Sunday, March 10, 2013

Brunswick Gardens, by Anne Perry

A friend and I were sitting at an outdoor table in Kuala Lumpur, sharing a pizza and some wine, and I mentioned Peter Jackson's film, Heavenly Creatures.  It's a remarkable film, based upon a true story about two New Zealand girls who formed one of those fierce, exclusive, almost mythical friendships that seem to be part of the turbulent terrain of female adolescence.  In what was probably one of her first film roles, Kate Winslet played one of the girls. When faced with separation, they concluded that murdering the single mother who would separate them was well justified.  They invited the mother out for a picnic and beat her to death with a brick.

"Mmm, she writes mystery novels now," my friend said.
"Who does?"
"The girl who helped her friend murder her mother.  She got out of prison, moved to the UK and writes mystery novels under the pen name of Anne Perry."
"I suppose she's especially qualified, but it's still hard to believe. Are you sure?"  I tried to imagine a middle-aged ex-convict penning murder mysteries, occasionally pausing to ask herself, does that ring true? I had to find one of her books. Just had to.

New Zealanders, psychiatrists, criminologists and the simply curious (including me) are still puzzling over this crime, and articles about it are still coming out over fifty years after the murder. This begs the question: If I had no idea of Anne Perry's history, would this book have had the same impact?

I try to step back and look at Brunswick Gardens on its own terms. It's set in Victorian London; Inspector Thomas Pitt is called to Brunswick Gardens to investigate the death of a young woman in the house of a clergyman. The household, rather than the staid establishment one might expect, is instead a roiling mess.

Reverend Ramsey Parmenter, the head of household, is losing his faith. The young woman who lies dead at the foot of his stairs is Unity Bellwood, a beautiful and intelligent scholar of ancient languages (the skill for which Ramsey had hired her) but also a proponent of that new and most vexing science, Darwinism. Rev. Parmenter's young and repressed son is hell-bent (so to speak) to get to Rome to pursue his own career in the Catholic faith. His high-strung daughter Tryphena was as enamoured of Unity Bellwood as Anne Perry once was of her youthful friend, and she wastes no time in speaking out against everyone in the household who might have taken Unity from her. The other daughter, Clarice, is steadfastly devoted to her father; although she speaks her mind (often to the horror of her mother), she is by and large very practical. Finally, there is Dominic, a young and very handsome cleric with a dodgy past but with profound and genuine gratitude to Ramsey Parmenter for redeeming him. Vita Parmenter, the Reverend's wife, is petite, refined and politic, the perfect Victorian lady of the house.

At the beginning, the clues suggest that Rev. Parmenter pushed Unity down the stairs after a heated argument in which she used Darwin's science to demean his religious faith. Their torrid arguments are not academic in nature; Parmenter agonises over the new ideas, realising that they challenge his very foundation. The younger Unity, who quite possibly never held any religious faith, assumes the intellectually caustic role and simply ridicules him, leaving him to struggle on his own. Today we take one side or the other -- religion vs. science -- and we forget the tumult of the thinking religious man of Darwin's time who tried valiantly to integrate the two.  After Unity's death, Ramsey Parmenter describes his anguish to Dominic.
"Now science seems to be everywhere, the origin and the answers to everything. There is no mystery left, only facts we don't yet know. Above all, there is no one left to hope in beyond ourselves, nothing greater, wiser, or above all kinder." He looked for an instant like a lost child who suddenly knows the full meaning of being alone. Dominic felt it like a physical pain. "I can admire the certainty all these old bishops and saints seem to have had," Ramsay went on. "I can't share it anymore, Dominic." He sat oddly still for the emotions which must have been raging inside him. "The hurricane of Mr. Darwin's sanity has blown it away like so much paper. His reasoning haunts my mind. During the day I look at all these books." He waved his arm at them. "I read Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and every theologian and apologist since. I can even go back to the original Aramaic or Greek, and for a little while I am fine. Then at night the cold voice of Charles Darwin comes back, and the darkness engulfs all the candles I've lit during the day. I swear I would give anything I possess for him not to have been born!"
Inspector Thomas Pitt is married to Charlotte, a woman who does not hesitate to contribute her own thoughts to the cases he's investigating. Pitt resists the temptation to tell his wife to stay in her place, largely because when Charlotte starts snooping, she uncovers useful bits of information. Her instincts, although different than his own, are quite keen. One day Charlotte drives off for lunch with her Aunt Vespasia, a stately matron with a sharp mind. Largely out of boredom, Vespasia asks Charlotte for the details of Pitt's latest case. It amuses her to think about motives and details in her spare time. Although she is unlikely to have any blood on her own very white, soft hands, Aunt Vespasia has some very definite ideas about what drives one to murder. Again to his credit, Pitt does not disregard her thoughts, either.
Pitt could imagine Vespasia saying that. He could see her still-beautiful face clearly in his mind. She would probably be dressed in ivory, silver-grey or lilac, and she usually wore pearls in the daytime. She was right. People killed because they cared about something so fiercely they lost all sense of reason and proportion. For a time their own need eclipsed everyone else's, even drowned out their sense of self-preservation. Sometimes it was carefully-thought-out greed. Sometimes it was a momentary fear, even a physical one. Seldom was it revenge. That could be exacted in so many other ways. On rare occasions he had come across crimes resulting from blind, insensate rage. But as Vespasia said, it was always a passion of some sort, even if only the cold hunger of greed.
Who, however, felt enough passion to kill Unity Bellwood? No one seemed to stand out as a likely suspect. Dominic's past is checkered, but it seems that he has genuinely found his vocation now. Tensions grow in the house at Brunswick Gardens as everyone within begins to question everyone else. Dominic walks in the garden with Clarice, who has adopted a remarkably clear and pragmatic view. She envies that his ministerial duties call him out into the community to visit members of the congregation while she loiters about the house. She captures perfectly the tension of the situation.
"But nice to be out," she said perceptively. "I wish I had some reason to escape. Waiting is the worst of it, isn't it?" She turned away and stared at the lawn and the fir trees. "I sometimes think hell is not actually something awful happening, it's waiting for something and never being absolutely sure if it will happen, so you soar on hope, and then plunge into despair, and then up again, and down again. You get too exhausted to care for a while, then it all starts over. Permanent despair would almost be a relief. You could get on with it. It takes so much energy to hope."
Dominic assures her that Inspector Pitt is working on the case and will surely uncover the truth of the matter. Clarice does not share his faith in a conclusive ending. She has reached her own conclusion.
"Pitt may find the truth. He may not. We might have to live like this forever. I know that." Her mouth curved very slightly, as if mocking herself. "I have already decided what to believe, I mean what I shall live with, so I don't lie awake at night torturing myself, turning it over and over in my mind. I have to have a way to function." Half a dozen starlings flew up out of the trees at the end of the lawn and spiraled upward on the wind, black against the sky.
"Even if it isn't true?" he said incredulously.
"I think it probably is," she answered, staring ahead of her. "But either way, we have to go on. We can't simply stop everything else and go round and round the same wretched puzzle. It was one of us. That is inescapable. We can't run anymore; we are better accepting it. There is no point in thinking how dreadful it is. I have been lying awake a lot, turning it over and over. Whoever did it is someone I know and love. I can't just stop loving them because of it. Anyway, you don't! If you didn't love someone anymore because they did something you found ugly, no love would last. None of us would be loved, because we all do things that are shabby, stupid, vicious from time to time. You need to love from understanding, or even without it."
This passage struck me as remarkable, especially in contrast to Ramsey's shattered faith. Unlike her father, Clarice is willing to consider that good people may be driven to do evil things, and we must accept all facets of those we love. Ramsey cannot integrate the faith of the saints with the science of Darwin -- for him, it's either/or. Clarice seems to be the one with the grasp of agape, the profound, selfless love at the core of Christianity.

If I knew nothing of Anne Perry's history, I would never have guessed it from reading this novel. With her own past in mind, however, I can appreciate her insights into the social roles allocated to women. Their restrictions and limitations find outlets in devious behaviours or even violence. As Aunt Vespasia noted, "People killed because they cared about something so fiercely they lost all sense of reason and proportion," and it's difficult to find a sense of proportion when one is limited to a very small and regulated social sphere. Surely Aunt Vespasia's observation would have applied to the case of the young Anne Perry, as well.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, by Hilary Mantel

This, Hilary Mantel's third novel, is not her best, but it's still vastly better than most authors can manage, and it sustains my belief that the woman is purely incapable of writing a bad book.  I reached for this as the press was bubbling with Ms. Mantel's comments about the Duchess of Cambridge, and as Prime Minister David Cameron castigated her without bothering to read her full speech to grasp the context. Well, I suppose he's a busy man. About the only thing I could think to do in a defiant gesture of moral support was read another of her books.

Jeddah Rooftops,
watercolour by Dorothy Boyer
Published in 1988, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street tells the story of British expatriate Frances Shore who comes to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when her husband takes a job there with a construction company. The Shores have lived abroad for years, living and working in Africa in challenging conditions. They are not rookie expats, but very little, Mantel suggests, can prepare one for life as a foreigner in the Kingdom.

Unlike so many of Mantel's characters and narrators, Frances Shore does not speak in a grounded, authoritative voice. Of course one expects Thomas Cromwell to be resolute, but even the suburban, middle-class Londoners who peopled Mantel's earlier two novels spoke with more force. Gradually, especially as Frances' experiences in Africa are revealed, I realised that she is not a vague or passive person -- she just can't get her bearings in Saudi Arabia. From the opening scene in which Frances is on the plane, overhearing the conversations of other Saudi expats, the hair on my arms began to stand up in that way it does when I'm in a place that is not right.  I may not be able to verbalise precisely what's not right about it, but I know I don't want to be there. The genius of this novel is in the subtle, visceral unease.

I know first-hand that as a foreigner, one can expect various degrees of welcome in different countries, ranging from open arms to loaded and cocked ones.  From my friends who have worked in Saudi and the Emirates -- in a range of capacities -- I know that all outsiders, regardless of nationality or field of work, are classed as foreign workers. There is no question of enjoying or integrating with the local culture. There is no question of permanent residency: Whether you are pouring cement or doing neurosurgery, you are there to do the work that is required of you (and for which your employers pay you handsomely), and then, when they deem it appropriate, you will leave.  You will at no time consider yourself one of their peers.

Those of us who grew up enjoying the rule of law tend not to appreciate it until it's not there. Frances learns almost immediately that the Saudis not only require a visa for entry to the Kingdom but also that one may not leave without a specific exit visa, which must be applied for and granted by the authorities. In the interim, one must adhere to the Law as established by the Q'uran and the Al Saud family. The standard advice to foreigners? Keep your head down, and be quiet. If you attract the unfortunate attention of the authorities, do not expect your employer to help you.

When the Shores arrive in Jeddah, the great boom is waning. Budgets are contracting.  They are given an apartment in a 4-storey house on Ghazzah Street, which they share with a Pakistani couple and a Saudi couple. There is a vacant flat just above the Shores', and there is some nefarious business happening there. Gossip presents a few different theories, and Frances concocts a few more in her spare time.

Frances has nothing but spare time, since she cannot get a work permit in Jeddah. Her Muslim female neighbours invite her for tea and inquire when she plans to have children and marvel at the amorality of women in the western workplace, consorting with men as they do.  She can't go out for walks without being harrassed by Arab men and choked by dust and sand, and there is not always a driver available to take her elsewhere. This is the plight of the expat wife -- especially the educated and skilled one -- who follows a husband abroad and is then relegated to life as an accoutrement while he goes off to work. In the case of the Shores, however, he is consumed by his construction project (or more accurately, the increasing obstacles to its completion) and she has the free time and intelligence to intuit that something is very, very wrong in their building.

Trying to calm herself, Frances reflects on her years of living in other countries and cultures. She sanely recognises that our most intrinsic demons stow away in our luggage, but we also accumulate skills to adapt to new environments. Once you get over the initial shock of the new place, it's much the same routine as the old.
After all, she said, comforting herself, there's only the world. Travel ends and routine begins and old habits which you thought you had left behind in one country catch up with you in the next, and old problems resurface, but if you are lucky you carry as part of your baggage the means of solving those problems and accommodating those habits, and you take with you an open mind, and discretion, and common sense; if you have those with you, you can manage anywhere.
Her experiences as she begins to settle into Jeddah life, however, suggest something quite different. She meets the neighbours, has dinners with other expat couples and wanders off on a couple of solitary ventures. None of them turns out well.

She keeps a diary and also writes letters to family members in the UK, quickly discovering that the latter is an exercise in futility. She fails to describe the vague but unsettling atmosphere, and then she realises that the recipients don't really give a damn about life in Saudi Arabia.  If anything, they just want to hear how badly things have gone awry and to gloat.  "It never would have happened if you'd just stayed home where you belong..."
By and large people at home are not interested in hearing about your experiences. They feel bound to put you in your place, as if by going away at all you were offering some sort of criticism of their own lives.
Frances' husband and his colleagues tell her to ignore her suspicions about whatever may be happening in the vacant apartment upstairs, but dark hints keep crossing her path every time she steps out of her apartment, which is already feeling claustrophobic.  (The claustrophobia peaks when the landlord materialises and tells her that they're renovating and painting, and could she please keep her shutters closed for some weeks?) Her husband mentions over dinner that an Indian psychologist has just completed a study of his country's workers in the Kingdom, and he determined that they all followed roughly the same series of phases, not unlike Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of accepting impending death, albeit in reverse:  acceptance fades to anxiety, which deteriorates into paranoia and incipient madness. This at least assures Frances that she's not alone in her feelings of acute distress.

Why do people stay?  Why not simply apply for that exit visa?  It's the economy, stupid. The Saudis pay lavishly, and once accustomed to a stream of hefty salary vouchers, it's hard for expats to imagine life without them.
They always say, we'll just do another year. It's called the golden handcuffs. No matter how much they complain about life here, they hate the thought of leaving. They see some gigantic insecurity staring them in the face, as if their lives would fall apart when they got their final exit visa, as if it would be instant ruin -- as if it had to be straight from the Heathrow baggage hall and down to the welfare department.
I happened to glance at some on-line readers' reviews of this novel, and one man remarked that he never did quite understand "what happened". By the end of the book, a man is dead (possibly the result of an accident, and possibly not), a woman has been arrested trying to leave the Kingdom without approval (of her husband, never mind the Saudi authorities), the Shores' apartment has been robbed and ransacked in a peculiar fashion, and something wicked has occurred in that darned vacant apartment involving a shipping trunk. It is not clear, any of it. It's not clear to the reader, and it's not clear to Frances. The authorities will never publicise what happened, and any sensible foreigner who happens to have information will keep his or her mouth well shut. The Saudis see no need for their foreign servants to be aware or involved. The reader will find no more sure footing than the characters.

In the end, the construction company finds the Shores an apartment in a different compound, one which is almost exclusively occupied by expat workers. Will they settle more comfortably there? Will the husband put his wrists into the "golden handcuffs"?  At least this apartment has windows which look out upon something other than a high cement wall (which had totally surrounded the house at Ghazzah Street).  As the novel ends, Frances surveys the new view.
I look out through the glass, on to the landscape, the distant prospect of traveling cars. Window one, the freeway; window two, the freeway. I turn away, cross the room to find a different view. Window three, the freeway; window four, the freeway.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

One of N. C. Wyeth's luminous illustrations for
The Boy's History of King Arthur, which,
despite being a girl, I adored.
I was immersed in Arthurian legend as a child, and then later, on a slightly more highbrow level in college, paddled through Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson and others. I'd developed a been-there-done-that smugness that my reading on the subject was complete, or at least adequate.

Then my favourite literary list-maker, Anthony Burgess, tossed the four novels of T. H. White's tetralogy onto his Best Novels list and into my path:  The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.  Bless 'im.  I instantly saw that this version of the legends is like no other.

For one thing, it's damned funny. White has a gentle humour -- never scathing or sardonic. His characters have foibles galore. They may be mythical, but they are far from super-human. The future King, at first a bumbling lad known only as the Wart to those in his adoptive father's household, wanders off into the forest in search of an escaped falcon and comes home with Merlyn in tow. The boy has at least enough sense to grasp that Merlyn has some exceptional qualities and would likely be a good tutor for King Ector's son Kay and himself. He presents his new friend to Ector, and what ensues is the all-time best transcript of an employment interview.
"Oh, sir," said the Wart, "I have been on that quest you said for a tutor, and I have found him. Please, he is this gentleman here, and he is called Merlyn. He has got some badgers and hedgehogs and mice and ants and things on this white donkey here, because we could not leave them behind to starve. He is a great magician, and can make things come out of the air."
"Ah, a magician," said Sir Ector, putting on his glasses and looking closely at Merlyn. "White magic, I hope?"
"Assuredly," said Merlyn, who stood patiently among the throng with his arms folded in his necromantic gown, while Archimedes [the owl] sat very stiff and elongated on the top of his head.
"Ought to have some testimonials," said Sir Ector doubtfully. "It's usual."
"Testimonials," said Merlyn, holding out his hand. Instantly there were some heavy tablets in it, signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and some typewritten duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity, who could not remember having met him. All these gave Merlyn an excellent character.
"He had 'em up his sleeve," said Sir Ector wisely. "Can you do anything else?"
"Tree," said Merlyn. At once there was an enormous mulberry growing in the middle of the courtyard, with its luscious blue fruits ready to patter down. This was all the more remarkable, since mulberries only became popular in the days of Cromwell.
"They do it with mirrors," said Sir Ector.
"Snow," said Merlyn. "And an umbrella," he added hastily. Before they could turn round, the copper sky of summer had assumed a cold and lowering bronze, while the biggest white flakes that ever were seen were floating about them and settling on the battlements. An inch of snow had fallen before they could speak, and all were trembling with the wintry blast. Sir Ector's nose was blue, and had an icicle hanging from the end of it, while all except Merlyn had a ledge of snow upon their shoulders. Merlyn stood in the middle, holding his umbrella high because of the owl.
"It's done by hypnotism," said Sir Ector, with chattering teeth. "Like those wallahs from the Indies. But that'll do," he added hastily, "that'll do very well. I'm sure you'll make an excellent tutor for teachin' these boys."
Kay may be the King's son, but Merlyn expends most of his tutoring efforts on the Wart, turning him into various kinds of fish, birds and animals so the boy can learn the wisdom of other species. This is not an endlessly gratifying project, and Merlyn is often irate with his student's thick-headedness.  I don't remember any other Arthurian writer suggesting either that the young Arthur was a bit dim nor that Merlyn's exasperation with him ever produced untoward results.
Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet. "Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!" he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar. The Wart was still staring at his tutor's chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared. He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane. He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.
"Why did you do that?" asked the Wart.
"I did not do it on purpose."
"Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?"
"Let this be a lesson to you," replied Merlyn, "not to swear. I think we had better change the subject."
The second novel, The Queen of Air and Darkness, opens on a more somber note with an introduction to Queen Morgause -- a lackadaisical witch (possessing nowhere near the conjuring genius of her sister, Morgan le Fay), exquisite and unfaithful wife of King Lot of Orkney and mother to his four sons, Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine. These are the Gaels, the "Old Ones" of Britain, as contrasted to the Anglo-Saxons of the south, including Arthur. The clannish Old Ones settle matters by violence and blood feud and sorcery. When Arthur establishes his court, endorsing justice and chivalry, the sons become Knights at his round table, but their loyalties are always uncertain. While he is dealing with them in his newly peaceful realm in the south, the bumbling southern King Pellinore and his companions wash ashore in Orkney, and the somewhat insatiable Morgause toys with the idea of seducing them. She comes to see that it's a lost cause.
The Queen had recognized the impossible. Even in the miasma of her Gaelic mind, she had come to see that asses do not mate with pythons. It was useless to go on dramatizing her charms and talents for the benefit of these ridiculous knights ...With a sudden turn of feeling she discovered that she hated them. They were imbeciles, as well as being the Sassenach... [Gaelic term for 'Saxon']
Arthur embraces the motto "Right, not Might", but he employs warfare as an acceptable means of getting his point across. As he prepares for a battle with the Old Ones, he realises that war is largely a sport for the nobles. The peasants (kerns, or villeins) are incited to fight and die by their overlords, who usually escape unharmed. This is but one of the seemingly (and depressingly) eternal truths that White illustrates. War is a game of rich old men sending younger, poorer men off to fight and die.
Between the armies there was a serious racial enmity. But it was an enmity controlled from above -- by nobles who were not sincerely anxious for each other's blood. The armies were packs of hounds, as it were, whose struggle with each other was to be commanded by Masters of Hounds, who took the matter as an exciting gamble. The nobles of the inner circle on both sides were in a way traditionally more friendly with each other than with their own men. For them the numbers were necessary for the sake of the bag, and for scenic purposes. For them a good war had to be full of "arms, shoulders and heads flying about the field and blows ringing by the water and the wood." But the arms, shoulders and heads would be those of villeins.
The Ill-Made Knight is hardly how most Arthurian writers would characterise Lancelot. Everyone knows that he's the golden boy -- handsome, debonair, blond. Not in T. H. White's book, he's not. He's homely bordering on ugly. He is driven by his love of Arthur (and later of Guenever) to become the best knight in the world. Finally, he is just a bundle of moral conflicts. White brilliantly remarks that it was not simply a triangle between Arthur, Guenever and Lancelot, but actually a quadrangle, with God in the fourth corner. And it was the relationship between Lancelot and God that is perhaps the most complex. Arthur is a decent man; Guenever is to be loved. Lancelot's lot is to wrestle with his moral bearings.
On top of this stain there was the torture of knowing that Arthur was kind, simple and upright -- of knowing that he was always on the edge of hurting Arthur dreadfully, although he loved him. Then there was pain about Guenever herself, the tiny plant of bitterness which they had sown, or seen sown, in each other's eyes, on the occasion of their first quarrel of suspicion. It was a pain to him to be in love with a jealous and suspicious woman. She had given him a mortal blow by not believing his explanation about Elaine instantly. Yet he was unable not to love her. Finally there were the revolted elements of his own character -- his strange desire for purity and honour and spiritual excellence.
White consistently shows Arthur as a simple man, but always in a positive light. He has his blind spots, to be sure, but he tries to think things through, as his childhood tutor had taught him. He is far from a witless cuckold. And maybe, White hints, he's the wisest one in the book.
Arthur was not one of those interesting characters whose subtle motives can be dissected. He was only a simple and affectionate man, because Merlyn had believed that love and simplicity were worth having.
Arthur realises that his utopian society is still somewhat violent and contentious, and he decides that the best channel for these energies is a religious quest:  "What I mean is, that the ideal of my Round Table was a temporal ideal. If we are to save it, it must be made into a spiritual one. I forgot about God."  And so begins the quest for the Holy Grail.

On a few occasions, White tells readers that he's not going to discuss this or that in great detail, and if the reader wants detail, he can reach for Malory.  Details of great battles, he says, are like reading an account of a cricket match long past -- interesting only for the cricket fanatic. If you want details on all the travails of the Grail quest, he says, Malory is your man. White plants himself in the castle with Arthur and Guenever, waiting for the survivors to return and tell their tales. Gawaine comes home and tells that his warring ways were ineffective. Lancelot got close enough to see the Grail but was not pure enough to get nearer than that. The knights whose spiritual purity let them achieve their goal (including Gawaine's son, Galahad) were never seen again -- perfection disappears, Arthur sadly and sagely concludes. Meanwhile, Lancelot, whose spiritual purity allowed him at least a glimpse of the Grail, finds life at court a bit vacuous in comparison to the spiritual retreat of the Quest.
"Arthur, you mustn't feel that I am rude when I say this. You must remember that I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea. Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt I was going mad? Not from the sea, but from the people. All my gains are slipping away, with the people round me. A lot of the things which you and Jenny say, even, seem to me to be needless: strange noises: empty. You know what I mean, 'How are you?' 'Do sit down.' 'What nice weather we are having!' What does it matter? People talk far too much. Where I have been, and where Galahad is, it is a waste of time to have 'manners.' Manners are only needed between people, to keep their empty affairs in working order. Manners makyth man, you know, not God. So you can understand how Galahad may have seemed inhuman, and mannerless, and so on, to the people who were buzzing and clacking about him. He was far away in his spirit, living on desert islands, in silence, with eternity." 
In stark and painful contrast to Lancelot's upright courage is Mordred, King Arthur's hate-filled bastard son with Morgause. Arthur forces himself to respond to Mordred's venom and scheming with justice and forbearance, but it's clear to all that the monster will not stop until he's destroyed everything the King achieved. And here it is again, that sense that might may, after all, prove right in the end.  The older, cruder and more primal tribes will always likely prevail over the more advanced and cerebral ones, and they'll be relentless gadflies in the meantime.
Small flecks in the iris of Mordred's eyes burned with a turquoise light, as bright as the owl's. Instead of being a foppish man with a crooked shoulder, dressed in extravagant clothes, he became a Cause. He became, on this matter, everything which Arthur was not -- the irreconcilable opposite of the Englishman. He became the invincible Gael, the scion of desperate races more ancient than Arthur's, and more subtle. Now, when he was on fire with his Cause, Arthur's justice seemed bourgeois and obtuse beside him. It seemed merely to be dull complacency, beside the savagery and feral wit of the Pict. His maternal ancestors crowded into his face when he was spurning at Arthur's ancestors whose civilization, like Mordred's, had been matriarchal: who had ridden bare-back, charged in chariots, fought by stratagem, and ornamented their grisly strongholds with the heads of enemies.
At the end of the fourth and final book, A Candle in the Wind, as he's preparing for the final battle with Mordred, a weary and old King Arthur sinks into a  reverie so poignant that my heart aches to think of White as he wrote it.  
...long ago he had been taught by an aged benevolence, wagging a white beard. He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good. He had been forged, by that deluded old teacher, into a sort of Pasteur or Curie or patient discoverer of insulin. The service for which he had been destined had been against Force, the mental illness of humanity. His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. He was like a scientist who had pursued the root of cancer all his life. Might -- to have ended it -- to have made men happier. But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent.
Looking back at his life, it seemed to him that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood, which, whenever he had checked it, had broken through at a new place, setting him his work to do again. It was the flood of Force Majeur
So he had sought for a new channel, had sent them out on God's business, searching for the Holy Grail. That too had been a failure, because those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and been lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better.
Ultimately, in the light of one last moment of universal truth, Arthur considers the twin responsibilities of leaders, whether good or evil, and of the people who put them into power.
Was it the wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?
And on this bleak, haunting note, Arthur concludes his reflection. 
What was Right, what was Wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery, for fear of a Doing which might lead to woe.