King Arthur (along with Robin Hood) was quite possibly my first hero, and my first literary role model (as one would expect from such guides I was a child with an unyielding temperament and an over-polarized sense of wrong, right, and justice for many years). The legend of King Arthur has a long and convoluted history, but no one retells the story in a longer, more convoluted, or more anachronistic fashion than T.H. White. Yet, compared to Malory’s “history,” Welsh tales, or Tennyson’s poetry, White’s version of events is possibly one of the most accessible pathways into Arthurian legend. Despite the many times I have read The Once and Future King, and how different each reading experience has been, this remains one of the oddest yet most relevant texts I ever have read or ever will read.
The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is probably the most well-known section of the story thanks to the Disney adaptation by the same name. Whimsically written and full of Merlin’s magic, Arthur is not yet Arthur, but just the Wart, Sir Ector’s lowly ward whose greatest aspiration is to be a good squire to his foster brother Kay one day. The film is all fun and animal transformations and lessons learned about human interactions. The text is a philosophical examination of different forms of government, and the concepts of the justice of Might and Right and Rule in a society. The subsequent books take a progressively darker turn until Arthur’s death.
Arthur’s story as presented by White is about the cycle of nation-building and human nature—one man’s attempt to use the lessons learned as a child about Might and Right and Nature to reform the hearts, minds, and souls of Man as a species. He starts by trying to unite ‘the Isle of Gramarye’ but is pitted instantly against his own kin, the ‘Orkney’ faction, and other ‘Old Ones’ who were vaguely identified as families with roots in Cornwall. By the middle of the epic, Arthur is Emperor of all Europe, but with cracks already spreading through the foundations of Camelot created by the actions of his family. The quest for the Grail only exacerbates these things, and it is the tribal ties and alliances that Arthur strove to overcome that ultimately cause the fall of Camelot. But when we look at the cycle as a whole, we see that the creation of Camelot was flawed from the outset, doomed to fail by prophecy even without accounting for human nature. White’s anachronistic anecdotes and reflections bring the impossibility of achieving Camelot to his own present, and, especially when referring to the horrors of WWII, seem to illustrate how humanity has only gotten worse.
On this latest reading I was caught most by two things—the development of the romance between Lancelot and Guenever as archetypical of the Gordian Knot we make of religion, faith, love, morality, kindness, and decency, and just how much worse still we have become as human beings. Instead of finding a balance between the individual and the species, as exemplified by the Wart’s and Arthur’s time spent with the geese, we are splitting across supposed national and cultural lines more than this modern world has seen before. It seems that instead of learning from the past we are determined to undermine any gains, any ideals, any hopes of those who had to live through things such as world wars and other major tragedies that we could move past our feudal instincts.
Maybe I’ve grown too cynical, and identify too easily with the King at the end of saga, who has watched his life, his family, his aspirations fall to nothing around him, despite trying to “light the candle” of his vision in others. Or maybe I just can’t help but wonder what Arthur himself would think if he rose from under his hill, or returned from Avalon or wherever he may be, to see what has happened to his beloved isle, for which he sacrificed so much. Or if he could see what has become of Might and Right and Power and Greed in this world: ideological civil wars with no end, that will too easily fall over the cusp of pigheaded debate into close-minded dogmatic violence. Personally, I think that he would be turning over in his grave, and mourning the loss of the ideal of Gramarye, the ideal that people can be taught and inspired to become more than what they are. But then again, I am not the Once and Future King, nor am I White, and maybe I should instead learn from the hope of both men that people can change:
There would be a day – there must be a day – when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.
But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
The cannons of his adversary were thundering the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.
EXPLICIT LIBER REGIS QUONDAM REGISQUE FUTURI
(White, T.H. The Once and Future King. London: Voyager, 1996. 696-697. Print.)