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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 36

Summary and Notes

The mood at Camelot changes for “the fourth time.” The author quickly reviews Books Two and Three: the youth and vigor of the beginning of Camelot, which changed to the “stale” rivalry of the Table, to third, the beauty of the Quest for the Grail, to finally a mature and sad place.

The sadness is caused by several factors. First, the best knights were killed in the Search for the Holy Grail. “If you achieve perfection, you die,” the author notes, which underscores the religious and Christian tenor of the table. Second, the knights who are left and “surly” and “angry:” Agravaine, Gawaine, Mordred, etc.

These bitter knights who were left from the Search for the Grail are preoccupied with Guenever’s infidelity and court gossip. The morals in this crowd are low - they are not faithful to their wives, nor, by extension, their kings, and besides, they are dandies, concerned with outrageous clothes and parties. This, white writes, is the beginning of the modern age: satirical and ironic without a trace of the innocence and idealism that marked the early Camelot days.

This society despises Guenever - they find her outdated and “barbarous;’ she is unfashionable and a nuisance. Arthur reacts in his usual way, by trying to be polite and plain; Guenever ungracefully by becoming more bold and painted.

The scorn the young heaps upon the old is a timeless theme, and nowhere is it more evident than in this chapter. The idolatry of early chapters, the legends of the three central characters has been forgotten. It is an old tale: the son needs to “kill” the father, to dismiss what has made him great in order to define himself and become his own individual. Mordred is doing this to Arthur in this chapter.

Guenever curries favor from the younger generation by pathetically throwing an extravagant dinner party. She hears a rumor that Gawaine is fond of fruit, and orders baskets of apples and pears for her guests in hopes of winning his respect.

Unfortunately, a distant member of the Pellinore clan - a knight named Sir Pinel - poisons the apples intended for Gawaine. This is a holdover, of course, from the Orkney/Pellinore feud, and despite a temporary lull in the fighting, there are still distant members of both clans who are bent on revenge.

Gawaine doesn’t eat the apples, though, but a young knight named Sir Patrick does a promptly dies. The dinner guests immediately suspect poor Guenever, and a knight named Sir Mador de la Porte accuses Guenever of treason.

In Arthur’s court, a modern system of justice was still being developed, so the appropriate “trial” at this time was a joust: the accuser (Sir Mador) versus a knight who would fight on the Queen’s behalf. Lancelot, of course, is away, so the Queen has to plead to Sir Bors to fight for her. Bors is a champion fighter, but a terrible misogynist, and like everyone else of that generation, he dislikes Guenever. He only reluctantly agrees.

The symbolism in this chapter in heavy: the doomed woman, the poisoned apple - both are not only ubiquitous in fairy tales but in the Garden of Eden. The author depicts Guenever as intensely sympathetic but her own worst enemy in her brazen need to be accepted by the younger generation.

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