Contrast the episode of the ants with the episode of the geese. How does the pairing of these two scenes illuminate larger themes in Book I of The Once and Future King?
The ants that Wart encounters in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King repeatedly show signs of belligerence and heartless efficiency. By contrast, the geese demonstrate the virtues of empathy and generosity. Like the ants and geese, several other opposed—or dichotomous—pairs that Wart encounters symbolize the conflict between might and right. By including the ants and geese in this assortment of dichotomies, White reinforces his idea that a large part of our education is choosing between a warlike and a compassionate way of life.
Wart’s encounter with the ants teaches him that one way to live involves denying your spiritual needs, failing to recognize the individuality of the people around you, and investing all of your energy in a mindless, aggressive quest for survival. The ants have an impoverished, depressing language that strips them of the ability to communicate deeply and subtly: All adjectives are crowded into the categories “Done” and “Not Done.” The one notable interaction between ants is a parody of fellowship; without speaking or acknowledging his partner, an ant sometimes gorges on the food stored in the partner’s body. The ants have numbers, not names, referring to one executed worker as “310099/wd.” Their unquestioning belief in the virtues of capital punishment and war suggests that they are intellectually inactive: There is no room for debate, no possibility of questioning whether all dissidents should immediately be killed. They mumble clichéd words of praise for the queen, but the only positive thing they can say about her is that she is belligerent. The ants do not demonstrate compassion, skepticism, or intellectual curiosity.
By contrast, the geese celebrate their sense of freedom, civic-mindedness, and tranquility. They show a genuine interest in one another, as, for example, Lyo-lyok gives Wart a name and engages him in an intellectual debate. Lyo-lyok’s scorn for war indicates that she is interested in more creative, challenging ways of solving problems; she attributes Wart’s interest in fighting to the fact that he is “a baby.” The songs of the geese celebrate their freedom—“free, free,” “wild and free”—and part of their creed is that there are no boundaries in the air. The image of flying and soaring contrasts starkly with the earthbound claustrophobia of the ants’ colony. The geese take pride in their culture, support one another, and patiently consider opinions that differ from their own.
Like the ants and geese, several other potential role models for Wart force him to weigh “might” against “right.” Because he is “a born follower,” Wart admires the forceful boy Kay, whose petulance is evident in his haughty class distinctions and his attempt to claim the magical sword for himself. On the other hand, Merlyn, a vocal critic of Kay, encourages Wart to adopt a life of contemplation and to recognize that knightly battles are ridiculous. Wart wants to emulate rooks, who “mob their enemies,” but he also listens to Merlyn and Archimedes when they point out that rooks are thoughtless, neglectful parents. Wart admires the foolish machismo of Mr. P. and the blustering combatants Sir Grummore and King Pellinore, but he also takes in the words of the badger, who praises the loving, public-spirited geese. Nearly everyone Wart encounters forces him to consider the competing virtues of compassion and aggression.
By making the ant/goose contrast a major theme of Wart’s childhood, White suggests that each of us must choose between a covetous and a large-minded way of life. He does not imply that the choice is simple: Indeed, the abundance of foolish, belligerent characters in Book I leads us to believe that a life of compassion may be an impossible ideal. Instead of a sermon, The Once and Future King is a celebration of quests—a portrait of one flawed boy’s attempt to live wisely. With his gentle sense of humor, White encourages us to examine the many sidesteps, failings, and instances of antlike behavior in our own lives.