The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 4, Chapters 13–14 : The Candle in the Wind | Summary

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Summary

Part 4, Chapter 13

A fierce storm strikes northern France, including Lancelot's castle. In the castle Bors and Bleoberis try to figure out why Arthur and Gawaine suddenly stopped their siege and left for England. Lancelot arrives with a letter. He tells Bors and Bleoberis they must prepare to leave for England immediately. Apparently Arthur and his army have defeated the forces who tried to prevent the king from landing. However, Mordred has regrouped for another battle. The letter was written by Gawaine, who is now dead. In the note Gawaine asks for Lancelot's forgiveness. Knowing he is about to die, he asks Lancelot to come to England and pray at his tomb. Lancelot says Gawaine "was a right good brother." Lancelot wants to help Arthur defeat Mordred.

Part 4, Chapter 14

In a pavilion before a battle with Mordred and his forces, King Arthur reviews his life and how things went so wrong. He thinks about his attempts to replace the idea of might-is-right with a more just system, which failed. Then he considers possible reasons why these attempts proved futile. Arthur has a talk with a page, Tom of Newbold Revell, and tells the lad how he established the Knights of the Round Table and how things went wrong and the table was broken. The boy insists the king will win in the end. Arthur makes the lad promise not to fight in the coming battle. Instead Arthur wants Tom to live a full life and carry on the idea of justice and the Round Table to other people. Proud to be given this task, Tom promises to fulfill it and then leaves Arthur alone in the tent. The king remembers Merlyn changing him into various animals and what he learned during these adventures. Arthur realizes that people fight wars for imaginary reasons, namely the invented boundaries between countries. The geese know these boundaries aren't real. If people could learn to respect other cultures and not try to dominate them, peace might be possible. The hope of this happening lies in culture and people learning to write, read, and reason. Refreshed, Arthur stands ready to meet his future with a peaceful heart.

Analysis

In Part 4, Chapter 14, White has Arthur use the skills he developed under Merlyn's tutelage to ponder the serious question of why humans wage war. He remembers how geese view the world without boundaries, emphasizing the notion that people fight war for something that isn't real, such as imaginary boundaries. If people could learn that fighting for these boundaries is not worthwhile, then war might be eliminated.

The significance of Arthur's conclusion, however, does not lie in finding the cause of war but rather in the process he goes through to come to this conclusion. Indeed many people might justifiably disagree with Arthur's answer. For example they might point out that people need to change within themselves before they can ever accept a world without boundaries. Arthur's conclusions can be debated. However, White seems to be indicating that the process of critical thinking through which Arthur goes through is what really matters. The process involves two important components. First, Arthur takes responsibility for trying to make the world a better place. His previous attempts to improve the world failed. He could easily throw in the towel and refuse to makes any more attempts, but he doesn't do this. He still strives to make his contribution to improving the world. Second, Arthur uses a combination of empathy and honesty to find solutions. He doesn't hesitate to criticize his own past efforts. He is able to see the world from the perspective of others and, as a result, he realizes how fear, greed, and clinging unreasonably to tradition contribute to war. Arthur, in short, goes through a process of independent, critical thinking.

Throughout the novel, the failure of characters to think independently has caused difficulties. For example, Gawaine is not able criticize the ways of his ancestors and cast off their approach. As a result he falls back into familiar patterns of behavior, seeking revenge for the deaths of his brothers as his ancestors would have done. Mordred is so strongly influenced by his mother's way of thinking that he almost becomes a male version of Morgause. At one point he tells Guenever he wants to keep the family pattern going by committing a type of incest in marrying her. Merlyn fully realizes the importance of independent, critical thinking and, as a result, keeps encouraging Arthur to think for himself. White suggests that only by resorting to this type of thinking do humans retain the possibility of breaking the pattern of endless war.

In Part 4, Chapter 14, White introduces the last major symbol of the novel, the candle in the wind. The roots of this symbol go back to the previous chapter, where the author describes a fierce wind howling through northern France and Lancelot's castle. The wind seems to exemplify all the oppressive elements of violence that have plagued humankind. The narrator describes it as "some monstrous, elemental being, wailing its damnation." In the next chapter the same type of wind blows through England, including the location of Arthur's pavilion. In the pavilion Arthur sees candles flickering because of the wind outside. The king compares his idea of the Round Table to the flame of a candle. The candle in the wind, therefore, represents a noble idea that needs to be protected against the forces of might that seek to snuff it out. Arthur entrusts this candle to Tom of Newbold Revell. He wants the lad to live a full life and, in the process, nurture and spread this idea of the Round Table. In this way the idea may eventually take root in the future.

The novel ends with the Latin phrase Explicit Liber Regis Quondam Regisque Futuri ("The Book Ends about the Once and Future King") and then the English phrase The Beginning. The two together emphasize that the book may be ending with the demise of Arthur, but his ideas are just beginning to take hold. Eventually he will come back to reign again.

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