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The Once and Future King

T. H. White

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

The tone of Book I is drastically different from the tone of Book IV. Book I is lighthearted and leisurely, whereas Book IV is tragic and fast paced. In your view, how do these two books come together? Which themes and elements of style connect them?

The two books between the Book I and Book IV provide a bridge from the lightheartedness of the Wart’s adventures in the Forest Sauvage to King Arthur’s final despair. This transition is enormous but gradual. In Book II, the world of Orkney is grim, but this grimness is offset by the antics of Sir Pellinore, Sir Grummore, and Sir Palomides. In Book III, the tone becomes darker, but the book also has a triumphant tone during the narration of Lancelot’s adventures.

While the tone drastically changes from Book I to Book IV, the themes and ideas expressed in these two books are similar. King Arthur, a simpleminded and optimistic man in Book IV, still has the childhood naïveté he shows in Book I. Also, the frivolity of knighthood appears in the first and last books. For example, King Pellinore’s refusal to kill his beloved Questing Beast is as pointless and silly a gesture as the trials by combat that appear in the fourth book. White also continues to point to the future in both books with his insinuations that Arthur’s reign will not last.

2.

The quest for the Holy Grail is a central part of the Arthurian legend, but it gets only seven short chapters in Book III of The Once and Future King. What is the relevance of the quest to the idea of might versus right?

The quest for the Holy Grail is Arthur’s attempt to get his knights to use their aggression productively. Once the knights have no more good deeds or chivalric acts to perform, they do not know what to do with their power. Arthur wants the restless knights to fight for a noble cause and therefore assigns them to fight for God. The quest is successful in that it occupies the knights for some time and even achieves its goal when the pious Sir Galahad finds the Holy Grail. The quest for the Holy Grail, however, has disastrous effects on Arthur’s court. Half of the knights are killed during the quest, and those who succeed on the quest disappear because they have reached perfection. The few knights who return unharmed do not seem to have learned anything from their adventure and are upset over the loss of their comrades. After the quest, the surviving knights are still just as bloodthirsty as they were when they started the quest, and they are certainly no holier or closer to God.

White does not focus on the quest for the Holy Grail in his novel in part because it is a detour in Arthur’s progress toward justice as the basis of civilization. Like Arthur’s attempt to use war on behalf of justice, the quest for the Holy Grail is his attempt to use war to serve God. Only later does Arthur realize that this goal asks too much, since it requires people to abandon their bad side instead of using it productively.

3.

Most of Arthur’s conclusions about might and right come from Merlyn. To what extent do you think Arthur learns to think for himself by the end of the novel and to what extent is he simply still repeating what Merlyn has taught him?

The end of the novel describes Arthur’s personal beliefs and individual thoughts about war and justice, one of the few times that White lets us see what Arthur is thinking. For the most part, even in Book I, Arthur’s inner needs, thoughts, and concerns remain mysterious, and it is hard to gauge his commitment to his principles. Throughout the novel, we hear him repeat Merlyn’s ideas and beliefs about government and power, and once Nimue captures Merlyn, Arthur’s beliefs no longer develop. It would appear that Arthur is unable to generate ideas without the help of his mentor, but in Book IV, Arthur does arrive at some original conclusions. For example, he concludes that national boundaries are the source of conflicts and that if they could be abolished, war would disappear as well. This idea about the nature of conflict seems to be his own, which suggests that Arthur does finally learn to think for himself. Unfortunately, however, Arthur’s timing is poor. Now that he has developed his own ideas, he will die the next day. Even if he were not to die, he would still be too powerless to implement any of his ideas. The futility of his situation undermines the significance of his last thoughts.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Lancelot is a complex character, torn between cruelty and compassion. Discuss how such conflicts affect Lancelot’s relationships with Guenever, Arthur, God, and chivalry.

2. The Wart has numerous adventures when Merlyn changes him into the form of animals, but only five of them are described in detail: his transformations into a perch, a merlin, a badger, an ant, and a goose. Briefly discuss the relevance each of these episodes has to the idea of might versus right and the development of Arthur’s thoughts about civilization and government.

3. White wrote The Once and Future King in the form of numerous short, episodic chapters. Discuss the effect of this format on the pacing, plot, and character development of the novel.

4. The novel generally presents an antiwar message, but nevertheless draws a great deal of dramatic power from the conflict inherent in warfare. Is the novel’s attitude toward war consistent, or does White contradict himself by glorifying battles?

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