Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

28 Jun 2013

(Novel) The Once and Future King by: T.H. White

(Reaction) Magic Can't Solve This Problem by: Antonio Conejos

The story of King Arthur is often clothed in the rich garb of legends and epics - a high romance of chivalry and nobility. White's Once and Future King though does away with all of that by focusing on Arthur the man. This makes his novel no less epic but much more grounded. Throughout the novel Arthur is not only seen being good but also attempting to inculcate this goodness in others.

Indeed, the question of whether man is inherently wicked, or if he can be reformed away from this seemingly natural inclination, is the central question animating The Once and Future King. Arthur is trained, from a very young age, to question the injustices of his time.

Guiding the stumbling Arthur along the path of morality is Merlin. Clearly the wizard in this tale is supposed to be a wise elderly figure. When Merlin is asked if he can be asked a question, he replies, It is what I am for.

Interestingly it also seems as if Merlin was sent by another higher power, one guiding everything behind the scenes, and Merlin's power is not unlimited, I cannot change Kay into things. The power was not deputed to me when I was sent. Even Merlin has his master.

This implies that a higher power is invested in the progress of man. More specifically, that decency is the urging of a higher power.

But if decency is the prompting of a higher power it is still up to man to decide, or be prompted by other men, to be decent. Hence Arthur's quest is ultimately not for an object (say the Holy Grail) or even a concept (eg. chivalry); but rather for a mode of behavior. This is explicit in the latter parts of the The Once and Future King which advocate for a system of laws which govern all men, where right is based on law rather than on might.

Arthur keeps pushing for decency through legal reforms and, in classic tragic hero fashion, what makes him great also brings him low. For Arthur's enemies become adept at twisting the law to further their own ends. This culpability of the law in the rise of Mordred and the fall of Arthur shows that Arthur's new system can be corrupted and manipulated, just like the feudal system which it supplants.

If the feudal system's flaw was that it prized individuals too highly (and thus allowed such forceful personalities to run roughshod over everyone else) the flaw of a legal system is that it does not prize individuals at all (because everything is based on the law rather than on the peculiarities of each case and circumstance).

The quest then for decency is hardly easy going. As such, it is natural that the men of the Arthurian legend are tortured souls, always being denied what they want, always being asked for more sacrifices. Even Arthur is ultimately never happy, he considered it ridiculous to suppose that he was not wicked, but he was grateful for their love.

The women too, principally Genny, are depicted as always yearning for something which cannot be given. On one hand there is the Queen's love for Lancelot. But there is also a sense that the Queen was unfulfilled because of the low social status of women of her time. Even the Queen has very little say in what goes on, much to her frustration, so we must imagine the Queen as a woman who had been robbed of her central attribute.

In the end, after all the sacrifice and loss, of betrayals and heartbreak - was it worth it? Is men really inherently good?

The novel gives a conflicted response. Consider Mordred who seems to be bred for jealosuy and spite - indeed he is the product of jealousy and spite as his mother deliberately sleeps with her half brother as an act of revenge. Mordred is proof for the argument that men, or at least some men, are just born with evil in their hearts.

Mordred's enmity seems almost destined. That is his evil was meant to occur, it is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost... It seems in tragedy that innocence is not enough.

Even Arthur, the most clear exemplar of decency, has to be prodded to see the good by Merlin. Thus his childhood lessons with the animals are so important. It is these lessons which show Arthur that the casual killings of his feudal society, the rampant inequality, are wrong.

The good must be taught but the evil is born ready made in man.


This was one of the most exhausting reactions to write and I don't think it came out very well. The book itself was an enjoyable read, if a tad long. The Once and Future King is actually a collection of novels written over a span of time so the style of the writer noticeably changes in the latter parts of the tale. There is also a world weariness which haunts the later pages, a far cry from the playfulness of the The Sword in the Stone.

The Once and Future Kings deals with many interesting themes but the book is so sprawling it's hard to get a handle on how these themes are developed. Moreover, the themes themselves are quite tricky, dealing with fundamental questions of man's inclination and nobility.

Lastly, I must admit also that I read this novel in part because I am quite fond of Disney's Sword in the Stone and have been curious about the source material upon which it was based on.

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