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.