Study Guide

The Once and Future King

by T. H. White

The Once and Future King Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

The central theme of this ambitious retelling of the Arthurian legend is the conflict of Might and Right. White remarked that he had the Matter of Britain on his mind for twenty years, wanting "to deal with every side of it — with the clash between Might and Right, man's place in nature, and the problem of war" along with the personal tragedy of King Arthur. In the first book, The Sword in the Stone, which takes place during the childhood of Wart (young Arthur's nickname), the future king is taught by Merlyn to abhor the unnaturalness of war. The boy learns through observing the geese fly overhead that boundaries are imaginary lines, not worth fighting for. As a king facing battle at the end of the final book Candle in the Wind, he reiterates his lifelong belief that war is "fought about nothing — literally nothing." Although belligerence and violence exist in nature, only humans fight to prove who is right about imaginary matters like boundaries. It is Arthur's goal to defend and preserve Right rather than to impose control through the use of force.

Closely related to the theme of conflict is that of man's role in nature. White's intense interest in the natural world gave him a perspective of distance on humanity, which he found sadly wanting in many ways. Many of his views are represented through Merlyn, whose tutoring of Wart establishes the idealism of the future King Arthur. In the opening book of the tetralogy, several episodes satirize human nature in comparison with other creatures. White points out, for example, that only six species kill their own members, five of which are ants; the sixth is human. In the episode in which Wart talks with an embryo, the point is made that whereas other species requested God at their creation to give them specific distinguishing traits, the humans did not ask for any one in particular but simply thanked God for giving them a multitude of natural gifts. The badger, however, asserts that the human race has misused those gifts in order to become the dominant race.

Also important in the opening work is the theme of education....

(The entire section is 861 words.)