The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Character Analysis

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King Arthur

As a boy (known as Wart), King Arthur has a sense of inferiority, mainly because he doesn't know the identity of his parents. As a result he feels like an outcast at the castle of his foster father, Sir Ector, even though he is treated kindly. His position, however, enables Arthur to have empathy for other people, especially those who are oppressed in society. Through the teachings of his mentor, the wizard Merlyn, Arthur develops the ability to view the world from various perspectives. As an adult Arthur uses these skills to create a more just form of government. He establishes the Knights of the Round Table and teaches them to use might to defend right. However, he is still plagued with self-doubt. Thinking he can do better, he eventually replaces the Round Table with Civil Law. Arthur's understanding of human fallibility strongly affects his relationship with his wife, Guenever, and his best friend, Lancelot. He loves both of them and understands their passion for each other. As a result he turns a blind eye to their love affair. Arthur ends up being trapped by his own creation: as king, he supports the legal system he established even though doing so condemns Lancelot and Guenever for treachery. Despite his many disappointments, Arthur never gives up hope; he tells a young boy, Tom of Newbold Revell, to keep alive the idea of the Round Table.

Sir Lancelot

Like Arthur, Lancelot suffers from an inferiority complex as a boy. However, instead of developing empathy for others and the ability to see different viewpoints, he tries to make himself worthy of becoming a Knight of the Round Table. He trains obsessively to become the best knight in the world and to achieve spiritual perfection. By so doing, he hopes to compensate for what he feels he is—a bad person at heart. Indeed Lancelot has a tendency to be cruel to others and uses his ideal of chivalry to curb this tendency. Lancelot's conflict between spiritual perfection and fallibility torments him throughout his life. He achieves many of his goals, becoming the world's greatest knight and completing many quests. He also learns to treat people kindly and thus is admired by the common people. Even so, he has human flaws and falls in love with Queen Guenever. Their love affair plagues Lancelot with guilt, but his passion for Guenever is too strong to permanently break off his relationship with her. In the end his love for Guenever destroys the ideal of the Round Table he has striven to uphold. Some people call him by the nickname Lance.

Queen Guenever

Queen Guenever is the wife of King Arthur. She is a brave, gracious, honest queen who strives to honor her husband. However, Guenever was very young when she married Arthur, and she had no say in the union because the marriage was arranged. Although she comes to love and respect Arthur, Guenever feels frustrated with the absence of passion in their relationship. When she meets Lancelot, she falls deeply in love with him. Guenever fully commits herself to the people she loves. In this case, she loves two men and tries to love each one fully. She has a jealous fit when Elaine tricks Lancelot into making love to her and bears him a son, Galahad. Guenever's accusation that Lancelot has not been true to her drives him mad for several years. Guenever mellows with age, becoming less impetuous and more understanding. However, her affair with Lancelot ends up separating her from both of the men she loves. Lancelot sometimes calls her by the nickname Jenny.

Merlyn

Merlyn is a powerful, sage wizard who tutors King Arthur when he is a boy. He wants to establish more peaceful relations among people and he trains young Arthur to become a wise, peace-loving king. Merlyn transforms Arthur into various animals to teach him to see things from different perspectives. The wizard is very old, but he appears to be getting younger all the time. The reason for this is that he was born in the future and is moving backward through time. Merlyn thus knows what will happen but does not know why those things will happen. Because of this, he often gets muddled about time and forgets things. For example he forgets to tell Arthur that Queen Morgause is really his half-sister. Arthur sleeps with Morgause and she bears his son, Mordred. Eventually Mordred succeeds in destroying the Round Table. Merlyn, therefore, is instrumental both in helping Arthur become a great king and also in causing Arthur's ruin.

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