Monday, February 4, 2013
Book Review: The Ill Made Knight
The Sword in the Stone was fun.
The Witch in the Wood was weird.
The Ill Made Knight was emotionally gut wrenching and penetratingly thought provoking.
The only versions of Lancelot I had ever known were from the musical Camelot, the movie First Knight (with Richard Gere), and Monty Python.
This is not the Lancelot I knew. This is not the handsome young man who brags about his "humility" and sneaks around with Arthur's wife and destroys the kingdom when they are found out.
First - Lancelot is ugly. Here are a few descriptions:
"The boy's face was as ugly as a monster's in the King's menagerie. He looked like an African ape." "The grotesque magnificent shell with a face like Quasimodo's"
Lancelot was hideous. From the time he was a boy he wanted to be a knight at King Arthur's Round Table. He wanted to be "the best knight in the world." He studied and practiced throughout his childhood. He wanted to have absolute strength, skill, and also purity. He wanted God to bless him and allow him to perform miracles.
The book is the story of his three loves:
1. Arthur - as the perfect father figure and king.
2. Guenevere - He loved her forever, but love for her interfered with his other two loves.
3. God - If he wasn't pure before God, nothing else mattered to him.
Lancelot does become "the best knight in the world" and this is where the trouble starts. Everyone wants to challenge him, to beat him. All the people want him to be their champion, perform miracles, defeat all evil. The other Knights of the Round Table need him to save them from time to time, but many of them resent it.
Yes, Lancelot does fall in love with Guenevere - and he does decide to sleep with her, but Arthur knows about it. He loves them both, and can't punish them. Arthur keeps them both at court for over 25 years because he loves them both. Guenevere is his romantic love, Lancelot his fraternal love. Lance is the "son" he never had, the perfect knight.
Lancelot performs two miracles in his life. After the first, he commits his first moral sin and loses the power to perform miracles. He is unclean before God, and the gift is lost.
Lance becomes the tragic hero. The man who wants to be perfect and can never quite reach perfection. He honestly tries, and the quest for perfection drives him mad. At one point he is thought to be dead as he spends years in the wilderness living off berries, mostly naked, taunted by children, feared by women, and mocked by men.
When he goes on the quest for the Holy Grail he is permitted by God to see it, but not to enter the room or touch it. He is very pure, but not pure enough. It breaks his heart.
The second miracle happens at the very end. He is asked to heal a wounded knight after all other 149 Knights of the Round Table fail. He walks down, and takes the knight in his arms.
"Lancelot looked into the East, where he thought God lived, and said something in his mind. It was more or less like this: "I don't want glory, but please can you save our honesty? And if you will heal this knight for the knight's sake, please do."
The knight is healed, the whole kingdom cheers and "in the middle, quite forgotten... this lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle."
You will think I'm silly or having delusions of grandeur - but I think I know how Lancelot felt.
Though our lives are completely different, I felt as I read this book that Lancelot's mental struggles were exactly like my own.
When I was a kid I decided I either wanted to be the President or a Prophet. (yeah, humble kid I know)
I feel now what Lance felt. I have this desire inside me to be the best. I want to be the best at so many things. Not because I want to be better than others, but because I think I should work that hard. I want to be the best doctor. I want to be able to perform miracles. I mean that. I want to be so pure that God could work through me.
Like Lancelot - I know I fall short. I don't even know if I want it for the right reasons. Lancelot repeatedly questioned his own motives. Was he doing great deeds for God? for country? for right? or for his own glory? This book resonated with me like few have because I saw my own struggle. The struggle in the mind to be the best, but not compare myself with others. The struggle for perfection, but for the right reasons. The struggle to figure out what really matters in life and who God really wants me to be. That was Lancelot's struggle, and that continues to be my own.
I hope my end is better than Lancelot's.
Arthur - "What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness." "People ought to be civil. But it has turned into sportsmanship. Merlin always said that sportsmanship was the curse of the world and so it is. My scheme is going wrong." "They are turning it into a competitive thing." "Everybody gossips and nags and hints and speculates bout who unseated whom last, and who has rescued the most virgins, and who is the best knight of the Table. I made it a round table to prevent that very thing, but it has not prevented it."