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‘The Once and Future King’ and the Cycle of Civilization
How do you solve a problem like Might?
T.H. White wrote one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time: The Once and Future King.
He didn’t create it out of nothing. Writing in the 20th century, White drew inspiration from the 15th-century Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, who compiled and reworked Arthurian legends of earlier centuries into a single prose volume.
Arthurian ideals don’t die; they just get reinterpreted every so often.
To help bring the story into the present, the narrator of The Once and Future King is a modern voice translating the world of ancient England into contemporary terms, such as referring to port instead of the actual beverage consumed then.
Along these lines, White’s writing style is warm and inviting. The reader can easily imagine the narrator telling the story out loud. The tone is more Welcome—join us on our journey rather than Listen—this is how it was and how it is. The former is far better for fiction, whereas the latter feels closer to a lecture.
White is not lecturing us about Arthurian legend. He discovered particular stories that he wanted to tell from within the legend.
The Once and Future King collects four shorter novels into one book—The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. And they come together marvelously. What begins as a children’s story matures along the way, presenting the life of King Arthur from his youth to shortly before his death.
It’s not just Arthur’s life, though. It’s the life cycle of civilization itself.
Arthur is born into a world in which people view Might as Right (intentionally capitalized that way in the book). He adopts the mission of flipping that around—he wants to channel Might toward productive ends so that it serves Right. As an early strategy, Arthur invents chivalry to make it fashionable for mighty knights to behave themselves.
As the years progress, Arthur achieves a more civilized society, and there are increasingly fewer options for channeling Might toward Right. The knights find another outlet in intense sporting competitions, where they obsess over their titling averages. Later, they embark on quests for the Holy Grail.
Eventually, Arthur loses his best knights to the perfection of holiness, and for the most part, only the worst remain after that. He changes course—instead of steering Might toward Right, perhaps it’s time to constrain Might in the first place. So he creates civil law, which Mordred and Agravaine later use against him, Lancelot, and Guinevere.
The book ends not with some epic battle but on the eve of battle, with Arthur ruminating on his life’s mission and realizing how no solution achieved any permanent effect.
But Merlyn taught him to think for himself, so Arthur considers what else might be done this late in his life.
The narrator says:
Looking back at his life, it seemed to him that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood, which, whenever he had checked it, had broken through at a new place, setting him his work to do again.
And any utopian ideologue of any era should pay attention to these lines:
Sweeping and drastic remedies could cut out anything—and life with the cut. Ideal advice, which nobody was built to follow, was no advice at all. Advising heaven to earth was useless.
So Arthur tells a teenager the story of the Round Table and what he hoped to accomplish. He orders this lad not to fight the next day, but to return home and spread the story, keep it alive.
Toward the scene’s end, the narrator implies that the young man is Thomas Malory or perhaps an ancestor of his.
Arthur tells him:
“Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now—you won’t let it out?”
That’s the hope of the future.
Arthur realizes that civilization is cyclical. His ideals may be slipping away from the world now, but maybe they’ll return in a new generation. And we’ll all keep trying to be better. We may very well backslide, or perhaps we’ll achieve some incremental net progress. It’s depressing and hopeful at the same time.
The ending calls to mind a passage from much earlier in the book, when a young Arthur, then called Wart, shoots an arrow into the sky:
So, as the arrow topped the trees and climbed into sunlight, it began to burn against the evening like the sun itself. Up and up it went, not weaving as it would have done with a snatching loose, but soaring, swimming, aspiring to heaven, steady, golden, and superb. Just as it 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.
This annoys Wart, who had “loved his arrow’s movement, its burning ambition in the sunlight.” And it was his favorite and most perfectly constructed arrow too. He blames a witch for the arrow’s defeat, discounting the real culprit: nature.
Arthur spends his life trying to perfect humanity, only to learn that it can’t be done, at least not in a single lifetime. “But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent,” the narrator says.
However, Arthur does improve the world for a significant portion of his lifetime, and that needs to count for something.
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