The Once and Future King The legend of King Arthur is a tale as timeless as any other found in literature today. Introduced to us by Sir Thomas Malory during the fifteenth century in Morte d' Arthur, it was the first complete tale of Arthur's life. Countless portrayals followed for any reader interested in the tale of the boy who was destined to become King. The Once and Future King by T.H. White is certainly the most popular representation of the immortal legend of King Arthur.
It is similar to the tales woven before it but White gives new meanings and modernization to the traditional story through his unique perspectives and writing. White takes the reader on a journey in the past enriched by the knowledge of the future. Most importantly, White's notion that society cannot be governed by might alone is a prevalent theme throughout the work. He expresses the ideals of 'might vs. right'; as it relates to a world much like our world today. He clearly understands that 'might'; rules the actions of individuals, but 'right'; is the ideal that we seek to obtain.
As we often find, the former prevails. The novel is divided into four sections that represent periods of time in Arthur's life. The novel begins with The Sword in the Stone, the tale of Arthur's childhood. At this time, he is not referred to as Arthur but Wart. His foster brother gave him this name and it was his childhood nemesis. Early in the book, Wart finds Merlyn who becomes his tutor.
One of the earliest indications of the theme occurs when Merlyn and Wart are discussing knighthood. Wart tells of his desire to 'encounter all the evil in the world... so that if I conquer it there would be none left'; (38). Merlin quickly corrects the boy by telling him his notion 'would be extremely presumptuous', and he 'would be conquered for it' (38). Merlyn wants the young boy to understand that might is not the answer to the problems in the world. He hopes that when the young boy becomes King he will be capable of correcting such faults with the world. This is in contrast to Wart's encounter with the King of the Moat while on an adventure lesson devised by Merlin.
The King declares that 'there is only power'; , and 'power of the body decides everything in the end, and only might is right'; (48). For a young boy, the lessons in life are difficult to understand without experience. Wart's experience will soon come, for the section ends when he pulls the sword from the stone and becomes King. Merlyn is the first to address him as King, leaving behind the boy once known as Wart. The next section entitled The Queen of Air and Darkness tells of Arthur's war to defend his title and secure his throne. His fight to claim his rights leads Arthur to a battle within himself.
At one point Arthur declares to his subjects 'Why can't you harness might so that it works for right'; (254). He believes that in his pursuit to conquer his foes, he could use might to turn the bad things into something good. Merlyn is aware of his naivete but knows that time will bring knowledge or failure. Only time will tell the story. Later in the Ill-Made Knight, he creates a round table of his best and most noble knights to fight for the good of the kingdom. He chooses as one of his knights, Sir Lancelot, known as a 'knight with a medieval respect for honour'; (353).
This early description of the knight was for a man not corrupted by his desires. Lancelot is also described as not wasting his time trying to discover what is right or wrong. It is this lack of character that overwhelms his love for Arthur and allows him to fall in love with Arthur's wife Gue never. White alludes to Sir Lancelot's quality of having no desire for right as the one 'which brought their ruin'; (353). Such a forbidden love was certain to bring them all heartache in the end. Arthur later declares the round table to be a mistake because 'the table itself was founded on force'; (450).
He realizes too late that 'right must be established by right; it can't be established by force majeur'; (450). In The Candle in the Wind, Arthur realizes his sins will torture him. He states emphatically that 'do you think that you can stop the consequences of a bad action, by doing good ones afterwards? I don't'; (612). His dreams of the holy quest have vanished, his suspicions of his best knight and wife have begun to pain him slowly, and the future of his kingdom lay with a son he cannot trust nor really love.
He is aware that the past cannot be forgotten and his future is dismal because he never believed enough in the right of the world but followed in the footsteps of the might that led the way. In the end, he is carried away to Avi lion to die or live out his days. White describes the end as 'looking back at his life, it seemed to him that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood. It was the flood of force majeur'; (666). It was so easy for him to remember the lessons that Merlyn gave him when it was too late for action. Reflection is man's greatest demon and it became King Arthur's final foe.
This epic tale was as insightful as it was profoundly symbolic. White takes a legend and creates a tale full of love, loyalty, war, peace, and idealism. He gives the reader a tragic tale of the human spirit. As a master at storytelling. His book was woven masterfully and majestically. The plot remained central to the theme of 'might vs. right'; until the very end.
In White's own words 'the fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although, it was a sparkling one, in the great blue of the sunlit sea'; (677). Too late for Arthur, might conquered right. Although his heart believed in the ideals that would free men, the forces of nature won. The journey that White creates reminds us that the best intentions are not always enough to change a drop of rain without the sacrifice of human elements.
The fate of man is in knowing too late all the right things.