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King Arthur is the protagonist of The Once and
Future King and the novel’s narrative and emotional center.
The novel follows Arthur’s life from beginning to end, and the major
events in his life shape the story. After Arthur becomes king, his
ideas about government reshape English society, and these changes
determine the plot, chronology, and setting of the four books that
make up the novel. Even the novel’s title promises that although
the story ends with Arthur’s death, he will always be England’s
ruler. Despite Arthur’s extraordinary importance to the novel, however,
he is a fairly simple character. As a child, Arthur (then called
the Wart) is honest, trusting, modest, and good-hearted, and he
preserves these qualities when he becomes king. King Arthur shapes
his government with an important new philosophy that makes him a
great king, but the ideas are Merlyn’s rather than Arthur’s. Arthur
is exceptional because he believes in these ideas and is able to
enact them when he becomes king.
Arthur develops a sense of world-weariness and wisdom
in the novel’s later books, but this development is gradual and
his basic nature is not drastically altered. Benevolent optimism
keeps Arthur from acknowledging Lancelot and Guenever’s love affair
early in the novel; later, the same benevolence causes him to persuade
them to keep their behavior secret. Even as he grows older and wiser, Arthur
is incapable of acting harshly toward the people he loves, no matter
how hurtfully they treat him. In a sense, it is Arthur’s very simplicity
and earnestness that enables the downfall of his reign. While the
direct cause of the tragedy is Arthur’s incestuous affair with Morgause,
we do get a sense that Camelot is also doomed because it has stagnated.
The energy and progress of Arthur’s early reign slows to a halt,
and Arthur becomes a defender of the status quo. This lack of innovation
sets in around the time that Nimue imprisons Merlyn, suggesting
that Arthur cannot think and develop without his old tutor. It is
as though Arthur can only ride the momentum of his earlier ideas
without forming any new ones. As Camelot stagnates and the quest
for the Holy Grail takes its toll on the Knights of the Round Table,
the Orkney faction is able to gain more power, until Camelot is
too corrupt to survive.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!