On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay's knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name. Kay had given him the nickname. Kay was not called anything but Kay, as he was too dignified to have a nickname and would have flown into a passion if anybody had tried to give him one. The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic by mistake. Eventually she offered to show it to Sir Ector, who was Kay's father, had hysterics and was sent away. They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years. (p. 3)
Summary: The Once and Future King is divided into four parts, being somewhat amended and developed versions of four prior novels. In The Sword in the Stone, Sir Ector of the Forest Sauvage needs a tutor for his son Kay and his ward Art (nicknamed Wart); a series of events leads to Merlyn, a wizard who lives backward through history, taking the role. Merlyn teaches Wart by transforming him into various kinds of animals: perch, merlin, ant, wild goose, badger. Each of these, of course, is a way to look at a different kind of life than that he knows, and thus sheds light on the best ways to live. By these and other means, Merlyn is ultimately guiding Wart to recognize that the best world is one in which Might does not dominate Right. As Kay's knighting approaches, everyone learns that King Uther Pendragon has died and that in London a sword, plunged through an anvil into a stone, has appeared with the words, "Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of This Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England." A tournament is being held so that people can try their hand at pulling the sword from the stone, and Sir Ector and the boys head to London for the tournament. When they get there, however, Kay realizes that he has forgotten his sword, and sends Wart back for it. Wart, however, finds their inn locked, and, seeing the sword in the stone, with difficulty pulls it out and takes it to Kay. Kay recognizes the sword and takes it to Sir Ector, saying that he pulled it out, but on being pressed, admits that it was Wart. Wart is crowned as King Arthur.
In The Queen of Air and Darkness, we find Arthur struggling to build his conception of a society in which Right is not trampled by Might. He repeatedly runs into the problem, however, that pretty much everyone has been invested in the Might-is-Right nature of society, and the amount of inertia in its favor is simply immense. To handle the problem, he fights the terrible Battle of Bedegraine, a battle to end all battles; to the shock of his enemies, he focuses not on destroying the commoner foot soldiers but on killing the noble knights who lead them, a new kind of warfare that is seen as a ruthless atrocity, lacking in all courtesy, but that is also very effective. Arthur has achieved the first step in his attempt to break the hold of Might-is-Right on society. Nonetheless, the older ways are not wholly routed, as the land is filled with brigand knights, and, as he learns too late, there are other kinds of malice for which he has not prepared himself. Thinking he has begun to succeed, he is seduced by Queen Morgause who, unbeknownst to him is his sister; she will give birth to a child, Mordred, who will ultimately be the doom of all of Arthur's plans.
In The Ill-Made Knight, Arthur struggles with how to deal with the fact that the war to end all wars has not in fact eliminated Might-is-Right, and works his way to the conception of a society in which Might is redirected to support the Right, in the sense of the honorable. This, of course, is the fundamental idea of the Round Table. The most complete and perfect exemplar of this approach is the knight, Sir Lancelot, who is called The Ill-Made Knight because of his extraordinary ugliness (one of White's few fundamental changes to the base narrative in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur). No one else will so fully understand and put into effect Arthur's vision of subordinating Might to Right-as-Honor, and as Sir Lancelot becomes the greatest knight in the world, it seems like the vision is triumphant. Nonetheless, there is a snake in the grass. Sir Lancelot, while in some ways a truly good man, is a truly good man because he is constantly seeking to establish his honor, and there are limits to what a man can do in that line; such a constant struggle is beyond human strength, even the strength and conviction of someone like Lancelot. He of course begins to have an affair with Queen Guinevere, Arthur's wife, and thus even as he seems most successful is a failure, and knows it. And, of course, the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere sets in place another key element of what will destroy Arthur's conception of a society not based on Might-is-Right.
Nonetheless, Arthur's conception is also evolving, and as time has gone on, Arthur has realized that his conception of a society of Might supporting the honorable Right is inadequate -- the goal of honor is not ambitious enough to serve as an adequate bulwark against Might-is-Right. Thus Arthur develops the conception of a society of Might supporting the spiritual Right, and the knights set off on the Quest of the Holy Grail. Almost all of the knights fail, although a few, like Lancelot, come close in their way; only three knights succeed: Sir Galahad, Sir Percivale, and Sir Bors. This conception turns out to be inadequate as well. Nonetheless it arguably achieves one great good, saving Sir Lancelot, who learns through the course of it that, despite his sins, God still loves him. Even the greatest knight in the world cannot do right all the time; only God is capable of that.
Thus in the final part, The Candle in the Wind, we find Arthur beginning to work through a fourth conception of society, which is not a society of Might in support of Right, since his career as king has established that such a conception puts a burden on human beings that they cannot carry. The king therefore has begun working out an idea of a society in which Right, as Law, is Might. But the knights struggle with this conception, and there are evil men who, seeking to destroy Arthur, or Guinevere, or Lancelot, are willing to try to twist this conception to their ends. In particular, a faction builds around the Orkney knights, the sons of Queen Morgause; Sir Gawaine is technically the leader, but in practice it is often his brothers, the violent Sir Agravaine and the smooth, resentful Sir Mordred, who call the shots, because Sir Gawaine, being stubborn, prone to anger, and fiercely loyal to family is easily manipulated by them. Sir Mordred, while not exceptional as knight, has increased his influence in court by becoming the leader of the fashionable set; a political schemer, he uses this to gain popular support and to build a sort of proto-fascist movement based on a bunch of fashionable ideas, some of which are inconsistent with Arthur's Right-is-Might conception. (At one point, he is literally represented in blackshirt-like terms.) Nonetheless, they are capable of using that conception to their own ends. Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred rig a situation in which Guenevere and Lancelot are caught redhanded in the affair under conditions that can be regarded as treasonous; Arthur, to preserve his Right-as-Law-is-Might must bow to the Law. Guenevere is condemned to burning at the stake for treason. Lancelot saves her from the stake, but in the course of doing so kills many good knights, including the two youngest (and most noble) Orkney brothers, Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth. Lancelot, who had good relations with them both (especially Sir Gareth) would have spared them, but in the heat of the moment, he did not recognize them, and they were unarmored, and therefore could not even defend themselves against the greatest knight in the world in full armor. The fellowship of the Round Table is broken. War is unavoidable, and Arthur to uphold the rule of law must take the Orkney side against Sir Lancelot, his best friend and most loyal knight. The situation suits Sir Mordred; while Arthur is at war, he is named Protector, and he uses this opportunity to declare himself king and try to force Guenevere to marry him. She flees and locks herself in the Tower of London; Sir Mordred lays siege, and makes extensive use of a weapon that had only rarely and tentatively been used before: the cannon. Chivalry is dead. Might-is-Right has returned.
Thus Arthur's conception of a society built on Right-as-Law-is-Might has also failed. He has some dim conception of what might be able to replace it, in which culture rather than law is the key expression of Right, but he has run out of time. The work ends with Arthur preparing to go out to his last battle, in which he will die, or, as some say, be carried off to Avilion, to return one day with the triumph of Right over Might, the once and future king.
The Once and Future King is a very humorous work, but it is not a comedy. It is a tragedy. (White is always very explicit about this.) King Arthur, who set out to build a society that was truly just, fails utterly, and his failure is inevitable. Each of his attempts to implement a just society carries within it, unseen, the seed of its own failure, and the failures mount up until they ultimately sweep everything away, and Might-is-Right prevails again. Nobility shines out briefly, like a candle in the darkness, and is snuffed out in the wind; justice collapses into blood and fire. But Arthur is better than those who defeat him, and his vision of society is a better vision than the one that replaces it. If only we made the effort to fail so well.
The purpose of the humor in the work, I think, should be seen as pedagogical. What White is trying to do is take Malory's fifteenth century tale and teach us how to appreciate it. Arthur's education in The Sword in the Stone, for instance, is not just Arthur's education but the reader's education in the ideas needed to appreciate the nobility and value of the Arthurian legend and ideal, as White sees them. Much of the humor, for instance, is devoted to showing that the knights of the Round Table are rather surprisingly like us, or that we, having come through two world wars, should perhaps not be so quick to dismiss other people as belonging to 'the dark ages'. How much one enjoys it, I think, will depend in part on how successful the humor is at making this connection for the reader and in part on how well he humor works on its own. For my part, I think it excels at the first and is more uneven at the second; I don't quite like how some of the knights, particularly Sir Gawaine (a walking Celtic stereotype) and Sir Lancelot, are handled, for instance. But the book is nonetheless, without any doubt, one of the most powerfully written morality tales of the past hundred years.
"We only know that the homicides and those who didn't confess were turned back; and you say that Galahad, Bors, and Percivale were allowed. I am told that Galahad and Percivale were virgins; and Bors, although he was not quite a virgin, turned out to be a first-class theologian. I suppose Bors passed for his dogma, and Percivale for his innocence. I know hardly anything about Galahad, except that everybody dislikes him."
"They complain about his being inhuman."
Lancelot considered his cup.
"He is inhuman," he said at last. "But why should he be human? Are angels supposed to be human?"
"I don't quite follow."
"Do you think that if the Archangel Michael were to come here this minute, he would say: 'What charming weather we are having today. Won't you have a glass of whiskey?'" (pp. 449-450)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
T. H. White, The Once and Future King, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York: 1958).