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The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Quotes


The ... sky above him was now a perfect circle. The horizon had closed.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 5

After being changed into a fish, Wart (King Arthur) views the world from an entirely new perspective. As a fish, Wart feels a freedom of movement he had not felt as a human as well as the terror of might-is-right when another fish threatens to eat him. Other transformations teach Wart even more about the value of exploring different viewpoints.


Everything not forbidden is compulsory.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 13

As an ant, Wart (Arthur) understands the horror of being in a system of might-is-right. The ants mindlessly follow orders, feeling compelled to complete all tasks that aren't forbidden. The Leader has complete, unquestioned power. Through the ant colony, the author also satirizes communism, which supports communal ownership of property.


All ... had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 23

Wart (Arthur) senses the presence of all the creatures he had befriended during his lessons with Merlyn coming to help him remove the sword from the stone. Inspired by their love, Wart pulls out the sword. The sword, therefore, combines power and love instead of power and might.


We ... give ... our hearts uncritically—to those who hardly think about us.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 1

The author reveals a dynamic that has developed in the dysfunctional Orkney family. The mother, Queen Morgause, abuses her sons emotionally, ignoring them one moment and then doting on them the next. However, like most children, the sons crave their mother's love. Therefore they believe they must in some way earn this love, such as by giving a unicorn's head to her. Even though their attempts to get their mother's love fail, they still feel compelled to win her affection—a motivation that influences them throughout their lives.


Barons can slice the poor people ... as much as they want ... Might is Right.

Merlyn, Part 2, Chapter 2

People in power, such as the barons, use the idea of might-is-right because this approach does little harm to them and gives them significant advantages. For example they can go to war and, protected by their armor, usually not get hurt. As a result they can gain land, wealth, and honor. However, the poor people, such as the foot soldiers, often die by the hundreds in wars. The injustice of this system motivates King Arthur to form the Knights of the Round Table.


Look at the barns burnt, and dead men's legs sticking out of ponds.

Merlyn, Part 2, Chapter 2

Merlyn conveys both the horror of the notion of might-is-right and the folly of war. War has the greatest destructive impact on the common person. All the death and suffering involved in war takes place so that a few people in power can get the upper hand against other people in power. Merlyn comments that lords and knights view war as a type of game, such as foxhunting.


The boy thought that there was something wrong with him.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 1

The boy in this quotation is Lancelot. He thinks something is wrong with him as he gazes at his ugly reflection in a steel helmet. Lancelot's sense of inferiority, therefore, comes in part from his hideous appearance. This sense of shame haunts Lancelot for the rest of his life. He attempts to achieve martial and spiritual perfection as a knight to compensate for his inadequacy.


People could only have the strength of ten on account of their hearts being pure.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 11

For Lancelot spiritual purity is vital to being a great knight. Like many medieval people, he equates virginity with spiritual perfection. So when he loses his virginity as a result of Elaine's trick, he sees himself as impure and expects his strength to weaken. The author contradicts Lancelot's view: even after losing his virginity, Lancelot continues to be a great knight and even succeeds in performing a miracle.


Don't ever let anybody teach you to think ... it is the curse of the world.

King Arthur, Part 3, Chapter 27

Influenced by Merlyn, King Arthur advises Lancelot to think independently. Throughout his reign, the king uses independent, critical thinking to figure out a way to either channel might constructively or eliminate it. Adopting other people's ways of thinking is the curse of the world because doing this often continues negative patterns of behavior. For example, Arthur's son Mordred cannot think for himself, but instead adopts his mother's way of thinking. As a result he continues Queen Morgause's vengeful and manipulative behavior.


She was trying to defy the invincible doom of human destiny.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 32

Because she does not feel secure in Lancelot's love, Guenever tries to maintain a certain perfection of appearance. In an effort to defy the aging process, she wears too much makeup, which makes her appear rather pathetic. Later, when she resumes her affair with him, she stops wearing makeup because she is confident he loves her for who she is. As she allows her imperfections to show, her true beauty comes out.


There had been nothing left for Galahad to ask of God, except death.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 36

The ultimate result of Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail is death. This result is ironic or unexpected because God is generally viewed as the giver of life. Reaching the Grail, or God's presence, should be life-giving, but for Galahad it's not. According to White, the reason for Galahad's despair is that people are not meant to be perfect. They are fallible creatures who make mistakes. Therefore, as Galahad becomes more perfect, he also becomes less humane and less concerned about human problems. He becomes too perfect for the world, and so he doesn't want to live in it any more.


If I don't stand for law, I won't have law among my people.

King Arthur, Part 4, Chapter 4

King Arthur becomes trapped by his own creation, namely Common Law and the legal system. In an effort to form a system that supports might-for-right, the king creates the Common Law, which is used to enforce justice. The problem arises with the impartiality of the law. Because of their love affair, Lancelot and Guenever have committed treason and, according to the letter of the law, should be executed. As king, Arthur knows he must support the law and convict the lovers. If he doesn't carry out the law, the law becomes meaningless. By following the law, however, Arthur is sentencing to death the two people he loves most.


Now that she was dead, he had become her grave. She existed ... like the vampire.

Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 11

Mordred has taken on the personality of his mother, Queen Morgause, who seems to inhabit his being. Dominated by his mother throughout most of his life, Mordred has meshed himself with her. He has failed to create healthy boundaries that separate him from Morgause. As a result he has become Morgause's puppet even though she is dead.


My idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here.

King Arthur, Part 4, Chapter 14

King Arthur compares candles and their flames to his idea of the Round Table. Like the candles, his idea must be protected from the fierce elements of the world that seek to snuff it out. Arthur entrusts the ideal of the Round Table to his page, Tom of Newbold Revell, who will be a keeper of the flame. Tom promises to keep the idea of the Round Table burning brightly and to spread it to others in the future.


The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing—literally nothing.

Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 14

King Arthur remembers what he learned from his time with the geese, namely that political boundaries are imaginary. Because of this, when nations make war, they are fighting for something that isn't even real. They want to expand or protect their boundaries, but the boundaries don't really exist except as a mental concept. Arthur hopes the idea of the Round Table, or a table without boundaries, will take hold among the people of all nations.

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