Some stories are worth hearing over and over. Each time we hear a particular story, something new acquaints itself with us or the characters endear themselves more to us. Stories are meant to be retold—not just by the same teller, but by different tellers. Each time you hear a different person tell the same story, you get a new perspective, or perhaps something new is added or a new theme is proved. Good stories adapt themselves to the people that tell them (whether they tell it to others or to themselves). Perhaps this is why the Arthurian stories have carried themselves from near-ancient times to our present generation. Brilliant authors from Chaucer to Spencer to Tennyson to modern screen and stage adaptations have found new inspiration in the characters of this canon. T.H. White seems to bear the most responsibility for Camelot’s present fame. His The Once and Future King recommends the Arthurian legend to the modern reader and asks some serious questions of our present age.
Spencer emphasized the virtues of Arthurian chivalry in his Fairy Queen. This incredible poem was a kind of guide to a gentleman’s conduct. White picks up in this tradition by speculating on Arthur’s upbringing. Wart, as Arthur is first called, is not a very clever boy—not even a very strong boy. He lives in an uncle’s castle and since he doesn’t have any parents, he will be his older cousin’s squire when his cousin, Kay, becomes a knight.
From the beginning Wart is drawn by the intangible force of destiny— a theme of White’s. An uncooperative falcon leads him to the house of his new tutor, Merlin. Merlin has been expecting him and Merlin knows all that Wart will encounter and become. He begins preparing Wart by giving him first-hand experiences as different animals—a fish, a bird, a badger and others. He also acquaints Wart with the best and worst of human experiences. Wart battles witches and giants and meets knights and even Robin Hood.
In all of these adventures, nothing sad or horrible threatens your pleasure. In fact, some of Wart’s encounters are quite hilarious. Merlin appoints a very funny jousting match to comment on the ridiculousness of battle and so-called honor. A more dangerous adventure with a giant teaches Wart the importance of individual liberty. Some humanist and evolutionist ideals seep through here and there, but on the whole, Merlin gives his pupil, and the reader, some sound advice about life.
After his preparation, Wart becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone. He is now called Arthur, and he begins to learn his identity. As king he learns to assert himself and rule justly. Arthur overcomes great odds in war by attacking the knights and lords who resist his leadership. Until Arthur’s time, the knights had always allowed their serfs to do the fighting and dying and exchanged a few blows with each other for sport. By attacking and killing the knights directly, Arthur strikes fear into his enemies and spares hundreds of innocent serfs.
Arthur subdues all of England and much of Europe after a short time. He then becomes concerned with the evil actions of knights who have no more battles with which to occupy themselves. He creates his Round Table to establish chivalry and rescue people from evil knights. Thus he brings his Dark Ages to a higher level of civilization.
At the inception of the Round Table, Lancelot enters the story, and it begins to take a darker turn. He is a best friend of Arthur and becomes the greatest knight in the world. As Merlin had foretold to Arthur, Lancelot and Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, begin to fall in love. Lancelot struggles to avoid adultery for awhile, but after being tricked into losing his precious virginity to another woman, he abandons himself to Arthur’s queen. White spends a lot of time developing the affair—with good reason. The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is intriguing because it is tied to every other aspect of the story. Lancelot’s agony over his sin parallel’s Arthur’s apprehension about his mistakes. The triangle is something they cannot avoid and yet it seems they could have chosen to avoid it and can choose to exit at any moment. The triangle becomes the instrument by which Camelot is ruined. Lancelot is trapped by his sensuality and Arthur is brought down by his idealism.
The knights grow restless with the ease of a materializing civilization and so Arthur devises the first crusade to find the Holy Grail. This backfires on him because his most chivalrous knights find favor with God and Arthur loses them to heaven. Arthur then turns to law. His hateful son, Mordred, from an illegitimate relationship turns Arthur’s law upon him by catching Lancelot in Guinevere’s bedroom and thus forcing the king to exercise justice on his wife by executing her. Lancelot rescues her and Arthur pursues him to France. While England’s ruler is absent Mordred makes a move to the throne. Arthur returns to oppose Mordred and soon fights his final battle.
In the final chapter, White caps his views on modern civilization through Arthur’s musing. Arthur tries to determine why his civilization has failed. Whether new battle methods (force), a chivalrous order (morality), a spiritual quest (religion), or a justice system (law), nothing he tried could stamp out the abuse of power or quench the selfish, quarreling nature of his people. It is interesting that White discounts the “godly view” because of its impossibility. He concludes that man cannot “gain his life by losing it,” and so he says men should not even try. His answer to Arthur’s problem is something like global unity. He disavows communism but calls for people to adopt an international identity. Somehow, Arthur realizes, people must transcend their geographical boundaries and territorial identities. This would solve his problems—the world’s problems. White’s conclusion contradicts everything he proved previously. Despite all of Arthur’s attempts at a strong civilization, that civilization failed because of the jealousy and selfishness of Mordred and others. As White states, Arthur operates on the assumption that man is basically good. He finds the contrary. If men were able to set aside their personal interests and identities to obtain unity, the use of force had not been necessary to attain peace and all the knights would have found their way to heaven on their crusade. If men cannot set aside their personal interests and identities, how can they give up their larger, more complex national ones?