The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Round Table

Arthur conceives of the Round Table in “The Queen of Air and Darkness” around the same time that he has his epiphany about might and right. Throughout the rest of the novel, the Round Table is a physical manifestation of Arthur’s sense of fairness and justice. The table is designed so that the king’s knights will not squabble over rank—there is no head of the table for the best knight to claim as his own. Arthur does not want to create conflicts among knights because he wants them unified in their struggle to maintain peace in England. Even though Arthur’s knights show a wide variety of temperaments and frequently scatter across the country, the Round Table holds them together and gives them the name for their order. Therefore, the Round Table is a vital part of Arthur’s attempts to subjugate force to justice. It is the focal point of Arthur’s war for justice—by not allowing any one knight to gain status over any other, it comes to symbolize the very concepts it has been created to defend.

The Questing Beast

The Questing Beast represents the absurdity of knightly quests and serves as White’s way to deflate the notion of the quest as the route to knightly glory. King Pellinore has no real reason for wanting to catch the Questing Beast—which is not a threat to anyone—and yet he dedicates his entire youth to the project. Remarkably, none of the other knights ever thinks to question Pellinore’s dedication, and in their minds, as in his, the quest gives him a purpose. If Pellinore caught the Questing Beast, he would lose the activity that gives his life meaning, and when he has the chance to kill it, he chooses to help the beast instead. Once Pellinore finds real purpose in his love for his beloved wife, however, he forgets about the beast, reinforcing the idea that the Questing Beast is not meaningful in itself but is rather merely something to keep Pellinore occupied.

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail, a copper cup or platter used by Jesus at the Last Supper, represents an otherworldly power that even Arthur’s knights are incapable of achieving. To find the Grail requires, in addition to knightly prowess, a purity of mind and soul that seems almost contradictory to the ideals of chivalry. The Holy Grail, therefore, symbolizes all that Arthur has not achieved. This revelation that Arthur’s England is far from a state of grace also marks the beginning of the end of his reign.