Themes and Characters
The major character of The Once and Future King is Arthur, whom Merlyn affectionately nicknames "Wart." One of the strengths of White's novel is that it keeps its focus on Arthur; in many versions of the Arthurian legend, the major emphasis falls on Lancelot and Guenever.
White does not portray Arthur as an all-powerful legendary hero but as a good, honest person, not very clever but willing to work hard to understand the lessons Merlyn teaches him. This is most obvious in The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn changes Wart into different animals so that the boy can learn the ways of nature. Even after Merlyn departs, Arthur must struggle in order to rule justly and keep the kingdom at peace.
Arthur's chief flaw, which helps to bring on his downfall, is his excessive good-heartedness. This trait makes him unwilling to acknowledge evil in those around him. He is deliberately blind to the evil of Queen Morgause, and will not recognize the adulterous behavior of Lancelot and Guenever. Even though Lancelot and Guenever are basically good, their actions are evilan evil that will destroy all that Arthur has aimed for and accomplished. Yet Arthur refuses to face what is occurring.
The most delightful character in the novel is the wizard Merlyn, who "lives backward in time," remembering the future and predicting the past. Merlyn gives voice to White's philosophy and at times launches into excessively long speeches. White,...
(The entire section is 840 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Once and Future King Characters. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
It is one of the paradoxes of the traditional Arthurian legend that King Arthur is one of the least individualized of the many characters. In a sense this is inevitable since he is the hero-king, a mythic entity rather than an individual. White's characterization transcends this limitation by showing Arthur's development from youth to maturity. The young Wart is realistically portrayed, effectively contrasted with his stepbrother Kay. Wart's zest for experience, his tenderness and sensitivity to nature and its creatures, his strong ethical convictions — all help to distinguish him as a promising prince. As Arthur the King he comes to recognize himself as fated for tragic failure, but at the end, when he calmly awaits what he knows will be his last battle, he feels "clear-headed" and "ready to begin again."
The most original and memorable character is Merlyn, who undertakes the tutelage of Wart. Living backwards in time gives him insights unavailable to others, and frequently his moral examples are drawn from recent history. In a long discussion with Arthur about whether Might should enforce Right he cites his memory of a certain Austrian who felt that way. Often his confusion of memory and prophecy is comic, as he is uncertain whether an event is past or about to occur. Another source of comedy is his occasional absent-minded spells that go wrong.
Merlyn's appearance is striking but also somewhat comic. He wears a tall, pointed hat; his...
(The entire section is 979 words.)