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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
One of White’s most radical departures from previous versions
of the King Arthur legend is the way he describes Arthur’s character. Previous
versions of the story, including Sir Thomas Malory’s, tend to glorify
Arthur as a great hero in conventional terms of military glory and
valorous deeds, but White presents Arthur as a political innovator.
White implies that Arthur is a great king not because of his strength
on the battlefield, but because of his success at translating Merlyn’s
morals into a just system of governance.
White’s main interest in this area, which he shows throughout the
novel, is the relationship between strength and justice, which Arthur
calls might and right. The medieval England of Arthur’s youth is
unable to distinguish between might and right, and strength becomes
its own justification. Whatever might does is considered to be right
in this society. White’s negative view of this attitude is evident
in his biting satire of medieval knights in the early chapters of the
novel. From the Wart’s early experiences with the warlike ants, the
peaceful geese, the power-hungry pike, and the wise badger, he learns
alternatives to the notion that might equals right. Arthur then tries
to institute these alternative ideas throughout England. White implies
that modern and progressive civilizations are based on the idea
of using force to create and maintain a just political system. Arthur
is successful because he creates a more civilized England. Eventually,
however, Arthur’s hard work is undone by internal tensions and by
Mordred’s treachery. This turn of events suggests that as long as
justice depends on force, it will face obstacles and setbacks.
Arthur’s England, particularly during the early part of
his reign, is dominated by various forces competing for political
prominence. Therefore, war is inevitable, and war emerges as one
of the major themes of The Once and Future King.
But White presents war as an inexcusable barbarism, a pointless
and ugly tragedy. Merlyn tells Arthur that the only time the use
of force is justified is for self-defense.
The novel maintains an antiwar stance partly to challenge
the important role that war plays in the rest of the Arthurian canon. Unlike
in other classic Arthurian texts, the battle scenes in White’s novel
are few and not terribly graphic. In the few battle that are in the
novel, White satirizes knighthood and emphasizes the bloodshed and
carnage that necessarily accompanies war. White underscores this
point with the lessons that the Wart learns during his tutelage.
In the Wart’s adventures in the animal kingdom among the fish, ants,
and geese, he develops a sense that war is essentially unnatural.
The only animals that practice war as a matter of course are the
ants, and they seem more like robots than living beings. By the
time Arthur becomes king, he has begun to understand how to see
through the myths that glorify war and to understand the injustice
of using might to make right. For instance, at the beginning of “The
Queen of Air and Darkness,” the novel’s second book, Arthur realizes
that knights on a battlefield are essentially bullies, hiding in suits
of heavy armor as they slaughter the defenseless and innocent.
The engine of war in Arthur’s England is kept operational
by knights, the legendary soldiers of the Middle Ages. The knights
are the might half of the might-versus-right conundrum that Arthur
is trying to solve, and they serve as protectors of Camelot’s moral codes.
Nonetheless, because knights rely on muscle instead of morals, the
novel examines them in much the same way it examines war. White
often depicts knights as oafish clowns, in contrast to their portrayal
as heroes and romantic figures in earlier interpretations of the
King Arthur legend.
White also illustrates the tension between the brutal
violence of knightly behavior and the elaborate codes of morality
and courtesy that knights must follow to maintain their honor. This
hidden tension between violence and chivalry is best embodied in
the figure of Lancelot. He seems to be an almost unrealistic character,
as he encounters so much death and violence without ever losing
his commitment to honor. However, we know that emotionally, Lancelot
is more insecure and uncertain about his honor than any other knight. White’s
more humanized portrayal of knights undermines our ideas about the
mythical warriors and warns us against idealizing them. These men
cannot live up to the expectations of being both strong knights
and pious men, and as a result, Camelot and the order of knighthood
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!