Study Guide

Wart/Arthur in The Once and Future King

By T.H. White

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Most of the story throughout the four books features our main man: King Arthur. He's either directly involved in the action, or is the backdrop against which other significant events happen (for example, the relationship between Lancelot and Guenever and the Grail Quest).

When Arthur's a youth, we're told he's blonde-haired with a less-than-flattering "stupid face" (Q.2.3). Gee, thanks. But it's also an open face, with "kind eyes and a reliable or faithful expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin" (Q.2.3).

Oh, the bitter irony—he'll end up meeting his doom because of a twist on "original sin."

A Good Boy and King

Arthur is one of the genuinely good guys in White's work. As a boy (maybe because he was loved and treated fairly) he's nice to others. He extends this kindness into adulthood. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is in the way he overlooks the relationship between Guenever and Lancelot:

This just and generous and kind-hearted man may have guessed unconsciously that the only solution for him and for his loved ones must lie in his own death—after which Lancelot could marry the Queen and be at peace with God—and he may have given Lancelot the chance of killing him in a fair fight, because he himself was worn out. (K.41.3)

What an extreme form of generosity: Arthur is willing to goad Lancelot into attacking him, because if he (Arthur) dies, his wife and best friend can finally be happy together. That is some next-level loyalty—it's almost weirdly noble.

Not only is Arthur kind and generous in his personal life, but he's also a good king. He honestly cares about his subjects—both great and small. In fact, one of the reasons he sets up the Round Table as a sort of medieval Justice League (but without the super cool super powers—for the most part) is to protect the poor people from being oppressed and killed by the barons.

He's constantly trying to improve himself: first, he tries to get rid of Might; then, he tries to control it by channeling it into Right; and finally he lays down a system of laws in an attempt to constrain out-of-control force.

And Yet, Tragically Flawed

But who wants a super goody-goody character who never does wrong? (Just check out Galahad for an example... the guy's unreal. He's like Captain America meets Luke Skywalker meets yawn.)

For all his good qualities, Arthur's got a side that's as dark as a Kubrick movie.  For example? He orders all the babies born around Morgause's due date to be floated out to sea on a barge. Yeah. He kills babies.

Even though Arthur's liaison with his half-sister was an accident, he complicates matters by trying to cover up Mordred's birth. Not only does this action give Arthur some dark depth, but also it also unfortunately sets him up for his big downfall at the end of the novels. You just can't go around killing babies, dude. You cannot.

We'll give Arthur props for trying to break this tragic cycle, and for trying to make things up with Mordred. There's evidence that he truly does care about Mordred. When he comes to court, he finds himself "lovingly treated by the King-father" (Q.1.54). Arthur even makes no bones about acknowledging him as his son later on: "He moved across the cloister to kiss Mordred gently, smiling upon them all" (Q.2.70). Unfortunately, this is all too little, too late, since his son already totally hates him. And who can blame him?!

Arthur's Body Politic

In the end, Arthur becomes less of an individual person than a living, breathing symbol of England, as well as the idea of Kingship. When he's an old man, the people at Court start to look at him in this way—as a royal symbol rather than a real person.

This might have been the plan all along. We learn that "Merlyn had not intended him for private happiness. He had been made for royal joys, for the fortunes of a nation" (K.45.1). So, the grief he goes through on a personal level is less important, maybe, than what he goes through in relation to his country and the idea of kingship.

Arthur seems to understand this, too, which just goes to show what a wise guy he is (not in the mob sense, although a Once and Future King/Goodfellas mashup would be fantastic). When he's talking to Agravaine and Mordred about their plan to catch Guen and Lance, Arthur looks at them from an immense distance, seeming to weigh truth, justice, evil and the affairs of men" (C.5.123).

He knows he must now practice what he's been preaching, or else he'll be a hypocrite. He has to obey his own laws. Who would ever want to be king?

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