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The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

Book 1: The Sword in the Stone

This is a light-hearted book about Arthur’s childhood, how he was raised by Sir Ector in the Forest Savage. In this book, Arthur is called “Wart.” It is not until the end of the book that we learn about his true name, Arthur. It’s at the end of this book that Wart draws the sword from the stone, which declares him as king of Britain. The ending was the most exciting part of this book for me. The rest of the story was just goofy. Merlin turns Wart into various different animals, such as a badger, fish, hawk, ant, and goose. On each of these adventures, Wart learns something about the larger world. However, Merlin is depicted as an absent-minded character. For example, he has an owl living on his head underneath his hat, and at one point Merlin sews his beard directly into his sewing project. Tisk-tisk, Merlin.

Adding to the whimsicalness of the story is King Pellinore. This character reminded me much of the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” movie. Which reminds me that I want to watch this movie again. I was a young child last time that I watched “Monty Python,” and I think that I would appreciate it more now. Anyway, King Pellinore is entirely whimsical. He is always searching for the Questing Beast, and he appears as a bumbling but loveable fool. At one point, King Pellinore has a jousting competition with Sir Grummore. It was a comedy show.

There is also an appearance by Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Marian, and Morgan Le Fay. Wart goes on an adventure to rescue Friar Tuck from the witch, Morgan Le Fay. This was just another of Arthur’s adventures. Overall, it was a light-hearted and comedic book. At several sections, I simply had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

The Disney film, “The Sword in the Stone,” was based on this novel. The animated movie did a surprisingly good job at adhering to the whimsical nature of White’s novel. Merlin is absent-minded and comedic, and at the end of the movie, Wart draws the sword out of the stone. However, while watching the movie, I was struck by some of Merlin’s remarks about love. There’s a scene where Wart is magically transformed into a squirrel. While he is a squirrel, a female squirrel chooses Wart as her mate. Merlin says that love is the most powerful force in the world, even more powerful than gravity. This is a common theme that I’m seeing in movies, fantasy novels, religious novels, and non-fiction literature. Love is the most powerful force. So let’s think about this.

It’s obvious that love holds some sort of power. Is that power “good” or “bad?” I suppose that it can be harnessed for both purposes. For example, in “The Last Enchantment,” Morgause uses her “woman’s magic” to lure Artur into her bed and then to lure King Lot into marriage. Morgause uses her beauty and sex appeal for evil, power-hungry purposes. In the same way that love can increase a man’s power, it can also tear him to the ground and destroy all of his being. This is the power of woman’s magic. This is the power of love.

Book 2: The Queen of Air and Darkness

I don’t have much to say on this chapter. It’s largely about the Orkney children:

  1. Gawain

  2. Agravaine

  3. Gaheris

  4. Gareth

It continues to have a whimsical nature, much like the first book. King Pellinore falls in love, two of his fellow-knights dress as the Questing Beast, and the Questing Beast falls in love with the artificial Questing Beast. Any events associated with King Pellinore are comical. It’s easy to see how “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was based on his character.

Book 3: The Ill-Made Knight

This chapter is about Lancelot. As a kid, Lancelot was a very ugly person. His face was not handsome. But he dreamed to be the greatest knight in the kingdom and to be able to perform miracles. Therefore, he trained relentlessly, and because of his singularly focused passion, he succeeded to be the most talented knight in the world. White summarizes many of the original tales published by Malory. These tales are about the adventures of Lancelot, explaining the deeds and actions of the famous knight. These tales can be used to represent morality. They define morals. They give us examples of how a true, morally straight hero would act in a difficult situation. We can use these tales to learn how to live a moral life. We can learn from Lancelot’s stories, much like we can elicit morals and proper actions from stories about Jesus’s life.

In one of Lancelot’s adventures, he is captured by 4 evil queens (aka witches). While locked in a tower, he is instructed to act as judge and decide which queen is the most desirable. The queens all dress in their most beautiful gowns and present themselves before Lancelot. They insist that he must choose one of them. Lancelot refuses to choose a winner, wisely determining that the witches will use his decision as an excuse to perform some evil action. This story of Lancelot and the 4 evil queens is in opposition to the Greek story of Paris and the Trojan War. Paris, a Trojan prince, was approached by 3 of the goddesses and told to select the most beautiful. Paris chose the goddess, Aphrodite, who promised to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. This decision started the Trojan War. I’m amazed at the similarity of these stories. The primary difference is that Lancelot opts to not decide (the morally correct action), whereas Paris decides based on selfishness (causing an infamous multi-year war). In many ways, Lancelot is comparable to the Greek heroes; he’s a legendary British hero.

Lancelot’s love affair with Queen Guenevere is a popular story in Western culture. Arthur and Guenevere are King and Queen. The Queen is infertile. Lancelot and Guenevere desire to be lovers. At some point, Arthur decides to go on a quest and leave Lancelot to oversee Camelot in the King’s absence. While the King is away, Lancelot and Guenevere satisfy their lusts. Arthur is a wise and knowing king, and as such, he permits these events to happen. Never does Arthur confront Lancelot or Guenevere. This goes a long way in preserving their friendship.

Again, I have some thoughts on the ideas of love and power. Lancelot believed that his power was gifted from the gods and tied to his virginity. During one of his quests, Lancelot performs a miracle. Remember that he always desired to do a miracle. He rescues a beautiful, nude princess from a magical tower. After this miracle, Lancelot is tricked into sleeping with the beautiful princess, Elaine. When Lancelot loses his virginity, he also loses his ability to perform miracles. Lancelot laments his loss throughout the rest of the book. However, since his power is gone, he decides that it is acceptable for him to sleep with Guenevere. Thus, the love affair between the Queen and most powerful knight in the world arises. In the case of Lancelot, love causes him to los his miracle-performing power. Lancelot trades his power for love. Just like Merlin trades his power for Nimue’s love. These great characters recognize that satisfying their sexual appetites will remove their sources of power. Each character is reluctant to lose his power, but in the end, each does. Lancelot and Merlin both unwillingly lose their powers to a woman’s love. Their power was associated with their chastity. This seems contrary to other texts that I’ve read. Other non-fiction texts claim that love helps a man elevate himself to new heights. Love, in these texts is a source of power, not a drain of power. Whether a woman’s love is a source of power or a drain of power is unclear to me. It may be possible to reconcile both these ideas, but I do not have the energy to do that now.

Part of Lancelot’s story is that he is driven mad when Guenevere denies him. Her denial is solicited by her anger about Elaine. Lancelot is so consumed by his love for Guenevere that he has a bout of insanity at this point. During his insanity, he wanders the country as a wild man, and he was gone for so long that people speculated his death. But one day, Lancelot returned to Camelot. Despite his wild and unruly appearance, and his incoherent speech, Elaine immediately recognizes him. Lancelot eventually recovers from his insanity and comes to his senses.

The last part of this book focuses on the King’s quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur laments that his precious Round Table is no longer fulfilling its original purpose. The Round Table is supposed to be a place where all men are equal, and where men use their might to protect the weak and innocent. At the beginning of Arthur’s kingship, the Round Table worked great. The knights went on quests and conquered foreign lands and defeated enemies. They cleared roads so that it was safe to travel, and they ultimately brought peace to Britain. But after these accomplishments, there was little else for the knights to do, and the Round Table was not fulfilling its purpose. Instead, knights became restless and would needlessly kill in order to satiate their desires for adventure and combat. Arthur was watching the Round Table collapse and needed to do something about it. Therefore, he created religious quests for the knights. These quests sought to promote religious ideals and give an opportunity for knights to perform great deeds. One these quests was the Quest for the Holy Grail. Apparently, Malory describes in much more detail how the Quest for the Holy Grail came to be. Also, it’s not exactly clear what the Holy Grail is, but I like Dr. Peterson’s explanation: it is the cup that holds a magical elixir that grants your heart’s deepest desire.

During the Quest for the Holy Grail, many knights die. Lancelot himself experiences a religious transformation, a moral and religious rebirth. He realizes that he is not a “Godly” man, he asks for God’s forgiveness, and then he becomes a Godly person. Lancelot learned that his greatest sin was his pride. He became the greatest knight ever, and this was the source of his hubris. To God, pride is sin. Everything in Lancelot’s life evolved around his fighting ability. His knightly skills became god, and in becoming god became a demon. Once Lancelot realized his hubris, he humbled himself and committed to live the rest of his life for God. This parallels well with “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis that I just read. Lewis says that if God needs to speak through a broken heart, then so be it. Lancelot’s heart was broken by Guenevere, and through this heartbreak Lancelot quested for the Holy Grail, which resulted in Lancelot’s religious conversion. God spoke to the greatest knight in history through a broken heart.

Book 4: The Candle in the Wind

The ending in this book was very good. King Arthur dies. Before his death, he thinks about this life, including everything that he learned from his childhood with Merlin and from the animals that he was magically transformed into. In this fashion, the book comes full circle, starting and ending with Arthur’s childhood, thus making a tidy ending.

There was a lot of arguing in this book between the Orkney children. From my perspective, this was annoying. The main theme is that Mordred betrays his father, King Arthur. Due to Guenevere’s infertility, Arthur had no other heir for the throne and is blind to Mordred’s perversion. It is obvious that Mordred hates Arthur. He laments that he was born from an incestual relationship, and he laments that his father tried to kill him as a child.

Mordred’s first scheme to defame Arthur was to publicly reveal the affair between Lancelot and the Queen. Arthur, with his fair sense of justice permitted the Orkney kids to implement their scheme to ensnare Lancelot. Once the lovers were found guilty of having an affair, they were sentenced to death. Lancelot fought his way out of his punishment, being the best knight in the world. Additionally, when it was Guenevere’s time to be burned, Lancelot arrived and rescued her from death. Even King Arthur smiled when Guenevere was rescued by her knight. During Lancelot’s rescue mission, two of Mordred’s brothers were killed. It is not explicitly stated whether Lancelot killed them or whether Mordred schemed to have his brothers murdered during the chaos of battle. Yet, it is implied that Mordred killed his brothers and that Lancelot was innocent. Mordred’s purpose here was to soil Lancelot’s name.

Mordred’s last act to usurp King Arthur’s power is to marry the Queen, who is affectionately called “Jenny.” While the King is away fighting, Mordred declares to the kingdom that the King and Lancelot were both killed. This is a lie, but the general populous does not know any better. As a result of Arthur’s proclaimed death, Mordred is crowned King of Britain. In a conniving and evil scene, Mordred enters Jenny’s bed chamber, tells her about his plan to proclaim Arthur’s death, and then tells her that he is going to marry her. He was born from incest, so he states that marrying his father’s wife seems fitting. Guenevere is disgusted. I was disgusted. This scene was well written to elicit repugnance. Mordred is depicted as a pale, wicked creature. He has a pug that he keeps in his lap. As a child, Mordred was too close to his mother, Morgause, and this had terrible mental consequences. Mordred is undeniably evil.

In the last scene of the book, King Arthur dies. Before he dies, he reflects on his life and contemplates if he made the right choices in life. “Humanity is only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love.” I like this quote a lot, and at first I was not going to say why, because I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts about why. But one of the objectives of this journal is to practice thinking and articulating myself. So let me think about this quote. Why do I like it? Arthur uses this quote to support his thought that man is neither good nor bad. Rather, man simply stumbles through life trying to reproduce. If this is true, then there is no justice in the world. It would imply that only the most physically fit people survive. It would imply the Law of Nature, that says the strongest survive, and the weak die. It would imply that we move through life, responding to danger and love, reacting mechanically in order to get the carrot. The problem is that our motions are limited, there is no real thought behind mechanical actions. Furthermore, the prize at the end of life appears tasty, but in reality the carrot is a fraud. The carrot is not even edible.

But in life, there are morals! We are not mechanical donkeys, and there is a real carrot at the end of the road. That’s what religion and Christianity teach us. Unfortunately, there will be war along the way. If there is good in the world, then there must also be evil. This is inevitable. Arthur dates this concept all the way back to Cain and Able, but I think that it goes back even further to Adam and Eve. Since humanity’s original sin, we have always warred. What is the solution to end war? Arthur finds no answer. No solution. But I think that if it all started with an original sin, a divine event, then it must also be solved by a divine event. Man dose not have the power to eradicate war. Only God can. Just like the book comes full circle, with an ending where Arthur reflects on his childhood teachings from Merlin, the world will also come full circle, with an ending in which God performs a great miracle.

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