Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.
The great pike, king of the fish in Sir Ector’s moat, speaks these words to the Wart in Book I, Chapter 5, after Merlyn transforms the Wart into a fish. The great pike presents a simplistic view of power and the nature of leadership. He insists that power is a value in itself, to be sought and exercised for its own sake and instituted by physical force. The Wart’s discussion with the pike is his first exposure to a philosophy of government that emphasizes force. The Wart responds to the pike’s views with disgust, which suggests that he has the potential to be a just, good ruler. This quote is also important because it presents the vocabulary of power and morality that will dominate Arthur’s mind for the rest of his life. He begins to consider the relationship between “Might” and “Right,” and to criticize the status quo of English society. Arthur’s firsthand experience with the pike’s style of leadership motivates him to be a different type of ruler and to formulate a new type of philosophy about war and justice.
Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right?… The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can’t neglect it.
Arthur utters these words in a speech from Book II, Chapter 6, in which he first articulates the philosophy that is to make him such a great ruler. He synthesizes the lessons he has learned from Merlyn and decides to use his new position of king to harness physical force to establish morality. He expresses his belief that the proper function of power is to subordinate might to right. This idea may seem simplistic to modern readers, but White presents a medieval world in which force is blindly equated with justice and shows that it is truly innovative for Arthur to draw a distinction between power and justice. Essentially, White shows that Arthur is a king worth remembering not for his heroism or his military exploits, but because he champions the idea of civilized society. He recognizes that all people have a good side and a bad side and thinks his political philosophy will allow him to harness people’s bad sides for the common good. For example, knights who long to fight will still be able to fight, but they will fight against those who do evil deeds rather than fight for its own sake.
It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. . . . It is the tragedy … of sin coming home to roost. . . . [W]e have to take note of the parentage of Arthur’s son Mordred, and to remember … that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so … but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.
This passage, from Book II, Chapter 14, closes the second book of the novel and introduces a dark tone that carries over into Book III. Immediately before these lines, White presents Mordred’s family tree and reveals that Morgause, the woman Arthur has just slept with, is in fact his half-sister. White locates the downfall of Arthur’s reign in this one unwitting sin. White suggests that it is this evil deed that begins Arthur’s downfall and tragedy. Arthur’s sins come “home to roost” in the vengeful Mordred, who is the result of the incestuous union between Arthur and Morgause. This passage suggests the evil within Mordred’s character and foreshadows his role in precipitating the fall of Camelot and Arthur. This quote is important because it offers White’s personal analysis of the Arthur saga and exemplifies White’s frequent allusions to Malory as the definitive teller of the Arthurian legend.
[H]e had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. . . . For one thing, he liked to hurt people.
This description of Lancelot comes from Book III, Chapter 6. White describes the inner conflict that drives Lancelot—namely, a commitment to holiness that develops because of his inclination to be cruel. White explains how the clash between Lancelot’s good and bad selves leads to his heroic behavior. Lancelot has some terrible characteristics, including cruelty and a love of violence, but he is committed to his desire to be honorable. Thus, he transforms his hidden insecurities and guilt into an outward drive to commit good deeds and heroic acts. White explains that Lancelot is a merciful warrior not despite his cruelty but because of it. Whereas a knight like Gawaine has no problem ending a vanquished enemy’s life, Lancelot views such an unmerciful deed as caving in to his despicable side. Lancelot’s deep self-hatred causes him to act gently and nobly whenever he can, since he wants to deprive himself of the pleasure that cruelty gives him. If Lancelot did not want so badly to be cruel, he would not act so mercifully. This paradoxical arrangement is typical of Lancelot’s conflicted personality, which causes him intense suffering. White calls Lancelot a “poor fellow” and an ill-made knight because of his inability to handle this inner conflict.
It was in the nature of [Arthur’s] bold mind to hope, in these circumstances, that he would not find [Lancelot and Guenever] together. . . . [H]e was hoping to weather the trouble by refusing to become conscious of it.
This passage from Book III, Chapter 16 describes Arthur’s attitude toward the love affair between Lancelot and Guenever. In the end, Arthur’s complacency in these early stages of the affair leads to his downfall, as he is forced to put a stop to the affair after it has gone too far. This quotation describes Arthur’s simpleminded yet optimistic reaction to his unconscious suspicion that Lancelot and Guenever have betrayed him. Arthur suppresses his fears because he loves and trusts them both. Once he accepts that the people he loves have sinned against him, he chooses to ignore their sin to preserve their love. Arthur’s self-sacrifice is typical of his behavior, and is one of the qualities that makes him a sympathetic character rather than merely a pathetic one. Arthur is not fooled by Lancelot and Guenever’s lies, but he makes a deliberate choice not to see through them, so as to protect his loved ones’ happiness. Society would consider his wife’s adultery treason and call for Guenever and Lancelot to be executed, so Arthur sacrifices his own happiness to cover up their betrayal and save their lives.