1. The tone of
Book I is drastically different from the tone of Book IV. Book I
is lighthearted and leisurely, whereas Book IV is tragic and fast
paced. In your view, how do these two books come together? Which
themes and elements of style connect them?
The two books between the Book I and Book
IV provide a bridge from the lightheartedness of the Wart’s adventures
in the Forest Sauvage to King Arthur’s final despair. This transition
is enormous but gradual. In Book II, the world of Orkney is grim,
but this grimness is offset by the antics of Sir Pellinore, Sir
Grummore, and Sir Palomides. In Book III, the tone becomes darker,
but the book also has a triumphant tone during the narration of
While the tone drastically changes from Book I to Book
IV, the themes and ideas expressed in these two books are similar.
King Arthur, a simpleminded and optimistic man in Book IV, still
has the childhood naïveté he shows in Book I. Also, the frivolity
of knighthood appears in the first and last books. For example,
King Pellinore’s refusal to kill his beloved Questing Beast is as
pointless and silly a gesture as the trials by combat that appear
in the fourth book. White also continues to point to the future
in both books with his insinuations that Arthur’s reign will not
2. The quest
for the Holy Grail is a central part of the Arthurian legend, but
it gets only seven short chapters in Book III of The
Once and Future King. What is the relevance of the quest
to the idea of might versus right?
The quest for the Holy Grail is Arthur’s
attempt to get his knights to use their aggression productively.
Once the knights have no more good deeds or chivalric acts to perform,
they do not know what to do with their power. Arthur wants the restless
knights to fight for a noble cause and therefore assigns them to
fight for God. The quest is successful in that it occupies the knights
for some time and even achieves its goal when the pious Sir Galahad
finds the Holy Grail. The quest for the Holy Grail, however, has
disastrous effects on Arthur’s court. Half of the knights are killed
during the quest, and those who succeed on the quest disappear because
they have reached perfection. The few knights who return unharmed
do not seem to have learned anything from their adventure and are
upset over the loss of their comrades. After the quest, the surviving knights
are still just as bloodthirsty as they were when they started the
quest, and they are certainly no holier or closer to God.
White does not focus on the quest for the Holy Grail
in his novel in part because it is a detour in Arthur’s progress
toward justice as the basis of civilization. Like Arthur’s attempt
to use war on behalf of justice, the quest for the Holy Grail is
his attempt to use war to serve God. Only later does Arthur realize
that this goal asks too much, since it requires people to abandon
their bad side instead of using it productively.
3. Most of
Arthur’s conclusions about might and right come from Merlyn. To
what extent do you think Arthur learns to think for himself by the
end of the novel and to what extent is he simply still repeating
what Merlyn has taught him?
The end of the novel describes Arthur’s personal
beliefs and individual thoughts about war and justice, one of the
few times that White lets us see what Arthur is thinking. For the
most part, even in Book I, Arthur’s inner needs, thoughts, and concerns
remain mysterious, and it is hard to gauge his commitment to his
principles. Throughout the novel, we hear him repeat Merlyn’s ideas
and beliefs about government and power, and once Nimue captures
Merlyn, Arthur’s beliefs no longer develop. It would appear that
Arthur is unable to generate ideas without the help of his mentor,
but in Book IV, Arthur does arrive at some original conclusions.
For example, he concludes that national boundaries are the source
of conflicts and that if they could be abolished, war would disappear
as well. This idea about the nature of conflict seems to be his
own, which suggests that Arthur does finally learn to think for
himself. Unfortunately, however, Arthur’s timing is poor. Now that
he has developed his own ideas, he will die the next day. Even if
he were not to die, he would still be too powerless to implement
any of his ideas. The futility of his situation undermines the significance
of his last thoughts.