A Knight in the Garden
When I was eleven years old, Camelot was playing on TV on Christmas night. This musical was my first introduction to the King Arthur story. I had always wondered why the world could not be perfect, and this story seemed to wrestle with the idea.
Camelot is a story much like Noah and the Ark or God’s establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, where we see humans are offered a chance to leave behind the ruination of the past and begin anew. But as with Eden, the story always goes wrong. Those who are so eager to begin with a clean slate again find they are the villains of the story. We know that no earthly place is the remedy for what ails us.
Camelot offers an apparently perfect character to test out this idea. Sir Lancelot’s saintliness—or at least his claim to it, delves straight into the idea. Lancelot is the ideal knight who can:
Climb a wall no one else can climb,
Cleave a dragon in record time,
Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
Such a knight surely belongs in Camelot, the idealized kingdom where we hear that “The climate must be perfect all the year.” But Lancelot’s pride is not limited to his martial prowess, where it is probably well-deserved. It extends into the spiritual realm.
The soul of a knight should be a thing remarkable,
His heart and his mind as pure as morning dew.
With a will and a self-restraint
That's the envy of ev'ry saint
He could easily work a miracle or two.
To love and desire he ought to be unsparkable,
The ways of the flesh should offer no allure.
But where in the world
Is there in the world
A man so untouched and pure?
His answer is “C’est moi.” It is I, Sir Lancelot, who have these qualities.
As an eleven-year-old, I believed him, and wished I could be that good. I may not have been clear what the “ways of the flesh” entailed, but I knew somehow that I wasn’t pure. I could think bad things. And do a few. But Lancelot has not just reached an unusual level of purity that others might attain with enough will power. He is in a class by himself.
I've never strayed
From all I believe;
I'm blessed with an iron will.
Had I been made
The partner of Eve,
We'd be in Eden still.
Somehow, he is even beyond Original Sin.
Lancelot’s line taps into something deep within all of us that recoils at the idea that Adam and Eve were given the chance to seal it for the rest of us. This goes beyond the question of fairness, as big as that one is. We really imagine we would do better.
Lancelot starts off so well. He befriends King Arthur and becomes a knight of the Round Table. Then he befriends King Arthur’s wife Guinevere, and they fall in love. His line about being made the partner of Eve proves to have a double meaning. In imagining this, he is, in effect, coveting his neighbor’s wife. In Edenic terms, it is as if he has entered into a love triangle with Eve and brought about the fall of the paradise himself, with Adam watching sadly from the sidelines.
Camelot tells us that even given a perfect kingdom to demonstrate our greatness, the best of us might manage to stumble onto a way to make the fall worse, where Adam, instead of being the one who wronged us by stealing our chance at glory, would end up as the injured party. We really want to be the hero of the story, and are surprised to find that when we identify with the righteous one, we have made ourselves into the villain.
In the end, Arthur has to hope that Lancelot will come back to rescue Guinevere from the flames that the laws of Camelot prescribe for an adulteress. The laws that tame nature have made a slave of the king. As a man who loves not only his wife but his friend, he wishes for something beyond the law. The only remedy for the wrongs that have been inflicted is forgiveness, and it does not offer a return of the lost kingdom. In the end, he is excited to have a young boy to tell his story to, who might one day see a new Camelot arise.
But we are all older. We know that Camelot won’t give us what we need. But we still look forward to a future kingdom, a “happily ever-aftering” where “the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). And part of the old order of things is our need to be the hero of the story. So take heart. There is a more glorious kingdom ahead of us. A kingdom for failed Lancelots, where their friendship with the king is restored. A kingdom that lasts far longer than “one brief shining moment.” A kingdom that all good earthly kingdoms, real or legendary, merely hint at.
Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has contributed to the books Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation, Let Christ be Christ, and Theologia and Apologia.
Theologia et Apologia gathers together eighteen essays, written by a wide range of scholars, on Reformation theology and its defense. Orthodox theology, grounded in the Scriptures, calls humanity to believe.