Study Guide

The Once and Future King Fate and Free Will

By T.H. White

Fate and Free Will

"Have I told you this before?"

"No, we only met about half an hour ago."

"So little time to pass?" said Merlyn, and a big tear ran down to the end of his nose. (S.3.71-73)

This is a poignant scene that can get you right in your feels. Merlyn is meeting Wart for the first time, but since he lives backwards through Time, he has things all out of whack. He already knows what's going to happen to Arthur in the end, and it makes Merlyn sad to know that their time together will pass by so quickly, and then it will be over.

Just as [the arrow] had spent its force, just as its ambition had been dimmed by destiny and it was preparing to faint, to turn over, to pour back into the bosom of its mother earth, a portent happened. A gore-crow came flapping wearily before the approaching night. It came, it did not waver, it took the arrow. It flew away, heavy and hoisting, with the arrow in its beak. (S.6.13)

This is not a good omen. A "gore-crow" is a carrion crow, meaning it feasts on dead and rotting flesh. The fact that it snapped up Wart's arrow doesn't really cast his future in a particularly rosy hue.

He lost his temper and challenged nearly everybody to have a fight, and in those few cases where he actually did have the fight he was invariably beaten. Also he became sarcastic. He made the sergeant miserable by nagging about his stomach, and went on at Wart about his father and mother when Sir Ector was not about. He did not seem to want to do this. It was as if he disliked it, but could not help it. (S.20.6)

There's a sense that Kay's personality is already predetermined: "he could not help it." He's totally powerless to stop this behavior.

"I know all about your birth and parentage and who gave you your real name. I know the sorrows before you, and the joys, and how there will never again be anybody who dares to call you by the friendly name of Wart. In future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title: so now I shall crave the privilege of being the very first of your subjects to address you with it—as my dear liege lord, King Arthur." (S.24.3)

You can almost hear the dramatic music thrumming up as Merlyn speaks. Plus, anytime someone tells you you'll have a "glorious doom," better look out. "Doom" also means judgment, so we get a big hint that Wart is going to be guilty of something sometime soon that will demand judging.

Even if you have to read it twice, like something in a history lesson, this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur. It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knight's jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost. That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur's son, Mordred, and to remember, when the time comes, that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough. (Q.14.19)

This is one of the most portentous passages in the entire quartet. Events are going to unwind as they will, and it doesn't matter who is innocent and who is guilty. There are forces beyond anyone's understanding or control. Arthur is innocent, but that's not enough to save him. His fate has been written down somewhere long before he was born.

"I am due to fall in love with a girl called Nimue in a short time, and then she learns my spells and locks me up in a cave for several centuries. It is one of those things which are going to happen." (Q.2.58)

Merlyn is cursed to know his own fate, which would—if you think about it—be a horrible thing to bear. He'll eventually be locked up alive in a mound of earth. He seems to shrug it off here, though. But later, he makes light of this, and regards it as a sort of vacation fling he goes on with his ladylove.

Arthur was happy. Like the man in Eden before the fall, he was enjoying his innocence and fortune. Instead of being a poor squire, he was a king. Instead of being an orphan, he was loved by nearly everybody except the Gaels, and he loved everybody in return.

So far as he was concerned, as yet, there might never have been such a thing as a single particle of sorrow on the gay, sweet surface of the dew-glittering world. (Q.2.94-95)

And now for your Daily Word Origin Lesson: "happy" doesn't just mean full of joy or lighthearted, which is how we mostly use it now. It comes from the Middle English "hap," meaning luck, or chance. It's related to words like "happenstance" (meaning a chance or accidental happening). It makes sense that "happy" would appear right before a mention of Eden, since that whole Falling-From-Grace thing is often regarded as a fortunate fall (since it allowed for Jesus to come on to the scene). Is there any way in which we can regard Arthur's downfall as fortunate?

"There are some things," said the magician, "which I have to tell you, whether you believe them or not. The trouble is, I can't help feeling there is one thing which I have forgotten to tell. Remind me to warn you about Guenever another time." (Q.8.16)

Merlyn can't always keep his timelines straight. Plus, there's a sense that he can't remember this particular detail because Guenever and Lancelot are fated to be together. This thing is going to go where it goes; there's nothing anyone can do about it. Maybe that's the true definition of tragedy.

"Perhaps it will be best for you to go. Perhaps it is a thing which has to happen." (K.24.55)

Even the grammatical structure of the sentence here indicates that Lancelot is helpless in the face of what will happen. Notice how Elaine doesn't say, "You will do this," which would imply Lancelot has some say in the matter. She instead says it's "a thing which has to happen." This is an impersonal construction, with a vague subject, so it's unclear who is doing what. This construction reinforces the idea that Lancelot will leave—it is beyond his or her control.

"Well," she said, "who made us love each other?" (C.3.72)

Who is doing the "making" here? The fact that Guen mentions a possible outside person or force that has caused them to love each other shows us that fate is once again coming into the picture. Lancelot might say that it's God, the fourth player in their "Eternal Quadrangle," while Guen would be more likely to chalk it up to fate or fortune, an impersonal and inscrutable force.

For that time it was his destiny to die, or as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot's fate and Guenever's to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. (C.14.108)

Each person has his or her own destiny, and even though each is tiny in the overwhelmingly huge ocean of the history of humanity, each drop sparkles as an individual. Sparkle Motion!

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