris decide against killing the unicorn. However, the other brother, Agravaine, kills the animal in a violent rage. After the fact, he even says, "I ought to have killed Meg too." (White 199) This action shows that the boys, especially Agravaine, stand for Might instead of Right, which goes against the beliefs of Arthur. A chivalrous man would never have spoke ill of a woman like that or treated her so poorly. Little by little, these boys will chip away at the foundation of Arthur's chivalric kingdom.
At the very end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, King Arthur makes a grave mistake that will cause him much grief throughout the remainder of the novel. Arthur was seduced by his own half-sister, Morgause, the mother of the Orkney brothers. This leads to the birth of Mordred, who, along with the Orkneys, despises the king. Together, the original Orkneys and Mordred will tear away at Arthur and his chivalric way of life.
By the third book, The Ill-Made Knight, a very important character, Lancelot, comes into the scene. This young boy possess all of the values of a great chivalric hero- "valor, generosity, loyalty, honor, and skill in battle". (Jokinen par. 12) He is the perfect symbol of what a chivalric man should be. Arthur himself personally asks Lancelot to join his Round Table, stating, "I want to have an Order of Chivalry, like the Order of the Garter, which goes about fighting against Might. Would you like to be one of those [knights] ?" (White 246) Lancelot agrees to join and becomes a favorite of Arthur's overtime, gaining his trust and respect. Many people even perceive Sir Lancelot to be "the greatest knight King Arthur had" (White 247) However, Lancelot would commit a grave sin against the king and the code of chivalry.
Over the course of this book, Lancelot comes to love King Arthur as a very dear friend and becomes jealous of anyone that is closer to the king than himself. The only person to be closer to Arthur than Lancelot was Guinevere, the king's own wife. The chivalrous Sir Lancelot comes to fall madly in love with Lady Guinevere. He tries to fight the attraction, but ultimately succumbs to it. This forbidden affair goes against the values of the chivalric code and commandants of courtly love, in that one must have "[l]oyalty to country, King, and the code of chivalry." (Marshall par. 4) This act of forbidden love shows that Sir Lancelot is not entirely loyal to King Arthur, as he goes behind the king's back and lusts for his wife. "Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair destroys chivalry and acts as the catalyst to the crumbling of the Round Table." (Pearsall qtd. in "Lancelot")
Also during the course of The Ill-Made Knight, many new men join the court, including the Orkneys and Mordred. Lancelot tries to warn Arthur about letting the Orkneys join and he especially has an "instinctive dislike for Mordred". (White 328) Lancelot's suspicion of the boys comes true, as Gareth rushes in revealing news that Agravaine has killed their mother, Morgause, after learning she slept with another man. It is also revealed that Agravaine, Mordred, and Gawaine chased down the man, Lamorak, and killed him as well. This news causes Arthur to begin to worry, saying, "I am afraid for my Table. I am afraid of what is going to happen. I am afraid it was all wrong." (White 330) As the story continues, Arthur's fears begin coming true.
By the fourth novel, The Candle in the Wind, the Orkney brothers have caught wind of this forbidden affair between the Queen and Sir Lancelot. They plan to reveal the affair to the king in the hopes of once and for all cracking his code of chivalry and his kingdom. Throughout the final book, evidence of the impending destruction and demise of Camelot and chivalry is prominent.
When Gareth sees King Arthur, who has now aged into an old man, he views him as "not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time-not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate." (White 422) The "teeth of fate" represent the impending doom that Arthur now sees in front of him. By this book, Arthur has finally come to realize that his vision of a chivalric kingdom cannot be upheld any longer. While Camelot was once was once a blossoming and fruitful kingdom, it has been infected with the evil of the Orkneys, mainly Mordred and Agravaine, and has seen witness to the betrayal of Lancelot behind the King's back.
As the novel comes to a close, the aged King Arthur begins thinking back over his life, remembering everything he tried to stand for and accomplish. "[W]hy had he failed to lead her [the country] into chivalry, into justice and into peace?" (White 494) The king brings a young page into his presence to tell him all about his story. Arthur tells the boy "the idea was that force ought to be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not on its own account. (. . .) [He] taught them [the knights] his idea, and set them down, at a Round Table. (. . .) For some reason, things went wrong. The Table split into factions, a bitter war began, and all were killed." (White 498) Despite Arthur's depressed tone, the young page, Tom, seems hopeful for the future, saying "[w]e shall win." (White 498) He promises to carry on the old king's ideas and beliefs, acting like a candle in the wind.
Tracing the idea of chivalry, one can see the many stages it took on throughout the novel. In the beginning, young Arthur had no idea of chivalry or justice, but was shown these ways from his wise tutor, Merlyn. For a time, Camelot prospered greatly under the King's rules and beliefs, as his chivalric knights rode across the country teaching their ways to all. However, in the end, Arthur's plan to uphold his chivalric nation faded away. His most chivalric knight of all, Lancelot, betrayed him, with an affair with the Queen. This act was seen by all throughout the kingdom and showed how even the most perfect knight of all could not live his life by the code of chivalry. The Orkney brothers stood in the way of Arthur's dream, killing others and doing harm all across the land. They fulfilled their goal of causing Arthur's demise. Together, the actions of the Orkneys and the betrayal of Lancelot brought about the fall of Arthur's chivalric ways. Despite all of these hardships, in the end "[t]he old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again." (White 500)