themes in the once and future king
T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is one of the most complete and unique portrayals of the immortal legend of King Arthur. Though it has been in print for less than half a century, it has already been declared a classic by many, and is often referred to as the “bible” of Arthurian legend. White recreates the epic saga of King Arthur, from his childhood education and experiences until his very death, in a truly insightful and new way. This is not, however, the first complete novel of Arthur’s life. In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Morte d’Arthur, the first complete tale of Arthur’s life. Since then, a countless number of books have been written on the subject, yet none can compare to The Once and Future King. It has easily become the most popular of all the Arthurian novels as it is loved by both children and adults. Though similar in many ways to other works of the same subject, such as Malory’s, White gives new details, meanings, and insightful modernization to the story, giving it an earthy quality which the reader can identify with. White’s rendering of the Arthurian legend differs from the traditional versions in that he includes contemporary knowledge and concepts, adds new stories and characters to the legend, and provides new perspectives by probing deeper into the existing tales.
It is the contemporary tone in The Once and Future King, which gives the novel its present-day feeling. This helps the reader to relate to the story, rather than placing it in strictly within the context of the Arthurian period. For example, early in the novel Eton College is referred to, which White then points out “was not founded until 1440,” but the place was nevertheless “of the same sort”(4). Another example of anachronism can be found during a discussion between Merlyn and Wart, when Merlyn exclaims “Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!” (86). During the days of Arthur, Bermuda was an unknown place, and would not be discovered until the fifteenth century. Though these references have no true significance to the plot of the story, White uses anachronism as a device to aid the reader in association with the context. And, as in other of White’s novels, “the author’s presence is apparent” (Fries 260), giving the feeling of an oral storytelling. These “almost too frequent historical tangents are designed to underline the anachronism of the teller” (Fries 260).
White also uses anachronism to convey a more penetrating idea; relating the life of Arthur to modern society. White’s novel constitutes his search for answers to the problems of the modern world. When Merlyn and Wart are discussing knighthood, Wart expresses his desire to “encounter all the evil in the world… so that if I conquered there would be none left.” Merlyn then insightfully replies that “that would be extremely presumptuous”, and he “would be conquered for it” (184). In this, White is conveying the notion that society cannot be governed by might alone. Stephen Dunn exposes the concept that “White’s world… is still the world as we, unfortunately, know it” (367). This is made evident by Merlyn’s relations of contemporary British fox hunting to medieval war. Merlyn educates Wart to expose him to faults present in society so that he may correct them when he becomes king. These faults are still present in today’s society, which is precisely the point White is making.
T. H. White also conquers the task of avoiding a monotonous recreation of the Arthurian legend by adding new and unique characters and stories in his novel. The addition of King Pellinore for example is unique to The Once and Future King. When White first introduces Pellinore, he is fumbling with his glasses, falls “off his horse to search for them… visor shutting in the process, and exclaimed ‘Oh, dear!'” (16). Pellinore appears throughout the novel at the traditional medieval events and plays a key role in Wart’s education. Sirol Hugh-Jones credits White with saying that he has “developed a love affair with King Pellinorethe only addition to Malory” (ix). White creates the character of King Pellinore to exhibit the farce of medieval custom, much as Miguel de Cervantes does with Don Quixote, as well as creating comic relief. White tries to eliminate the problem of strict reverence by adding characters such as Pellinore.
In addition to new characters, White adds new adventures as well. In Arthurian novels of the past, Wart’s education was not a prominent event. However, as C. M. Adderly writes, “education is the theme which most clearly gives The Once and Future King its structure” (55). Wart’s education gives White’s novel an overlay in theme of the advancement of the human nature. Merlyn tells Wart “the best thing for being sad is to learn something” (185).
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing, which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, and never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
White puts a great deal of emphasis on the education of Wart because it is through this that the character of Arthur, along with his personality, morals, and virtue are defined. This stress of education in The Once and Future King is unique, and sets it apart from the traditional Arthurian legend.
The Once and Future King also varies from the traditional tale by probing deeper into the story, beyond the tradition, adding new perspectives and outlooks. Before, the legend of King Arthur was told more as a fairy tale. J. R. Cameron writes that “White has not adopted the stereotypical Middle Ages of most fiction” (447). White uses the Arthurian legend to illustrate a historical pride of England, as well as a view of the progression of Aristotelian society. Also, White uses this view to expose faults in contemporary society. The past stories of Arthur had glorified him almost to the point of making him immortal. But White, when telling of the death of Arthur, writes that the “fate of this man… was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea” (677). White sees that the Arthurian legend is not so much the glorification of one man, but the basis and backbone of an entire country.
White also redevelops and expands the characters of the Arthurian legend, giving the novel more consistency and allowing his readers to relate to these characters. White exposes the emotions and personalities of his characters, rather than just telling of their actions. White displays the characters’ emotions and feelings in order for them “to be acceptable to the twentieth century reader” (Cameron 447). After Wart pulls the sword from the anvil in the churchyard, making him the king of England, he is regarded with much reverence by his companions and even his family. Observing this, he declares “Oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all.” After this “the Wart also burst into tears” (210). White shows the emotions and feelings of Wart and gives a sense of reality to this character. J. R. Cameron writes that “Malory made no attempt to analyze the characters; Tennyson robbed his characters of most of their reality” (447). White, however, gave much depth and realness to his characters, setting The Once and Future King apart from other versions of the Arthurian legend.
Another important addition by White to the legend of Arthur is that of humor. The Arthurian legend has been told with so much reverence and importance for many centuries. White, however, adds humor to the story, giving his novel versatility. Stephen Dunn writes that “White said… that humor was put in to make the moral and philosophical pillwhich, in all conscience, is a fairly bitter oneslide down more easily” (365). White writes of the confrontation between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore Grummersom in an extremely humorous manner. During the course of their duel, the two constantly argue and bicker like children, “[They stood] opposite each other for about half an hour, and walloped each other on the helm” (63). Through this, White exposes the humor in chivalric life and gives the story a comedic quality.
White also utilizes humor in the characterization of Merlyn. Merlyn, who is regarded in the novel as a very wise and intelligent person, is introduced as a disorganized, short-tempered old man. When Wart first encounters Merlyn, the great magician tries to conjure up a pencil and piece of paper, and humorously fails repeatedly. As a result of his frustration, he flies “into a passion in which he said by-our-lady quite often” (28). This depiction of Merlyn shows his amusing and funny personality, which White exposes throughout the novel. The frequent use of comedy gives White’s novel a unique twist which cannot be found in the traditional versions of the story.
When T. H. White decided to write The Once and Future King, he realized that his task would be an ambitious one. He faced the challenge of telling a tale which has been present for centuries, in a new way which would make it of interest to readers. His recreation of the Arthurian legend more than lives up to that challenge. The addition of new themes, anachronism, characters such as King Pellinore, and new adventures gives the novel a unique flair without straying too far from the traditional legend. The deeper interpretations of the characters and events in the story provide for a truth and authenticity not to be found in similar works, and the sense of humor gives White’s novel an individual touch. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is one of the best retellings of the Arthurian legend, and his additions to the tale create an invigorating and entertaining combination, ranking it among the most popular and best read of all.