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The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Symbols


Sword in the Stone

The complex symbol of the sword in the stone works on two levels in The Once and Future King. First this symbol represents the authority of kingship and destiny. The person who pulls the sword out of the stone in the challenge issued after the death of King Uther Pendragon will be the next King of England. The sword in the stone has also existed for centuries. The person who succeeds in removing the weapon has, therefore, been predestined to become the king almost since the birth of England. The fact that no one can pull out the sword out except Wart (Arthur) contributes to the idea that he is the only one meant to be the King of England.

On another level the sword signifies the spirit and power of love that unifies all creatures and makes all life sacred. When Wart first touches the sword, he says, "I feel strange ... I notice everything more clearly." Later, as he tries to pull out the sword, all of the creatures in the churchyard, as well as the ghostly presences of all the creatures with whom he has been acquainted through his transformations in his youth, join together to encourage him. He can't pull out the sword by might alone; he must do so gently, and with love. The teachings of his mentor, Merlyn, seem to have found root in Wart. Having been changed by Merlyn into different animals as a teaching tool, the boy has formed a bond with other creatures. He also knows that might often causes suffering and can be used unfairly. As a result Wart realizes he needs to use love to remove the sword, and he continues this approach going forward in his life as King Arthur.

Round Table

For White, the Round Table represents the ideals of equality and justice. By coming up with the idea of using a round rather than a rectangular table for meetings with his knights, Arthur sets up a nonhierarchical atmosphere, making all of the warriors in the group equal. In doing this the king hopes to stop feuding among the knights and to enhance a sense of fellowship. After forming a mutual bond the Knights of the Round Table go forth into the world to try to build a more just society. The Round Table, though, does not represent a classless society. Arthur wants to create equality among the nobility, but the nobles are still in a higher social class than the merchants and peasants.

The Round Table ultimately fails because of the means used to enforce it. Knights still use might to do the king's will. As a result many of them hang on to the old notion of might-is-right despite their attempts to be chivalrous. The approach of might-is-right gradually takes over the ideals represented by the Round Table in Arthur's domain as a result of the rash actions of his son, Mordred, and Mordred's half-brothers Agravaine and Gawaine. If more knights had taken the code of chivalry to their hearts, as Lancelot, Gareth, and Aglovale did, the idea of the Round Table might have prevailed. At the end of the novel Arthur realizes that if the idea of the Round Table could have taken hold among all his people, peace could have lasted.

Candle in the Wind

The symbol of the candle in the wind has two components to it. The fierce wind that blows in Chapter 13 and Chapter 14 represents the forces of violence threatening to destroy humankind as people revert to using might against each other. The candle and its flame signify Arthur's idea of the Round Table, which involves a world without political boundaries where people respect each other and don't try to gain power over others. Before his battle against Mordred, Arthur acknowledges that the idea of the Round Table, although noble, is fragile and could easily be extinguished. In his pavilion he sees his candles flickering from the strong wind blowing outside. If they are not protected, a gust could snuff the candles out. Likewise the forces of might could obliterate the idea of the Round Table. Arthur entrusts his idea to a young page, Tom of Newbold Revell, who will act as a keeper of the flame. Tom promises Arthur not to fight in the coming battle, but to live out his life and keep Arthur's idea burning brightly as he shares it with others in the future.

Holy Grail

The Holy Grail represents the human desire to achieve perfection. This desire can be seen most strongly in Lancelot. To overcome his innate sense of inferiority, Lancelot strives all his life to be physically and spiritually perfect. He feels inspired and challenged when King Arthur sets his knights on the quest for the Holy Grail. But White shows the quest for perfection can also be a curse. Many of Arthur's knights perish during the search for the Grail. Others, such as Lancelot, are demoralized by it. The knights who do find the Grail, such as Lancelot's son, Galahad, become inhumane in their treatment of others and hold themselves above the concerns of the rest of humanity. With their eyes focused solely on God, they have no empathy for the people of this world. Sir Bors, the one knight who does return after finding the Grail, is not a loving person despite becoming holy enough to grasp the Grail. The narrator describes him as a misogynist who sees women as inferior. In contrast to Bors, Lancelot—who has failed in his quest for perfection as well as for the Holy Grail—senses the need to embrace his own imperfection and to rely more on God's mercy and forgiveness. By the end of the novel he becomes more understanding and tolerant of human fallibility in others.

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