Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The King is a delicate attempt to communicate the fragile relationship between romance and reality. By combining the romantic tale of Arthur and his knights with a horrible twentieth century reality, the Battle of Britain, Barthelme slowly draws out the consequences of the relationship.

Arthur is a no-nonsense romantic, if there is such a thing. He understands that against the propaganda machines and manipulativeness of modern politics, not much can be done, but he seems to continue on anyway, with a romantic sense of duty. Guinevere and Launcelot try to keep up the good old days of athletic combat and “Maying”; they sigh a lot because these activities are no longer appreciated.

In short, all the knightly characters pursue a life of love and beauty in the face of a world that holds their pursuits of no account. The Brown Knight even apologizes for wearing brown armor on a black horse, for in the world of knighthood, bad taste is a no-no. Barthelme is neither satirizing nor endorsing the “lifestyle” (if anything so tenuous could be so called) of the Arthurian characters. Yet the world they are fighting—represented by Lord Haw Haw, the Germans (who are “insane”), and even Sir Winston—are dull by comparison.

Other forces impinge on their world: The Blue Knight wants to achieve the Grail, which his cobalt blue armor helps to identify as the big bomb. This, he says, will win the conflict and utterly destroy the...

(The entire section is 469 words.)