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The protagonist of this novel is quite obviously Arthur, the King of England. His central struggle is to overcome the apparent human necessity for violence and war and to establish a permanent peace throughout the realm. In order to do this, he must either combat or reform the earlier orders of knighthood, long-lasting feuds between various factions in the kingdom, an antiquated system of justice, idleness among his knights, a dearth of spirituality among the populace, an illicit affair between his best friend and his wife, and finally, his own son.
Due to the length of the novel, there are countless antagonists. The most encompassing is the prevalence of war, thus defining the conflict as human versus society. Arthur ultimately loses his fight for peace because of many forces.
In the first book, Merlyn is a friendly antagonist in that he directs the action of the novel by defining Arthur’s education. He turns Arthur into the various beasts who teach him how to be king, therefore he sets the plot in motion throughout the first section of the novel.
Mordred, and his mother Morgause (Arthur’s half-sister) are the clear antagonists of the second half of the novel as their actions, and the ancient vendettas underlying them, directly cause Arthur’s downfall.
Guenever and Lancelot are lesser antagonists in that none of their actions, not even their affair cause Arthur to act in any meaningful way throughout the novel. He chooses to ignore their affair. They are meaningful in that Mordred is able to use their affair to gain a foothold against Arthur by forcing him to use his system of justice against them and ultimately against himself.
Again, because of the length and extensive time-span of the novel, it is more useful to define multiple climaxes book by book.
In the first book, it is of course, when Arthur becomes King of England by pulling the sword out of the stone. All of his education and experiences in Book One are leading to the moment, and the author wisely slows down the action of the novel dramatically to emphasize this moment’s significance.
In the second book, there is no clear climax because this book is short and not replete with meaningful action. Morgause’s seduction of Arthur in the last chapter, although it is “offscreen” is shocking and important enough that it could qualify as a climax. This action paves the way for the tragedy unfolding in the rest of the novel.
Next, Book Three is so dense with interwoven plots that there are arguably several climaxes, but there is one that stands out. Book Three is primarily concerned with Lancelot and Guenever as characters, and in particular with Lancelot’s spiritual journey (the book is even titled The Ill-made Knight). Therefore, it is useful to consider Book Three as Lancelot’s plot as a man and even as a Christ figure. He is allowed to perform two miracles: saving Elaine at the Castle Corbin, and curing Sir Urre at the end of the book. For Lancelot, his pivotal moment as a pilgrim, is being allowed to see the Holy Grail, even though he is not pure enough to enter the chapel where it is held. This dramatically changes his view of himself as a servant of God and King, and, most importantly his relationship with Guenever.
Book Four contains the climax for the entire novel as well. The point of highest action, the moment when all of the contradictory forces come together is when Agravaine and Mordred invade Guenever’s chamber and find Lancelot there. It is at this moment when the reader understands that Arthur’s dream of a peaceful realm will be ruined by forces outside his control, namely, the love between his wife and best friend and the Orkney vendetta against the British king. This action solidifies the tragic nature of the novel and ensures Arthur’s demise as a king despite his every good intention.
The outcome of the novel is tragic, yet optimistic. It is tragic in a very Greek sense in that Arthur is battling his own fate and cannot possibly persevere against forces outside his control. He dies a broken and isolated king: love and innocence in his sin, Merlyn’s wisdom and power, and his fiercely noble reign have not been enough to save him. He dies surrounded by the bodies of friends and betrayed by nearly everyone he has loved.
However, his interaction with Tom of Warwick, the young page, is optimistic. The boy is called a “light” and “a candle” by Arthur; despite Arthur’s grim end and the tragedy of his fate, the reader is assured that Tom will tell Arthur’s tale to the world, and give those in dark times a hope for peace and justice. The very fact that the reader is reading this novel is proof enough of Tom’s success: war is not a given, the light and the good are a constant, and in the reader can hope for peace.