White includes a contemporary historical reference in the text. Kay argues that might can be used if a ruler discovers an improved way of life and the people are too stubborn to convert. Merlyn responds to Kay’s theory with outrage, likening him to an unnamed Austrian who “tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos.” Since Merlyn lives backward in time, the fact that this incident occurred in his youth means that it occurred during our recent past. The incident is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, who as the leader of Germany from 1933 to 1945, ordered the execution of million of Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, during World War II. In a story that is several centuries old, White is again finding lessons and parables that are relevant to the modern era. The problems that Arthur is trying to solve, White warns, still exist, and he gives us contemporary examples to drive his message home.
The Orkney children are described again in this section; as their destructive behavior increases, so does our dislike for their mother, Morgause. White’s biographer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, reports that White’s publisher rejected the initial draft of this novel because Morgause was depicted far too negatively. Townsend Warner hypothesizes that while writing about Morgause, White was working through some of his feelings toward his own mother, whom he remembered as someone who was much more willing to take love than to give it. Although White subsequently rewrote most of the novel, toning down all the references to Morgause, some of the personal emotion that drove the first draft still shows up in several of the chapters. Agravaine’s claim that the unicorn has somehow violated the children’s mother supports Warner’s psychological reading of the novel, since Agravaine’s behavior shows an unhealthy fixation with his mother’s sexual activity that far exceeds normal childish behavior. The other children also bear psychological scars, as can be seen in their earlier ill treatment of the donkeys, but they seem to be strong enough to withstand them better than Agravainedoes. Agravaine’s character has already been so poisoned by his uncontrollable love for his mother that he is willing to pull a knife on his own brother. With the exception of Gareth, who is a sweet and sensitive child, the Orkney children fight in the most violent and disagreeable ways, but it is hard to feel anything but sorry for them since they have been so distorted by the evil Morgause.
The satire of knighthood, which begins in Book I with the portrayal of Pellinore’s battle with Sir Grummore, continues here with the description of the silly and lighthearted adventures of Palomides, Pellinore, and Grummore. The adventures of the three knights also provide comic relief from the unhappiness that prevails in Morgause’s castle. The Once and Future King is primarily a sad and contemplative novel, but it also tries to engage its readers, and the adventures of Palomides, Pellinore, and Grummore provide comic interludes that do not distract too much from the novel’s weightier matters.