The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 2, Chapters 10–12 : The Queen of Air and Darkness | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Chapter 10

The night before the battle of Bedegraine, the armies of King Lot and King Arthur receive blessings from their respective bishops. In a tent Merlyn tries to remember something important to tell Arthur concerning his future. Arthur wants Merlyn to avoid his own destiny, which involves being entrapped in a cave for centuries by the beautiful young witch Nimue. The wizard tells Arthur a parable about a man who tries to escape death but meets his death during the attempt. According to Merlyn, a person cannot escape his or her destiny. Merlyn also claims he and Arthur will both come back after hundreds of years. He tells Arthur the inscription on his grave will be Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus ("Here Lies King Arthur, the Once and Future King"). Arthur wonders what people in the future will be like.

Part 2, Chapter 11

Sir Grummore, wearing the bottom of the Questing Beast costume, and Sir Palomides, wearing the top, are trapped on a cliff by the beast, who has fallen in love with them. The two knights are afraid to come down to the creature for fear she will accost them in an amorous frenzy. They ask King Pellinore to kill the beast but, not seeing any real threat, Pellinore refuses. Finally Pellinore holds the beast's tail as the two knights make a break for the castle. The beast breaks loose and chases them. Grummore and Palomides enter the castle in the nick of time, but the beast remains outside the wall, pining for them. The knights then see Pellinore approaching with his beloved, Piggy. With the help of the Questing Beast, she has found Pellinore. Piggy and Pellinore enter the castle, but the beast continues to besiege the fortress out of love. Pellinore, Grummore, and Palomides visit St. Toirdealbhach, who intends to marry Mother Morlan. The marriages of Pellinore and Piggy and Toirdealbhach and Mother Morlan ease the tensions between the Gaelic people and the three knights from England.

Part 2, Chapter 12

Although severely outnumbered by the Gaelic army, Arthur and his forces gain an advantage at the battle of Bedegraine by using unusual and unexpected tactics. First Arthur attacks at night, thereby surprising the Gaelic kings. He also focuses on having his knights attack the Gaelic knights instead of the foot soldiers. In addition Arthur's French allies, King Ban and King Bors, launch a surprise attack on the Gaels. Meanwhile Merlyn leads the Gallic foot soldiers against the Gaelic foot soldiers. Demoralized, the Gaels disperse, giving the victory to Arthur.

Analysis

In Part 2, Chapters 10 and 12, White interrelates the themes of the folly of war and might versus right. The author shows the folly of war by revealing how each army is blessed by bishops, who assure the soldiers God is on their side. In this way White emphasizes how nations use God to justify warfare, thereby masking other motives such as greed and revenge. In the case of the Gaels, the common soldier has been convinced he is fighting as retribution for past grievances committed by Galls against the Gaels. In reality these soldiers have been manipulated by the propaganda of their lord overseers. These lords see warfare as a sport or game that provides entertainment and hopefully gives them the distinction of being the winners. Also, if they are victorious, the lords will receive considerable wealth from ransoms. God, therefore, has little to do with the real motives for war.

Realizing kings and knights view war as a sport, Arthur sees them as cruel and unjust. The nobles are protected by armor and thus are usually not killed—or even harmed—during battle. In contrast, hundreds, and at times thousands, of common soldiers are killed. Indeed a battle can be seen as a fight involving the knights on one side killing the foot soldiers on the other side, and vice versa. If for some reason Arthur's soldiers rebelled against their king, then Lot and his knights would defend Arthur against the uprising. Nobles, no matter what side they are on, stick up for one another. White compares this type of war to foxhunting, in which one side tries to bag more casualties than the other. The side that kills the most foot soldiers wins. Arthur, however, uses this type of war against the Gaels by refusing to play by the rules: he uses might directly against the Gaelic nobility by having his knights attack the Gaelic knights instead of the foot soldiers. The Gaelic nobles feel the horror of war firsthand; it is no longer a game but a matter of survival. Stunned, the Gaelic kings eventually surrender despite outnumbering their enemy.

In Chapter 11 White uses comic relief to convey the theme of might versus right. The Questing Beast has fallen in love with Grummore and Palomides, who are dressed in a Questing Beast costume. Extremely embarrassed, the two knights ask Pellinore to kill the beast. Pellinore refuses, seeing no real physical threat to Grummore and Palomides. With this humorous situation, the author stresses how the nobility use might to defend their honor even though they have caused their own problems. Grummore and Palomides created the problem they are facing with the beast, but instead of admitting their mistake or fallibility, they want to use might to kill the creature. For the nobility, saving face often takes priority over what is right.

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