18 March 2012

Lancelot's Mistake

I've been reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King lately. I think Arthurian legend is worth knowing, and I thought this would be a good primer. It was actually written and published as four separate books, which were then abridged and modified and combined into The Once and Future King.

The third book is called The Ill-Made Knight and is all about Sir Lancelot's illicit relations with Queen Guenevere. I expected not to like it very much, but I actually enjoyed it more than I can say. Lancelot is the protagonist of the book, and he's a beautifully conflicted character that I connected with in a few different ways, but there's something about him that I've been reflecting on this Sunday afternoon that I think is worth sharing.

Here's a summary of the story of Lancelot for those of you who are unfamiliar. If you know it, feel free to skip down to the asterisks.

Lancelot's childhood obsession was to become a knight of the round table, and while most kids are out fooling around and playing games, he dedicated himself entirely to becoming the best knight in the world. By the time he became an adult, he was an unconquerable warrior because he had done nothing but work on becoming the best. He idolized Arthur, and he went off to Camelot and became a knight of the round table, and he and Arthur became best friends.

Guenevere and Arthur were already married when Lancelot joined the table, but their marriage had been more political than anything, I think. Guenevere and Lancelot fell in love at first sight, but Lancelot was a pious knight and fiercely loyal to Arthur and refused to do anything sinful, so nothing bad happened--for a while. He decided that his burning love for Guenevere was wrong, so he went out questing and was gone for a couple years, but he found himself unable to stop thinking about Guenevere.

One castle Lancelot came to during his journeys contained a young woman who was confined by witchcraft to a boiling bath. The curse she was under could only be broken by the best knight in the world (why do witches always make provisions like this?). Lancelot was the best knight in the world, and his reputation had proceeded him, so when he came to this castle, the people begged him to help. He entered the steamy bathroom and was able to lift the damsel from her watery prison, which she had been trapped in for something like 4 years because she had been more beautiful than the local witch woman. So of course she fell desperately in love with her rescuer (she was only 18, so we can't fault her for that), but Lancelot was burning for Guenevere, so refused the girl's father's offer of marriage.

That night, the girl's butler decided to be crafty, and he got Lancelot drunk. Lancelot told the butler all about Guenevere, so the butler got him to drink a little more and then told him that Guenevere had come without the King and was in a private room and wanted Lancelot to come see her. The drunken knight stumbled into the dark room and made drunken love with the woman inside, believing she was Guenevere, but of course she was not. In the morning, when he woke up and found the girl he had rescued, he became very distraught and drama ensued, but he ultimately decided that, since his virginity was lost and his honor and virtue were destroyed, he had nothing left to lose, so he returned to Camelot and became Guenevere's not-so-secret lover, and set in motion the downfall of Arthur's kingdom.


I don't fault Lancelot for saving a damsel from a witch's power, and I don't blame him for refusing to marry one person when he was in love with another, and I don't think it's fair to say he was wrong in harboring feelings for Guenevere (at least, I wouldn't know how to tell him to smother them), and I don't think we can even point to liquor as being his failing (even though drunkenness was out of character for him and unbecoming of a knight). I'll even go so far as to say that having sex with Elaine was not his Big Mistake (though it was certainly wrong of him). No, Lancelot's Big Mistake was thinking all was lost. He woke up, realized that he had lost his virginity, and decided that he may as well give up trying.

I understand Lancelot. I know what it's like to think I've undone all my life's goodness and may as well give up. I think it's common for people who are trying their best to do what's right to feel that way. We make one mistake, and we convince ourselves that it's a slippery slope with no hope of return, and we damn ourselves by thinking we're already damned. But it isn't true. The whole point of the Atonement--its purpose, its upshot, its summom bonum, its raison d'ĂȘtre--is to save us from such a fate. If Jesus hadn't saved us, then that slippery slope would be real--one misstep, and you slide straight to hell--but a good Christian knight--particularly a Catholic one like Lance!--should understand the power of Confession and the reality of Absolution.

Now I am not a Catholic, but I do believe in the forgiveness of sins. I believe that the Son of Man has descended below all things and has created a way that all men might be saved. I believe that Satan is the sower of despair, and that fatalistic thoughts of abandon come from him, not God. Jesus Christ has already paid the price of our sins and is therefore passionately invested in seeing that we're saved--otherwise he bled at every pore and trembled because of pain for naught.

It occurs to me that the Lancelots of the world are those who reject salvation when they are standing closest to it. People who don't know God at all would not despair after one lascivious night: that despair only comes to those who have scrambled so desperately for heaven all their lives. If only they could see that they are so much closer to the mountain's top than to its bottom, perhaps they would not be so insistent upon tumbling down its side.

Forgive the mixed metaphor....


  1. .

    We were just talking about this in terms of teaching youth. Too many scare tactics are based on ignoring the Atonement in order to prevent sin. While preventing sin is good, the technique is fundamentally flawed.

  2. Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories about that kind of thing--especially when it comes to teaching the Law of Chastity to young women. Really horrifying object lessons that totally disregard fundamental gospel principles. I understand that we don't want our youth to have a sin-now-and-repent-later attitude, but there's got to be a better way.

    Did you come to any conclusions?

  3. Whoa, great essay. I was just thinking about this very issue. It is so important that we always remember--it's never too late to change. We always have another chance.