The Once and Future King
Book II: “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” Chapters 6–10
Summary: Chapter 6
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 stops by Merlyn’s room to ask his advice, but Merlyn tells him that the king should always summon people to him. Merlyn is summoned to the Royal Chamber an hour later, and he, Arthur, Kay, and Sir Ector talk about the idea of chivalry. Arthur tells the others that might does not equal right and that currently, knights do whatever they please while the people slaughter, torture, and rape one another. For example, Arthur says, there are knights like Sir Bruce Sans Pitié, who rides around the country killing people and carrying off maidens for sport. Might can be used to achieve right, Arthur reasons, saying that he will use force to put down the Gaelic rebellion and then try to harness this power for good by creating an order of knights that will fight for just causes.
Summary: Chapter 7
Back in Orkney, King Pellinore, Sir Palomides, and Sir Grummore go hunting for a unicorn with Morgause, who is trying to make the three men fall in love with her. According to legend, a unicorn can be caught only if a virgin attracts it, but despite what the Orkney children think, Morgause does not fit the description. The boys visit St. Toirdealblach, who tells them another story about a witch. The Orkney boys decide to capture a unicorn to please their mother. They coerce a kitchen maid into playing the virgin, binding her to a tree in the forest. A unicorn appears and lays its head in the kitchen maid’s lap with grace and majesty. Agravaine, seized by a fit of passion, kills the unicorn, yelling incoherently that the girl is his mother and the unicorn has dared to put its head in her lap. They take the unicorn’s head home as a trophy, but Morgause fails to notice it, and when she learns what they have done, she has them whipped.
Summary: Chapter 8
On the plain of Bedegraine, before joining in battle with King Lot and his forces, Arthur, Merlyn, and Kay make further plans for Arthur’s order of knights. Arthur decides that the knights should all sit at a round table, so that each of the places are equal. Merlyn informs Arthur that King Leodegrance, whose daughter, Guenever, eventually marries Arthur, has such a table. Merlyn also asks Arthur to remind him to warn Arthur about Guenever in the future. Kay tells Merlyn that he thinks it is right to start a war if he knows that a victory will bring a better life to the conquered people. Merlyn angrily tells Kay that it is much better to make ideas available than to force them on others. Trembling with rage, he tells Kay that he knows of an Austrian who shared Kay’s views and dragged the whole world into bloody chaos.
Summary: Chapter 9
Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore create a costume that looks like the Questing Beast and then convince King Pellinore that they have spotted the beast on the island. Meanwhile, Morgause, her advances spurned, decides that she hates the knights and that she loves her children. Gareth runs to bring the others the good news that they are forgiven, and he finds them squabbling. Agravaine wants to write their father a letter telling him that Morgause has been cheating on him with the English knights. This suggestion enrages Gawaine, and when Agravaine pulls a knife to defend himself, Gawaine almost kills him. That night, as Palomides and Grummore march in costume to lead Pellinore on a hunt, they run into the real Questing Beast. The beast mistakes them for another one of its species, falls in love, and chases them halfway up a cliff.
Summary: Chapter 10
The night before the battle with King Lot, Merlyn reminds Arthur that he will marry Guenever and that he must be wary of the relationship between Guenever and Lancelot. He also tells Arthur a parable with the moral that no one can escape fate.
Analysis: Chapters 6–10
In this section, with the help of Kay, Sir Ector, and Merlyn, King Arthur continues to think about the ideology behind his reign, which he hopes will thrive on fairness. The Round Table is a symbol of this kind of government—a society so democratic that even the king’s table is designed to prevent fighting and squabbling over status. This table is the culmination of all that Merlyn and his lessons have taught Arthur, even though Merlyn insists that Arthur will have to do some of the thinking for himself. Even though Arthur’s idea is noble, however, the novel never treats the project as something glorious or easy. Rather, it appears to be a difficult and tricky idea to implement. Every time we see Arthur and his advisers discussing the idea of might versus right, they are trying to figure out a way around a new obstacle, and the chapters rarely end happily. Merlyn, who has so far been a compassionate and caring adviser to Arthur, does not seem interested in making things easy for the young king by allowing Arthur to compromise or adopt the system already in place. Instead, Merlyn is driven by the age-old feuds and ethnic hatreds that are tearing the country apart, and he almost seems to be using Arthur as a weapon to right old wrongs. Life for the people of England may soon improve, but we wonder if Arthur is dooming himself with his own ideas.
White includes a contemporary historical reference in the text. Kay argues that might can be used if a ruler discovers an improved way of life and the people are too stubborn to convert. Merlyn responds to Kay’s theory with outrage, likening him to an unnamed Austrian who “tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos.” Since Merlyn lives backward in time, the fact that this incident occurred in his youth means that it occurred during our recent past. The incident is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, who as the leader of Germany from 1933 to 1945, ordered the execution of million of Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, during World War II. In a story that is several centuries old, White is again finding lessons and parables that are relevant to the modern era. The problems that Arthur is trying to solve, White warns, still exist, and he gives us contemporary examples to drive his message home.
The Orkney children are described again in this section; as their destructive behavior increases, so does our dislike for their mother, Morgause. White’s biographer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, reports that White’s publisher rejected the initial draft of this novel because Morgause was depicted far too negatively. Townsend Warner hypothesizes that while writing about Morgause, White was working through some of his feelings toward his own mother, whom he remembered as someone who was much more willing to take love than to give it. Although White subsequently rewrote most of the novel, toning down all the references to Morgause, some of the personal emotion that drove the first draft still shows up in several of the chapters. Agravaine’s claim that the unicorn has somehow violated the children’s mother supports Warner’s psychological reading of the novel, since Agravaine’s behavior shows an unhealthy fixation with his mother’s sexual activity that far exceeds normal childish behavior. The other children also bear psychological scars, as can be seen in their earlier ill treatment of the donkeys, but they seem to be strong enough to withstand them better than Agravainedoes. Agravaine’s character has already been so poisoned by his uncontrollable love for his mother that he is willing to pull a knife on his own brother. With the exception of Gareth, who is a sweet and sensitive child, the Orkney children fight in the most violent and disagreeable ways, but it is hard to feel anything but sorry for them since they have been so distorted by the evil Morgause.
The satire of knighthood, which begins in Book I with the portrayal of Pellinore’s battle with Sir Grummore, continues here with the description of the silly and lighthearted adventures of Palomides, Pellinore, and Grummore. The adventures of the three knights also provide comic relief from the unhappiness that prevails in Morgause’s castle. The Once and Future King is primarily a sad and contemplative novel, but it also tries to engage its readers, and the adventures of Palomides, Pellinore, and Grummore provide comic interludes that do not distract too much from the novel’s weightier matters.
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