Lancelot, having been denied the Grail, returns to court at Camelot:
Arthur said: “Are you rested now? How are you feeling?”
“We are so glad to see you,” said Guenever, “so glad to have you back.”
They, on their side, saw a man of serenity—the kind of sage that Kipling described in Kim. They saw their new Lancelot as a silence and perception. He had come from the height of his spirit.
Lancelot said: “I’m quite rested now, thank you. I expect you want to know about the Grail.”
The King said: “It has been selfish of me, I’m afraid. I have kept everybody out. We will have it written down and put in almeries at Salisbury. But we did want to hear it from you first, Lance, without interruptions.”
“Are you sure you won’t be too tired to tell?”
Lancelot smiled and took their hands. “There isn’t much to tell,” he said. “After all, I didn’t find the Grail myself.”
“Sit down and break your fast. You can talk when you have eaten. You are much thinner.”
“Would you like a glass of hippocras, or some perry?”
“I am not drinking at present,” he said, “thank you.”
While he was eating, the King and Queen sat on either side and watched. Before he knew that he wanted the salt— just as his fingers were beginning to reach for it—they handed it to him. He laughed at their serious faces, which made him feel uncomfortable, and pretended to asperge Arthur with his cup of water to make them smile.
“Do you want a relic?” he asked. “You could have my boots if you like. They are quite worn out.”
“Lancelot, it is not a thing to joke about. I believe you have seen the Holy Grail yourself.”
“Even if I have seen it, I don’t need to be handed the salt.”
But they still looked at him.
Lancelot said: “Please understand. It is Galahad and the others who were allowed the Grail. I was not allowed it. So it will be wrong and you will hurt me, if you make a fuss about it. How many of the knights got back?”
“Half,” said Arthur. “We have heard their stories.”
“I expect you know more about it than I do.”
“We only know that the homicides and those who didn’t confess were turned back; and you say that Galahad, Bors, and Percivale were allowed. I am told that Galahad and Percivale were virgins; and Bors, although he was not quite a virgin, turned out to be a first-class theologian. I suppose Bors passed for his dogma, and Percivale for his innocence. I know hardly anything about Galahad, except that everybody dislikes him.”
“They complain about his being inhuman.”
Lancelot considered his cup. “He is inhuman,” he said at last. “But why should he be human? Are angels supposed to be human?”
“I don’t quite follow.”
“Do you think that if the Archangel Michael were to come here this minute, he would say: ‘What charming weather we are having today! Won’t you have a glass of whisky?'”
“I suppose not.”
“Arthur, you mustn’t feel that I am rude when I say this. You must remember that I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea. Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt I was going mad? Not from the sea, but from the people. All my gains are slipping away, with the people round me. A lot of the things which you and Jenny say, even, seem to me to be needless: strange noises: empty. You know what I mean. ‘How are you?’—’Do sit down.’—’What nice weather we are having!’ What does it matter? People talk far too much. Where I have been, and where Galahad is, it is a waste of time to have ‘manners.’ Manners are only needed between people, to keep their empty affairs in working order. Manners makyth man, you know, not God. So you can understand how Galahad may have seemed inhuman, and mannerless, and so on, to the people who were buzzing and clacking about him. He was far away in his spirit, living on desert islands, in silence, with eternity.”
“Please don’t think me rude to say these things. I am trying to explain a feeling. If you had ever been to Patrick’s Purgatory, you would know what I mean. People seem ridiculous when you come out.”
“I see exactly. I understand about Galahad too.”
“He was a lovely person really. I spent a long time in a boat with him, and I know. But this did not mean that we always had to be offering each other the best seat in the boat.”
“It was my worldly knights who disliked him most. I see. However, we are waiting to hear your story, Lance, not Galahad’s.”
“Yes, Lance; tell us how you got on, and leave out about the angels.”
“As I was never allowed to meet any angels,” said Sir Lancelot with a smile, “it’s the best thing I can do.”
“When I left Vagon,” began the commander-in-chief, “I had a shrewd idea that the best place to search would be the castle of King Pelles——”
He stopped, for Guenever had made a sudden move.
“I didn’t go to the castle,” he said gently, “because I had an accident. Something happened to me which was outside my own plans, and after that I went where I was taken.”
“What was the accident?”
“It was not an accident really. It was the first stroke of a correction which I have had, and for which I am thankful. Do you know, I shall be talking about God a great deal, and this is a word which offends unholy people just as badly as words like ‘damn’ and so on offend the holy ones. What shall we have to do about it?”
“Just assume that we are the holy ones,” said the King, “and go on about your accident.”
“I was riding with Sir Percivale, when we came across my son. He unhorsed me at the first tilt—my son did.”
“A surprise attack,” said Arthur quickly.
“It was a fair tilt.”
“Naturally you would not want to beat your son.”
“I did want to beat him.”
Guenever said: “Everybody has to be unlucky sometimes.”
“I rode at Galahad with all the skill I could manage, and he gave me the finest fall I ever had.
“Indeed,” added Lancelot, with one of his gaping grins, “I might say that he gave me one of the only falls I ever had. The first thing I can remember feeling, when I was lying on the ground, was pure astonishment. It was only later that it turned to something else.”
“What did you do?”
“I was lying on the ground, and Galahad was standing his horse beside me without saying a word, when a woman came up who was a recluse in a hermitage where we had been fighting. She made a curtsy and said: ‘God be with thee, best knight of the world’.”
Lancelot looked on the table, and moved his hand in a gesture to stroke the cloth. Then he cleared his throat and said: “I looked up, to see who was talking to me.”
The King and Queen waited.
Lancelot cleared his throat again: “I am trying to tell you about my spirit, if you see what I mean, not about my adventures. So I can’t be modest about it. I am a bad man, I know, but I was always good with arms. It was a consolation to me in my badness, sometimes, to think—to know that I was the best knight of the world.”
“Well, the lady was not talking to me.”
They digested the position in silence, watching a flutter which had developed on the right side of his mouth.
“Yes,” said Sir Lancelot. “The lady was looking past me at my son Galahad, and he cantered away as soon as she had spoken. Soon afterwards the lady went away as well.”
“What a disgusting thing to say!” exclaimed the King. “What a dirty, deliberate outrage! She ought to have been whipped.”
“It was true.”
“But to come and say it in front of you on purpose!” cried Guenever. “Besides, after a single fall——”
“She said what God told her to say. You see, she was a holy woman. But I couldn’t understand it at the time——
“I am much holier now,” he added apologetically, “but at the time I couldn’t bear it. I felt as if my prop had been taken from me, and I knew that she only said the simple truth. I felt as if she had broken the last piece of my heart. So I rode away from Percivale to be by myself, like an animal, with my hurt. Percivale suggested something to do, but I only said: ‘Do as ye list.’ I rode away with heavy cheer, overthwart and endlong, to find a place where I could split my heart alone. I rode to a chapel eventually, feeling as if I might be going mad again. You see, Arthur, I had a lot of troubles on my mind which being a famous fighter seemed to make up for, a little, and when that was gone it felt as if there was nothing left to me.”
“There was everything left. You are still the finest fighter in the world.”
“The funny thing was that the chapel had no door. I don’t know whether it was my sins, or my resentment at being broken, but I couldn’t get in. I slept on my shield outside, and there was a dream of a knight who came and took away my helm and my sword and my horse. I tried to wake up, but I couldn’t. All my knightly things were being taken away from me, but I could not wake, because my heart was full of bitter thoughts. A voice said that I was never more to have worship—but I only rebelled against the voice, and so, when I woke, the things were gone.
“Arthur, if I don’t make you understand about that night, you will never understand the rest. I had spent all my childhood, when I might have been chasing butterflies, learning to be your best knight. Afterwards I was wicked, but I had one thing. I used to feel so proud, inside myself, because I knew that I was supposed to be top of the averages. It was a base feeling, I know. But I had nothing else to be proud of. First my Word and my miracles had gone, and now, on the night I am telling you about, this was gone too. When I woke up and found that my arms were taken, I walked about in agony. It was disgusting, but I cried and cursed. That was the time when they began to break me.”
“My poor Lance.”
“It was the best thing that ever happened. In the morning, do you know, I heard the little fowls singing—and that cheered me up. Funny to be comforted by a lot of birds. I never had time for bird’s-nesting when I was small. You would have known what kind of birds they were, Arthur—but I couldn’t tell. There was one very small one, which cocked its tail in the air and looked at me. It was about as big as the rowel of a spur.”
“Perhaps it was a wren.”
“Well, then, it was a wren. Will you show me one tomorrow? The thing which these birds made me see, because my black heart could not see it alone, was that if I was to be punished, it was because of my own nature. What happened to the birds was according to the nature of birds. They made me see that the world was beautiful if you were beautiful, and that you couldn’t get unless you gave. And you had to give without wanting to get. So I accepted that beating from Galahad, and the taking away of my armour; and in a blessed moment, I went to find a confessor so that I would not be wicked any more.”
“All the knights,” said Arthur, “who got to the Grail had the sense to be confessed first.”
“I had always made bad confessions before that. I have lived nearly all my life in mortal sin. But this time I confessed everything.”
“Everything?” asked the Queen.
“Everything. You see, Arthur, I have had a sin on my conscience all my life, which I thought I could not tell to people, because——”
“There is no need to tell it to us,” said the Queen, “if it hurts you. After all, we are not your confessors. It was enough to tell the priest.”
“Leave her in peace,” agreed the King. “At any rate she bore a fine son, who seems to have achieved the Grail.”
He was alluding to Elaine.
Lancelot looked with sudden misery from one to the other, and clenched his fists. All three stopped breathing.
“I confessed, then,” he said eventually, and they breathed again—but his voice was leaden. “I was given a penance.” He paused, still doubtful, half recognizing the moment as a cross-road of his life. Now was the time, they all knew, if there ever was to be a time, when he ought to have had it out with his friend and king—yet Guenever was thwarting him. It was her secret too.
“The penance was to wear the hair shirt of a certain dead religious that we knew of,” he went on at last, defeated. “I was to take no meat or wine, and to hear Mass daily. So I left the priest’s house after three days, and rode back to a cross near the place where I had lost my arms. The priest had loaned me some to go on with. Well, I slept at the cross that night, and had another dream—and in the morning, the knight who had stolen my armour came back. I jousted with him and retrieved the armour. Wasn’t that strange?”
“I suppose you were in a state of grace now, after your good confession, so you could be trusted with your might.”
“That was what I thought, but you will see about it presently. I thought, now that I had got my sin off my chest, I would be allowed to be the best knight in the world once more. I rode away very happy, trying to sing a bit, until I came to a fair plain with a castle and pavilions and everything—and there was a tournament of five hundred knights in black and white. The white knights were winning, so I thought I would join with the black. I thought I would do a great exploit of rescue for the weaker party, now that I was forgiven.” He stopped, and closed his eyes. “But the white knights,” he added, opening them, “took me prisoner quite soon.”
“You mean you were beaten again?”
“I was beaten and disgraced. I thought I was more sinful than ever. When they had set me loose, I rode and cursed just as I had done on the first evening, and, when the night came, I lay down under an apple tree and actually cried myself to sleep.”
“But this is heresy,” exclaimed the Queen, who was a good theologian, like most women. “If you were clean confessed, and had done penance and been absolved——”
“I had done penance for one sin,” said Lancelot. “But I had forgotten about another one. In the night I had a new dream, of an old man who came to me and said: ‘Ah, Lancelot of evil faith and poor belief, why is thy will turned so lightly toward thy deadly sin?’ Jenny, I have all my life been in another sin, the worst of all. It was pride that made me try to be the best knight in the world. Pride made me show off and help the weaker party of the tournament. You could call it vainglory. Just because I had confessed about—about the woman, that did not make me into a good man.”
“So you were beaten.”
“Yes, I was beaten. And next morning I went to another hermit to be confessed again. This time I made a thorough job of it. I was told that it was not enough, in the Quest for the Grail, to be continent and to refrain from killing people. All boasting and pride of the world had to be left behind, for God did not like such deeds in his Quest. I had to renounce all earthly glory. And I did renounce it, and was absolved.”
“What happened next?”
“I rode to the water of Mortoise, where a black knight came to joust with me. He knocked me down as well.”
“A third defeat!”
Guenever cried: “But if you really were absolved this time!”
Lancelot put his hand over hers, and smiled.
“If a boy steals sweets,” he said, “and his parents punish him, he may be very sorry and good afterwards. But that doesn’t entitle him to steal more sweets, does it? Nor does it mean that he must be given sweets. God was not punishing me by letting the black knight knock me down—he was only withholding the special gift of victory which it had always been within his power to bestow.”
“But, my poor Lance, to have given up your glory and not to get anything back! When you were a sinful man you were always victorious, so why should you always be beaten when you were heavenly? And why are you always hurt by the things you love? What did you do?”
“I knelt down in the water of Mortoise, Jenny, where he had knocked me—and I thanked God for the adventure.”
(T.H. White, The Once and Future King, 459-466)