The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Book II: “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” Chapters 1–5

Analysis: Chapters 1–5

In this section, White introduces the character of Morgause and, in doing so, shows the sharp contrast between the upbringing of the Orkney children and that of Arthur. We first meet Morgause when she is boiling a live cat to make herself invisible—not because she needs to become invisible, but because she is bored and wants to entertain herself. When the project is no longer amusing, Morgause gives it up, even though it seems as if she is only a few tries away from succeeding. Morgause is a markedly different parent than the kindly Sir Ector or Merlyn, and her children’s values, even this early on, are likewise warped. St. Toirdealbhach, who is hardly a role model, yearns for the days when wars were more personal, but the Orkney boys are shocked at how smaller-scale warfare would reduce their chances of killing people. As they ride the donkeys, their goal is as much to hurt the beasts as it is to get to the beach. Disturbing as their comments and behavior are, we feel sorry for the boys. The first image of them—in which they whisper because they are never sure when they are doing something wrong—is so pathetic that we have to pity rather than dislike them.

We first find Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine telling each other the story about the murder of their grandfather and the seduction of their grandmother. Merlyn mentions this incident in his later discussions with Arthur, which demonstrates the importance of Pendragon’s crime to the story and Arthur’s destiny. In these first few chapters of the novel’s second book, for example, the seduction of Igraine and the death of her husband are the only events that seem to connect Arthur with Orkney. If it weren’t for these events, which neither Arthur nor the Orkneys actually witnessed, neither party would mention the other.

The relationship between Merlyn and Arthur has clearly changed, but Arthur continues to learn and develop throughout these chapters. Arthur is starting to be shaped by his role as a powerful king who wields power over others, and he initially wants to make war and seek glory. Merlyn makes Arthur see, however, that such goals are costly, most often for those who have the least say in them. He reminds Arthur of the lessons he learned during his childhood adventures. Accordingly, Arthur has a breakthrough when he understands for the first time that having a lot of power does not mean that you can determine morality or justice—that it is possible to have power and still be wrong. Merlyn acknowledges that war is not always wrong—that it is sometimes necessary—but Arthur slowly comes to the conclusion that aggression is always bad. From a contemporary perspective, some of this philosophy seems obvious. Some might also argue that White overstates the violence of medieval England, but it was certainly a society in which strength prevailed. The political philosophies of the Enlightenment were centuries away, and the land was largely lawless, much closer to the Wild West of nineteenth-century America than to the English monarchy as we envision it. Arthur’s eventual grasp of the idea that power does not equal freedom from moral obligation is therefore quite revolutionary, an unusually gentle way of viewing the world.