“When I left Vagon,” began the commander-in-chief, “Something happened to me which was outside my own plans.”
“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.
“And so?” ‘
“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. I rode to a chapel eventually, feeling as if I might be going mad again.
“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.
“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. 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.
“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 – ”
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, to wear the hair shirt of a certain dead religious,” he went on. “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. 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.”
“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.”
Edited from: White, T(erence) H(andbury). The Once and Future King. ePub Bud. Internet. http://www.epubbud.com/read.php?g=5K4UW7AJ&p=12. May 18, 2014.