The Code of Chivalry in The Once and Future King
T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King presents a code of chivalry that outlines the expected knightly behavior of the time. This particular code stresses loyalty to one’s liege, love and respect toward women, and absolute devotion to justice. At the height of Arthur’s kingdom, this code was widely accepted by all. However, as Arthur’s kingdom begins to decline, the code of chivalry begins to hold less importance among the people. The fall of Arthur’s kingdom is directly related to the absence of the code of chivalry in the behavior of the Knights of the Round Table. Sir Lancelot betrays Arthur when he has an adulteress affair with Guenever. Sir Lancelot also disrespects women when he leaves Elaine to be with Guenever in Camelot. King Arthur himself is disloyal to justice when he allows Guenever to be rescued by Lancelot.
The love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever is a constant theme throughout every account of the Arthurian legend. Geoffrey Ashe’s The Arthurian Handbook states that “We may say that these knights are expected to serve their King…”(81). The revelation of the affair finally comes when Sir Agravaine shouts, “‘Traitor Knight! Sir Lancelot, now art thou taken'”(White 569). Lancelot was summoned to Queen Guenever’s bedroom, and Sir Agravaine is finally exposing the affair and gaining revenge on Lancelot for unhorsing him many times in the past. The two people that Arthur trusts most are Guenever and Lancelot. Arthur is well aware of the affair between the two, but chooses to pretend that nothing is going on. Due to this naivety, Arthur earns the disrespect (and even hatred) of Agravaine and Mordred, who eventual…
…misuse of justice make way for Mordred and his ideas to take root in Camelot. All of these actions eventually lead to Arthur chasing Lancelot and waging war upon him, while Mordred takes over in Camelot. This symbolizes that there is no middle ground between good (Arthur) and evil (Mordred). As good dissipates, evil always grows stronger. However, the same goes for evil dissipating and good rising to power. Given the time period in which T.H. White wrote (post World War II), White is speaking of the downfall of Hitler and the rise of a new order in Europe.
Ashe, Geoffrey. The Arthurian Handbook. New York, USA: Garland Publishing, 1988
Morris, Rosemary. The Character of King Arthur in Medieval Literature. Cambridge:
Brewer Publishing Co., 1982
White, T.H.. The Once and Future King. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1987