Study Guide

The Once and Future King Society and Class

By T.H. White

Society and Class

"After all, damn it all, we can't have the boys runnin' about all day like hooligans—after all, damn it all? Ought to be havin' a first-rate eddication, at their age." (S.1.3).

Here's an example of how White uses dialects to suggest a character's social class. Pay attention to how Sir Ector (and people like Sir Grummore and King Pellinore) sound a lot more like the lower classes (like the sergeant-at-arms, Hob, and Robin Wood and his gang) than they do the upper classes. This is probably because they are provincial nobility.

"Hob is only a villein anyway." (S.1.62).

Kay has no respect for Hob, the bird-tender responsible for Cully, the hawk. Because he's of higher social station than Hob, Kay doesn't think it's wrong to take Cully without his permission. Also, "villein" here doesn't mean a person intent on crime. It simply means a farm worker (but you can see how our modern-day "villain" comes from this word—meaning someone lowborn and possibly sketchy).

"Nah, Nah, Master Kay, that ain't it at all. Has you were. Has you were. The spear should be 'eld between the thumb and forefinger of the right ʾand, with the shield in line with the seam of the trahser leg..." (S.7.13).

Check out the "ain't" and "has" (for "as") and "trahser" (for "trouser"). White gives the lower-class characters (like the sergeant-at-arms here) distinctive dialects to show their social standing.

"You see, the membership of the mews is, after all, restricted to the raptors—and that does help a lot. They know that none of the lower classes can get in. Their screen perches don't carry blackbirds or such trash as that." (S.8.42).

Merlyn is telling Wart about the social make-up of the mews (where the birds are kept). The "raptor" birds (birds of prey, like hawks, eagles, and falcons) are equivalent to the nobility. It's not surprising that lots of these types of birds appear in medieval heraldry symbolizing powerful families.

"Let thee sleep in ʾem, come summer, come winter, and hunt in ʾem for thy commons lest thee starve." (S.10.50).

Little John's telling Wart and Kay about Robin Hood (here called Robin Wood). Wood rules the woods, and lets the common folk stay there and hunt for their food, so they don't starve. It certainly doesn't sound like the poor people have it easy in England at this time.

"Measter," said Wat, suddenly remembering one word, the word which he had always been accustomed to offer to the great people who made him a present of food, his only livelihood. (S.12.33).

Wat, the semi-crazed man who bites off little boys' noses, here remembers his manners and calls Arthur "master." It's pretty sad, isn't it, for someone to regard food as a gift?

"I ought to have thought of the people who had no armour." (Q.2.75)

Arthur learns another valuable lesson. The poor people suffer for what the rich knights consider mostly "blood sport" and "athletics." The serfs and villeins can't afford to buy fancy armor to protect themselves from sharp blades and other medieval weapons. So they usually suffer the most casualties in war.

In the clean bog-wind of the high tops, they discussed the hunt. Meg, who cried incessantly, was held by the hair to prevent her from running away, and occasionally passed from one boy to the other, if the one who was holding her happened to want both hands for gestures. (Q.7.91)

Meg the kitchen maid is powerless, even against these little G-boys (the oldest of whom is 14). The passive voice emphasizes this: "was held by the hair" and "passed from one boy to the other." Even though the boys think this is a game, Meg certainly isn't having fun, and we see even more casual cruelty from these always-charming children.

A joculator was a juggler, a low kind of minstrel, and Sir Grummore did not relish the idea at all. (Q.9.11)

This is when Sir Palomides suggests that he and Grummore play dress-up as the Questing Beast to cheer up Pellinore. This is some hilarious comic relief, but the passage also shows that there is a class hierarchy even among entertainers. Grummore, a high and mighty knight, won't get down off of his high horse to go slumming like this.

The nobles of the inner circle on both sides were in a way traditionally more friendly with each other than with their own men. For them the numbers were necessary for the sake of the bag, and for scenic purposes. […] When sufficient kerns had been decapitated and sufficient rough handling had been dealt out to the English captains, Arthur would recognize the impossibility of further resistance. (Q.12.5)

Unfortunately, war impacts the lower-class "kerns" way more than it does the high and mighty knights. King Lot thinks things are going to go along like they usually do—but Arthur's about to unleash some warfare of the social justice variety on his foe.

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