At the end of book 2 of The Once and Future King, T. H. White states that the story of King Arthur is a tragedy in the true Aristotelian sense, according to which most tragic heroes have an inherent flaw that contributes to their “reversal of fortune.” The hero’s tragic flaw is not necessarily a bad quality—Arthur’s flaw, in fact, is his belief in the decency and perfectibility of humanity.
Arthur’s flaw is revealed as the novel moves from descriptions of his innocent childhood to the imperfect, even corrupt world of his adulthood and, finally, to the loss of his kingdom; this movement is the “reversal of fortune” that results from Arthur’s tragic flaw. It is the movement that unites the four narrative strands of the novel. The stories of Gawaine (book 2), Lancelot (book 3), and Mordred (book 4), considered within the framework of Arthur’s own story, illustrate the theme that while some people may be decent, there will always be those who make Arthur’s dreams of a better civilization impossible.
Believing people to be basically good, Arthur establishes the Round Table to destroy the authority of those who rule through brutal force and to impose on humanity the notion of decency. Arthur remains blind, however, to reminders that his vision will fail. He willfully overlooks the affair between Lancelot and Guenever, the murderous depth of Gawaine’s rage, and the evil madness of his son Mordred. If he were to acknowledge deception, rage, and evil in those closest to him, he would have to deny humanity’s perfectibility. Lancelot and Gawaine do turn out to be good and honorable men, however, thus reinforcing Arthur’s convictions.
By nature, Lancelot is not deceptive, but he is weak. As a medieval Christian, he knows that his sinful nature stands in the way of one of his greatest ambitions: to perform a miracle. Lured by Guenever and encouraged by Arthur’s blindness, he can never resist the...
(The entire section is 802 words.)