Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
One of White’s most radical departures from previous versions of the King Arthur legend is the way he describes Arthur’s character. Previous versions of the story, including Sir Thomas Malory’s, tend to glorify Arthur as a great hero in conventional terms of military glory and valorous deeds, but White presents Arthur as a political innovator. White implies that Arthur is a great king not because of his strength on the battlefield, but because of his success at translating Merlyn’s morals into a just system of governance.
White’s main interest in this area, which he shows throughout the novel, is the relationship between strength and justice, which Arthur calls might and right. The medieval England of Arthur’s youth is unable to distinguish between might and right, and strength becomes its own justification. Whatever might does is considered to be right in this society. White’s negative view of this attitude is evident in his biting satire of medieval knights in the early chapters of the novel. From the Wart’s early experiences with the warlike ants, the peaceful geese, the power-hungry pike, and the wise badger, he learns alternatives to the notion that might equals right. Arthur then tries to institute these alternative ideas throughout England. White implies that modern and progressive civilizations are based on the idea of using force to create and maintain a just political system. Arthur is successful because he creates a more civilized England. Eventually, however, Arthur’s hard work is undone by internal tensions and by Mordred’s treachery. This turn of events suggests that as long as justice depends on force, it will face obstacles and setbacks.
Arthur’s England, particularly during the early part of his reign, is dominated by various forces competing for political prominence. Therefore, war is inevitable, and war emerges as one of the major themes of The Once and Future King. But White presents war as an inexcusable barbarism, a pointless and ugly tragedy. Merlyn tells Arthur that the only time the use of force is justified is for self-defense.
The novel maintains an antiwar stance partly to challenge the important role that war plays in the rest of the Arthurian canon. Unlike in other classic Arthurian texts, the battle scenes in White’s novel are few and not terribly graphic. In the few battle that are in the novel, White satirizes knighthood and emphasizes the bloodshed and carnage that necessarily accompanies war. White underscores this point with the lessons that the Wart learns during his tutelage. In the Wart’s adventures in the animal kingdom among the fish, ants, and geese, he develops a sense that war is essentially unnatural. The only animals that practice war as a matter of course are the ants, and they seem more like robots than living beings. By the time Arthur becomes king, he has begun to understand how to see through the myths that glorify war and to understand the injustice of using might to make right. For instance, at the beginning of “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” the novel’s second book, Arthur realizes that knights on a battlefield are essentially bullies, hiding in suits of heavy armor as they slaughter the defenseless and innocent.
The engine of war in Arthur’s England is kept operational by knights, the legendary soldiers of the Middle Ages. The knights are the might half of the might-versus-right conundrum that Arthur is trying to solve, and they serve as protectors of Camelot’s moral codes. Nonetheless, because knights rely on muscle instead of morals, the novel examines them in much the same way it examines war. White often depicts knights as oafish clowns, in contrast to their portrayal as heroes and romantic figures in earlier interpretations of the King Arthur legend.
White also illustrates the tension between the brutal violence of knightly behavior and the elaborate codes of morality and courtesy that knights must follow to maintain their honor. This hidden tension between violence and chivalry is best embodied in the figure of Lancelot. He seems to be an almost unrealistic character, as he encounters so much death and violence without ever losing his commitment to honor. However, we know that emotionally, Lancelot is more insecure and uncertain about his honor than any other knight. White’s more humanized portrayal of knights undermines our ideas about the mythical warriors and warns us against idealizing them. These men cannot live up to the expectations of being both strong knights and pious men, and as a result, Camelot and the order of knighthood break down.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Once and Future King relies heavily on a variety of myths and legends to tell its story. Most notably, the entire novel is a reworking of the Arthur myth. White continually acknowledges that he is modernizing old stories by referring specifically to his sources. For example, the novel contains many asides about Sir Thomas Malory, quoting passages and pieces of dialogue from his fifteenth-century Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory even appears as a young page at the end of the novel. White flips the Arthurian legend around by constantly calling attention to the fact that his story has a precedent and by then exposing that precedent’s flaws. At times, it seems as if White is interested in debunking the validity of knighthood and also attacking the myths and legends that have romanticized knighthood for so long.
White expresses the conflict between the brutality and courtesy of knightood by making frequent reference to blood sports, such as hunting and hawking. Like knightly warfare, blood sports are motivated by aggression and involve a great deal of brutality. But, like the code of chivalry, blood sports also involve a great deal of tradition and ritual. The Wart’s studying, for example, of the “etiquette of hunting” shows that blood sports are governed by a code of etiquette as strict as the one imposed on the bloody business of jousting. Like warfare, therefore, the blood sports in the novel boast a civilized veneer that masks their violent underpinnings.
Each of the different books in The Once and Future King revolves around a select few settings, and each of these settings is represented by a single castle that has a unique character. In “The Sword and the Stone,” for example, Arthur’s home is represented by Sir Ector’s Castle of the Forest Sauvage, a cozy place with a seemingly endless number of nooks and crannies for us to explore along with the Wart. Sir Ector’s castle is markedly different, however, from the glorious Camelot or the gloomy castle at Orkney. The castles in the novel have their own personalities that embody the hopes and fears of their inhabitants. Their heavily fortified walls vividly illustrate the separation between the novel’s worlds. When Uncle Dap finds Lancelot after his madness, for example, he refuses to enter Castle Bliant. He sits outside its wall, waiting to take Lancelot back to the intrigue of Camelot and Guenever and to leave behind the relatively banal world in which Elaine lives.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Arthur conceives of the Round Table in “The Queen of Air and Darkness” around the same time that he has his epiphany about might and right. Throughout the rest of the novel, the Round Table is a physical manifestation of Arthur’s sense of fairness and justice. The table is designed so that the king’s knights will not squabble over rank—there is no head of the table for the best knight to claim as his own. Arthur does not want to create conflicts among knights because he wants them unified in their struggle to maintain peace in England. Even though Arthur’s knights show a wide variety of temperaments and frequently scatter across the country, the Round Table holds them together and gives them the name for their order. Therefore, the Round Table is a vital part of Arthur’s attempts to subjugate force to justice. It is the focal point of Arthur’s war for justice—by not allowing any one knight to gain status over any other, it comes to symbolize the very concepts it has been created to defend.
The Questing Beast represents the absurdity of knightly quests and serves as White’s way to deflate the notion of the quest as the route to knightly glory. King Pellinore has no real reason for wanting to catch the Questing Beast—which is not a threat to anyone—and yet he dedicates his entire youth to the project. Remarkably, none of the other knights ever thinks to question Pellinore’s dedication, and in their minds, as in his, the quest gives him a purpose. If Pellinore caught the Questing Beast, he would lose the activity that gives his life meaning, and when he has the chance to kill it, he chooses to help the beast instead. Once Pellinore finds real purpose in his love for his beloved wife, however, he forgets about the beast, reinforcing the idea that the Questing Beast is not meaningful in itself but is rather merely something to keep Pellinore occupied.
The Holy Grail, a copper cup or platter used by Jesus at the Last Supper, represents an otherworldly power that even Arthur’s knights are incapable of achieving. To find the Grail requires, in addition to knightly prowess, a purity of mind and soul that seems almost contradictory to the ideals of chivalry. The Holy Grail, therefore, symbolizes all that Arthur has not achieved. This revelation that Arthur’s England is far from a state of grace also marks the beginning of the end of his reign.