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.