Review: “The Ill-Made Knight”, by T.H. White [EDIT: Small Corrections]

Absolutely brilliant. Probably the second best fantasy novel I’ve ever read besides “The Lord of the Rings”. “The Sword in the Stone” was decent, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” was a bit better but still not great (with a superb battle scene at the end of it), but “The Ill-Made Knight”…wow.

The musical “Camelot” is supposedly based partially on this book. I suppose “based” is meant to really mean “is the exact opposite of in several ways”, because that’s what I’m getting from it.

  • In the musical, Lancelot is incredibly handsome. In the book, Lancelot is hideously ugly – hence “The Ill-Made Knight”.
  • In the musical, Lancelot is the paragon of morality, to the point where he never actually has a physical affair with Guinevere. In the book, Lancelot has an on-and -off, physical affair for many years, and is so merciful and kind because he’s a sadist, and must make a special effort to overcome his tendencies to cruelty.
  • In the musical, Arthur admits out loud that he knows Guinevere is in love with Lancelot. In the book, Arthur remains intentionally obtuse; while he has good reason to be suspicious he intentionally gives Lancelot and Guinevere every chance for plausible deniability, and manages to successfully convince himself that nothing is going on.

The great strength of T.H. White is characterization. Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere are absolutely brilliantly drawn characters. They are real. As White says about Guinevere, she is difficult to write about because she is a real person, with conflicting motivations and desires and both good points and bad points, with changing moods and inner conflicts. She’s not a stereotypical adulteress, or a stereotypical tortured soul, or a manipulative bitch, or a victim: She is, simply, Guinevere.

Arthur is an interesting figure as well. White goes through great pains to make the point that Arthur is in no way a cuckold. He is not a helpless sap who is being taken advantage of by a faithless lover. Rather, Arthur loves Lancelot and Guinevere; he does not go into denial for his sake, but for theirs. He knows that if he were to discover they were cheating, he would be forced to execute them, so he goes through great pains to give them every chance in the world to hide the affair from him. Arthur is, perhaps, a fool, but he is not weak, or pathetic.

Lancelot, though, is the subject of the book, and probably the most complex character in the cycle. As White says, there was no love triangle with Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot: There was a love quadrangle, because for Lancelot, God was also a part of the equation. Lancelot did not believe in God as a bloodless Trinity, but as a person, a person he loved every bit as much as Arthur and Guinevere and felt absolute loyalty too. Thus, his betrayal of Guinevere filled him with guilt not just because he is betraying Arthur, but betraying God as well. Eventually, after his Quest for the Holy Grail, it is his loyalty to God, not Arthur, that is able to, at least temporarily, convince him to end the affair with Guinevere.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Lancelot is his sadism. As White says, this is what makes Lancelot so merciful and kind. He know he enjoys causing pain, and as a result he goes through great pains to fight that impulse. His saintliness is a product of his flaws. Several times we see opponents beg Lancelot for mercy, which Lancelot grants more out of self-repulsion than out of any actual kind-heartedness. He is afraid of what he might do if he is not merciful.

Compare Lancelot to modern heroes like Daredevil and Batman (one from the MCU and one from the Nolan movies, to give us baselines). Both of them claim to suffer from this same fear that they will give in to their own worst impulses, but despite this there are several examples of the heroes needlessly torturing criminals; they only remain heroes in comparison to the men they fight and because they refuse to actually kill anybody.

But as we Catholics know, there are sins worse than mere murder. Lancelot is superior to men like Daredevil and Batman because he tries to avoid sadism. Daredevil and Batman flirt with villain status because their only concern is stopping ahead of the line; Lancelot gains hero status because he tries to get as far in front of that line as possible. Because of this, despite his affair and his flaws, he is more of a hero than either of those characters (both of whom, by the way, I’m a big fan of) are.

Is “The Ill-Made Knight” superversive? Depends on your definition. It doesn’t exactly end well, in that it is set up for the final book of the cycle, “The Candle in the Wind”, which is an out-and-out tragedy. So that disqualifies it from being what we might call Lamplighter superversive, superversive fiction that follows the strict rules as laid out by L. Jagi Lamplighter – one of the requirements of which is a happy ending.

But it certainly fits what we might call Simon superversive – broader criteria for superversive fiction as laid out by Tom Simon. It has a very clear sense of morality – certain people and actions are good, certain are bad. White is very clear in his admiration for Arthur, for instance, who is almost the paragon of goodness in the novel. And despite Lancelot’s great flaws, it’s clear White admires him as well.

And it is certainly devoted to building up civilization. That’s pretty much the entire point of the cycle. So I’d say that it’s pretty clearly Simon superversive.

White is one of the few pre-Tolkien fantasists – perhaps the only one – who still is known fairly well by people who aren’t actually fans of the genre, mostly thanks to the Disney version of “The Sword in the Stone”, bad as it was (also because he was baaaaaaaarely pre-Tolkien). But White deserves to be known in his own right. “The Once and Future King” is a tour de force, which has only gotten better as I’ve gotten further, and it’s hard for me to see how White can top “The Ill-Made Knight”, an exciting and psychologically rich tale (and how rare is it to find both of those things in a single book?) of forbidden romance and adventure. “The Once and Future King” is mandatory reading for those who like Arthurian romance and are interested in a somewhat earlier history of the fantasy genre.

EDIT: I made a couple of minor factual errors, which I shall correct here:

1) White is actually not a pre-Tolkien fantasist; “The Sword in the Stone” was published AFTER the extremely popular “The Hobbit”. I made the mistake of only checking the publication date of “The Lord of the Rings”.

That said, he DOES have a couple of science fiction books published before “The Hobbit”, so at least he was publishing books before Tolkien, if not fantasy.

2) I was wrong about there being no really famous pre-Tolkien fantasists: L. Frank Baum, of course, wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” long before “The Hobbit” was published. Hat tip to Tom Simon for reminding me of this fact. There are probably others, but Baum is a really obvious example that I missed, so I thought it worth mentioning.

  • Lamplighter superversive, superversive fiction that follows the strict rules as laid out by L. Jagi Lamplighter – one of the requirements of which is a happy ending.

    Does Lamplighter superversive require a happy ending, or a hopeful one? It’s been long years since I read The Ill-Made Knight so I don’t recall whether the ending was hopeless: flawed people do terrible things as part of a great struggle and come to a nasty end.

    There are two classic skiffy examples (by giants of the genre) of the superversive (Lamplighter rules) tragic ending: The Doomsday Book by Willis and Dogsbody by Jones.
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    If you’ve never read the Doomsday book: please stop now. The story ends with everyone Kivrin tries to save dying horribly. It’s still a story that uplifts the human spirit, rather than dragging it down.
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    So my question is: Does The Ill-Made Knight have a Doomsday Book sort of ending?

    • Anthony M

      That disqualifies it immediately as Lamplighter superversive; her requirements are very strict. From the post where she lays this out, “Holy Godzilla of the Apocalypse”:

      What I mean by good storytelling is that the story follows the principles of a good story. That, by the end, the good prosper, the bad stumble, that there is action, motion to the plot, and a reasonable about of sense to the overall structure.

      In the story of King Arthur, all the good men AND bad men die in battle (with the exception of Lancelot, who leaves and joins a convent), and the ideal of Camelot lives on only in stories. “The Ill-Made Knight”, being part of this longer epic, ends as set-up for the tragedy to follow. I suppose it ends on a high-ish note, but knowing what it’s setting up I can hardly say it’s truly positive.

      Buuuuuuut, it’s undoubtedly Simon superversive. That’s the reason I separate the two – Lamplighter superversive is more useful for finding specific stories, but Simon superversive is more useful for deciding what stories to avoid, since its criteria is broader – if something is Simon superversive it may or may not end well and the bad guys might win, but it at least recognizes the difference between good and evil and understands the importance of civilization.

      Shorter – You use Lamplighter superversive to find a specific sort of story. You use Simon superversive to ensure that the story you read tells is not lying to you.

      Not that pretty lies are necessarily bad, but it’s important to realize that they’re lies.