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

Summary and Notes

The rest of Camelot is now middle-aged. Agravaine is 55 and a drunk; Mordred is ageless and cold. The two are standing looking at the falcons, some of which are quite exotic and expensive. The mood at the opening of this chapter is foreboding and even murderous. Mordred complains that the mews stink and they go to the gardens.

Mordred is compared physically to an owl; in the opening of the chapter in the description of the falcons, one owl is described as terrifying and homicidal. The parallel is clear.

Mordred has become a popular speaker, a revolutionary, and a “Cause;” next to him Arthur seems a relic. The race division in the Round Table and between Mordred and his father has become and issue - the emancipation of the Old Ones and the “tyranny” of the British has become a popular issue again in the interim between Books Three and Four.

Agravaine and Mordred are conspiring about some matter. Mordred malice and taste for revenge are stronger than Agravaine’s. Agravaine hates Lancelot, but beyond that he is just a bitter drunk.

Mordred tells Agravaine that he has a perfect right to topple the King of England because Arthur turned him adrift in a boat when he was a baby. The reader may be surprised to hear this, and can chalk it up to Morgause’s anti-British propaganda.

Agravaine cleverly points out that Mordred may have valid personal reasons for a vendetta against Arthur, but in order for a true takeover, there must be some sort of overarching political cause that will rally the masses. He suggests a scapegoat, such as the Jews, and perhaps a banner and some slogans that will get the common people excited about their cause.

This is a captivating opening to the chapter, because nowhere in the previous chapters have the themes of evil against Arthur’s Table been so contemporaneous - that is, this section smacks of the seeds of World War II, and the author is not trying to hide the comparisons.

Mordred reluctantly agrees with Agravaine’s assessment of the situation - Arthur’s attempted murder of Mordred and the subsequent hush-up are hardly reasons for a revolution. Mordred feels contempt against Agravaine for dismissing his reason for the cause. Agravaine begins to drink and Mordred watches him with distaste.

Agravaine brings up his hatred for Lancelot. This bitterness is left from when Lancelot unhorsed the Orkney brothers back at the beginning of Book Three. Agravaine still feels the sting, and hates the idolatry and saintliness that follow Lancelot. Then, in a pivotal moment, Agravaine muses about what would happen if someone were to accuse Lancelot and Guenever of having an affair to the King’s face in open court.

In turns out that King Arthur has successfully begun the last phase of his reformation - the judicial system. He has introduced the idea of an English Common Law, that is, that trial and an impartial jury rather than trial could settle disputes by combat. Mordred and Agravaine decide to take advantage of this system: if they are to accuse the Queen and her lover of treason, they will have to be put on trial - instead of fighting against Lancelot as Midor and Meliagrance did - and they will be found guilty. This will split the power between the King and the army, which is effectively represented by Lancelot, and will pave the way for a revolution led by Mordred.

The author then reviews the history between the British king and the Orkneys for the reader. It is important to understand that Mordred’s animosity towards the King has been fueled by a variety of factors: the rape of his grandmother Igraine by Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, years ago; the isolated and neglectful upbringing in the North with his vengeful mother Morgause; his own feelings of abandonment by Arthur; his own feelings of inadequacy as the youngest brother in a family of great knights.

The tragedy alluded to at the end of Book Two is beginning to fall in place immediately in this first chapter of Book Four. Arthur’s generosity and earnestness - schooled by Merlyn in Book One and brought to fruition by the invention of Right as Might in Book Two - is about to become his own worst enemy because of the sins of Book Three.

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