The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 2, Chapters 1–3 : The Queen of Air and Darkness | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Chapter 1

Part 2 begins with an epigraph taken from a poem by A.E. Houseman titled "The Welsh Marches."

In an austere room at the top of a castle tower, four boys lie on the floor, where they usually sleep. The oldest is Gawaine, the second oldest is Agravaine, the third oldest is Gaheris, and the youngest is Gareth. Gawaine tells the story of their grandmother, Igraine, the Countess of Cornwall, and their grandfather, the Earl of Cornwall. Long ago the now-dead King Uther invited the couple to his castle, where he tried to force the countess to have sex with him. The countess and earl fled Uther's castle. The earl placed his wife in Tintagil castle while he went to Terrabil castle. Furious about the countess leaving him, Uther laid siege to both castles and, with the help of Merlyn, captured the countess. The earl attempted to rescue her but was slain in the process. The countess already had three beautiful daughters—Elaine, Morgan, and Morgause, the mother of the four boys. Uther made the countess marry him.

Meanwhile in the room below the boys' room, Queen Morgause attempts to concoct a potion to make her invisible, which involves putting a live black cat in a cauldron of boiling water. The animal screeches in pain and dies. Later Morgause places one of the cat's bones in her mouth and looks in the mirror to see if she has become invisible, but she hasn't. Morgause grows bored and lies on her bed. Upstairs, the boys pledge to fight King Arthur—who is supposedly descended from Uther—in order to avenge their grandmother and grandfather.

Part 2, Chapter 2

Standing on the battlements of the castle at Camelot, where he now lives, King Arthur and Merlyn look out over the land. Arthur is a young man with an honest face. He has just fought in a battle in which he defeated the Gaels by using his sword, Excalibur. As a result, Arthur views the battle as splendid. Agitated, Merlyn asks Arthur if he gave any thought to the 700 men in his army who were killed in the battle. The wizard says Arthur has to start thinking for himself because he will not always be with him to offer advice. Merlyn wonders if Arthur has thought seriously about the state of his country and the question of whether might is right. Arthur admits he hasn't. Despite this disturbing talk, Arthur is happy being king. His people love him, and he loves his people.

Part 2, Chapter 3

King Arthur, Merlyn, and Sir Kay use peregrine falcons to hunt grouse. As they ride back from the hunt, they have a talk about why the Gaels have rebelled against Arthur. Merlyn explains that the reasons are complex. First the Gaels have been conquered by other races, which Arthur represents, and they are naturally antagonistic to him. Also Queen Morgause, who is Gaelic, has a personal vendetta against Arthur because his father, King Uther, forced Morgause's mother, Igraine, to marry him. Arthur admits that the Gaels have good reasons to rebel. However, Merlyn says Morgause's reason is a personal one and so should not be used to justify war. In addition the Gaels themselves have conquered other peoples who lived in the British Isles before them. At some point the races have to stop keeping tabs on who conquered whom and just accept the status quo.

Analysis

The epigraph deals with the idea of how the wrongs of one's ancestors plague the present generation. In the poem "The Welsh Marches," the sins of the parents continue to be passed on in the form of war, both between armies and within one's heart. In this section White describes how the misdeeds of Morgause affect her sons and the wrongs of Uther affect his progeny, Arthur.

In the first three chapters of Part 2, White focuses mainly on the themes of might versus right and the folly of war. Arthur has just fought in a battle, which he views as splendid because he won and was not injured. However, he questions this viewpoint mainly because of the contrast between the haves and the have-nots. The nobles, including the knights, represent the haves. They can afford to buy armor to protect themselves in battle. As a result, nobles are rarely killed in these conflicts. In contrast the peasants represent the have-nots. They have no money to buy expensive armor to protect themselves. Because of this, hundreds of them die in battle in support of the nobles who started the conflict. Arthur sees the injustice of this situation. Might is right only for the haves, who reap the spoils but not the consequences of war. For the have-nots, might inflicts suffering and death. Merlyn tells Arthur, "Look at the barns burnt, and dead men's legs sticking out of ponds."

Merlyn realizes it is vital for Arthur to explore this viewpoint and other perspectives on his own, without relying on him. Merlyn mentions he will not always be with the king. During the king's childhood, Merlyn exposed him to different viewpoints by changing him into various animals. Now as an adult, Arthur must learn to explore viewpoints independently without the crutches of metamorphosis and the wizard. White emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, not just accepting the views of the masses or like-minded people. The general tendency of people is to regard their limited views as supreme. For example Arthur, who defeated the Gaels by using Excalibur, thinks the battle was splendid. At first he has no regard for the hundreds of peasants who were killed. He has never seen the results of war on the peasants. Only after Merlyn prods him to think about the peasants does Arthur realize the big picture and the need for a better political system.

By focusing on the reasons for the Gaels' rebellion, White reveals the folly of war. Merlyn admits that the reasons for war are complex but, through his discussion with Arthur and Kay, two main reasons emerge. The first deals with racial disputes that go back centuries. The Gaels are angry at Teutonic tribes for conquering them; as a result, they make war on the Normans because they are Teutonic, even though this group did not directly conquer the Gaels. However, as the wizard points out, the Gaels conquered people who lived in Britain before them. If revenge for being conquered is a justifiable reason for war, then practically every racial group that ever existed has a reason to start a war. It doesn't matter that the conquering may have happened centuries ago. As long as this mindset continues, war between racial groups will be constant. Such a viewpoint is folly because it only leads to more conquering, bad blood, and further wars, and it settles nothing.

The second reason for war deals with personal vendettas. Morgause wants revenge for King Uther's marrying her mother. Because Uther is dead, Morgause seeks revenge on his son, Arthur. This reason is unjust because Arthur had nothing to do with Morgause's mother and Uther. In fact, through most of his early life, Arthur didn't know Uther was his father. Vendettas, therefore, can be passed on from generation to generation, causing suffering to people who have no direct connection to their cause. They can involve hundreds of people who have no connection to them. For example, to seek personal vengeance against Arthur, Morgause supports the Gaelic rebellion. As a result hundreds of people are killed. As Merlyn stresses, "Personal reasons are no excuse for war."

White touches on the theme of perfection versus fallibility through the character of Queen Morgause. Previous chapters have shown the human weaknesses of all people, including Merlyn, Wart, and Kay. However, these weaknesses do not usually cause people to act viciously. With Morgause, White takes fallibility to a more extreme level. Morgause is depicted as a cruel woman who tortures a cat to pass the time and who neglects her children. In fact Morgause is cruel because she doesn't seem to admit any weaknesses. For example she wallows in her vanity, finding any excuse to gaze at herself in a mirror. She seems to have no guilt about the way she treats her children. Instead she seems intent on using them for her own ends. She apparently has an incestuous relationship with her second eldest son, Agravaine, as a way to manipulate him.

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