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The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Themes


Might versus Right

Might versus right is the central dilemma facing King Arthur in The Once and Future King. When Arthur becomes king, constant fighting dominates England as lords feel justified in using their power, or might, to carry on feuds with other lords. Arthur realizes the common people suffer most in this process, however. In battle, knights protected by armor seldom come to harm, while numerous foot soldiers die. Mentored by Merlyn, Arthur sees the extreme injustice of this system and attempts to rectify it when he becomes king. His attempt to create a more just system goes through four developmental stages.

First Arthur tries to replace the ingrained notion of might-is-right with the new idea that might can be used to defend the right, or to aid just and positive causes. To accomplish this he forms the Knights of the Round Table, a group of warriors who swear to use their might to fight injustice. These knights thus defend the poor and weak, protect women from harm, and never use violence to seek vengeance. For a while this new system seems to work well. The Knights of the Round Table help to bring about a more peaceful England. However many of these knights hold on to old ideas and never really stop competing with other knights. They make the Round Table into a type of game in which knights try to outdo one another in subduing rogue elements in the kingdom. Eventually, when peace is established, they begin to use their might against each other, leading Arthur to seek a new way to constructively channel might.

In the second stage Arthur tries to distract and redirect the quarrelsome Round Table knights by directing their might to the service of God: he sets them up to embark on a quest for the Holy Grail (a legendary cup purported to have held Christ's blood at his crucifixion). However, even though a few knights find the Grail, the quest ultimately weakens Arthur's kingdom. Many of his best knights die during the search, leaving a large number of less chivalrous knights. The quest has the additional side effect of demoralizing Arthur's knights; in order to be eligible to find the Grail, a knight must strive to be physically and spiritually perfect—a process most knights find too daunting.

The third stage involves using right for right. Arthur decides to eliminate might entirely from the equation by creating and instituting a system of Common Law for the enforcement of justice. The law, rather than physical might, provides the means to create and maintain a just society. However, Arthur becomes trapped by his own creation. As king he feels he must support his legal system. As a result he reluctantly convicts his wife, Queen Guenever, and his best friend, Sir Lancelot, for treason with proof the two have been involved in a long-term love affair. Ultimately he must execute the two people who love and support him the most in order to follow the letter of the law.

The imminent execution of Guenever leads to the fourth stage of Arthur's philosophical and political development—namely, the destruction of his attempt to create a just, peaceful society and the reemergence of the spirit of might-is-right. Lancelot rescues Guenever from being burned at the stake, the legal punishment for adultery. However, his act provokes a bloody war between Arthur and himself. Arthur acknowledges that his dream of lasting peace has collapsed, but he transmits his ideals and hopes via his advice to his young page, Tom of Newbold Revell. He tells the boy to avoid the coming battle, live out his life, and carry the ideals of the Round Table into the future.

Folly of War

Through developing and exploring the theme of the folly of war in The Once and Future King, White examines the ramifications of the notion that might-is-right on a large scale. For the author, war is folly for two main reasons: First, war does not really solve any problems, and it certainly creates the problem of suffering for the army and populace. Second, war contributes to an endless cycle of violence and retribution.

White shows the first point early in the novel (in Part 1, Chapter 7) through the humorous exchange between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore. To preserve their honor, these two knights perform a type of slapstick routine in which they clang around in heavy suits of armor while banging each other with swords. They settle nothing. Although they are not technically waging a war, Pellinore and Grummore have the same mindset as lords who fight large-scale battles: they see fighting as a type of game in which they compete to score the most points. Arthur recognizes this, and so when fighting at the battle of Bedegraine, he makes sure that it is the lords and knights, not the foot soldiers, who are made to feel the full horror of war. Arthur's strategy seems to work. He wins the battle, enabling him to institute the Knights of the Round Table. However, throughout the course of the novel, White shows that this battle really did not solve the essential problem. The Gaels still have hard feelings toward the Galls, and their feelings come out later in the conflict between Mordred—Arthur's son—and his half-brothers Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. As the novel ends, Arthur's kingdom is once again consumed by warfare.

Secondly, war leads to more and more violence. The climax of the novel clearly shows this. Lancelot and Arthur wage war on each other over Queen Guenever. Seizing his opportunity, Arthur's son, Mordred, claims the English throne, causing Arthur to wage war on him. When Lancelot realizes Guenever's life is in danger, he also battles Mordred. Arthur becomes embroiled in the chaos of warfare, which is precisely what he has been attempting to avoid throughout his reign. Retribution perpetuates itself and contributes to the folly of war. In the novel's last chapter, Arthur remembers and meditates on what he learned from his early experience of being transformed into a goose by his mentor, Merlyn: political boundaries are imaginary. Thousands of people are killed fighting to defend or seize something that is not even real.

Exploring Different Viewpoints

White focuses on the theme of exploring various viewpoints in Part 1 of The Once and Future King, over the course of which Merlyn changes his pupil, Wart (the future King Arthur), into various animals. Through these transformations, Arthur learns that how one sees the world is significantly determined by one's vantage point. For example, as a little fish, he experiences the terror of might-is-right when a big fish tries to eat him. As an ant, he observes the mindlessness and cruelty of being made to follow orders without questioning them. Finally, as a goose, he understands how arbitrary, invented political boundaries confine the beauty and freedom of the natural world. Through these transformations White traces the development of Wart from childhood to adulthood as his wisdom about the world gradually expands. Eventually he becomes mature enough to take on the responsibility of king. At the end of the novel, Arthur reexamines his experience as a goose as he tries to find a reason why war has once again consumed his domain.

Throughout the novel Arthur's empathy stems from his ability to see reality from different perspectives. By seeing the world through the perspective of peasants, for example, Arthur has sympathy for their suffering, especially during wartime. His empathy and love for Lancelot and Guenever allows him to turn a blind eye on their ongoing love affair. He understands Guenever's point of view; she was very young when she married Arthur, and their marriage was arranged. Arthur understands how his wife, a young woman, still yearns for the passion of romance. He also knows Lancelot is tortured both by his illicit relationship with Guenever and by his betrayal of his king and beloved friend. Arthur's ability to see reality from the perspective of others helps him be tolerant throughout his life.

Perfection versus Fallibility

White conveys the fallibility through the various mistakes of his characters, thereby humanizing them. For instance, instead of depicting Merlyn as wise and always in control, the author portrays the wizard as frequently muddled, confused, and overwhelmed by events. Lancelot most clearly shows the conflict between perfection and fallibility. To compensate for his innate sense of inferiority, Lancelot constantly strives to achieve physical and spiritual perfection. However, his fallibility, especially his desire for Guenever, creates a stumbling block he can't get past. Therefore Lancelot remains a man in constant psychological turmoil as the two sides of himself make war against each other. He sincerely wants to remain sexually and spiritually pure so he can one day perform miracles, but he remains helpless to permanently break off his long-term love affair with Queen Guenever, the wife of his best friend, King Arthur. He hates the imperfection he sees in himself, and at one point (Part 3, Chapter 18) his inner struggle becomes so strong that it literally drives him mad.

White also shows the conflict between perfection and fallibility through the knights' quest for the Holy Grail. To find the Grail a knight must be willing to strive to become perfect. Most knights find this process too difficult and end up getting discouraged. Indeed Gawaine becomes so frustrated with his human imperfections that he acts in a more violent manner than ever before. The knights who do become perfect enough to find the Grail, such as Lancelot's son Galahad, soon turn into intolerant, inhumane thieves. Galahad considers himself above the rest of humanity, and he disdainfully criticizes knights who exhibit imperfect behavior. When he finds the Holy Grail, however, he has nothing else to look forward to and he wants to die. The author seems to be suggesting humans are not meant to be perfect. Their misguided attempts toward perfection result in disaster.

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