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, however, undercuts Merlyn's preachiness. Clearly the cleverest person in the novel, Merlyn is also a bungler who forgets to tell Arthur a crucial piece of information that might save the kingdom.
Perhaps the most enigmatic character in the novel is Lancelot. Even though Lancelot is the greatest of all knights, White portrays him as cursed by an ambiguous secret flaw, an undefined darkness inside that prevents him from ever being at peace with himself. Lancelot is very conscious of his own faults. He knows that his adultery with the Queen goes against the laws of his church, and he does...
(The entire section is 840 words.)
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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 long, flowing gown is imprinted with the signs of the zodiac and other cabalistic symbols; he has a long white beard and carries a wand of lignum. Perched on his shoulder most of the time is his owl, Archimedes, who nests in his hair and leaves droppings over his gown. The wizard is in part a self-image of the author, who also had an owl named Archimedes.
Merlyn is also a serious character. An ideal tutor for Wart, partly because of his oneness with nature, he is able to transform Wart into many different animals through his magic. He also offers the mature King Arthur sage advice on ruling the kingdom. It is ultimately the memory of the wizard's instruction that cheers Arthur on the eve of his doom. White's Merlyn is a masterful characterization.
Another highly original character is Lancelot, hero of the third book, The Ill-Made Knight (1940). White interprets the tradition of the knight "mal fait" as...
(The entire section is 979 words.)