The Once and Future King

I love this book by T. H. White. Here are some of my favorite bits.

The first part is about Arthur, nicknamed “The Wart,” and Kay growing up.

The Wart loved hay-making, and was good at it. Kay, who was two years older, generally stood on the edge of the bundle which he was trying to pick up, with the result that he worked twice as hard as the Wart for only half the result. But he hated to be beaten at anything, and used to fight away with the wretched hay — which he loathed like poison — until he was quite sick. (13)

I relate to Kay in this one; overly willful, striving after emptiness.

As the years went by, Kay became more difficult. He always used a bow too big for him, and did not shoot very accurately with it either. He lost his temper and challenged nearly everybody to have a fight, and in those few cases where he did actually have the fight he was invariably beaten. Also he became sarcastic. He made the sergeant miserable by nagging about his stomach, and went on at the Wart about his father and mother when Sir Ector was not about. He did not seem to want to do this. It was as if he disliked it, but could not help it. (178)

Sounds like Paul in Romans 7.

And Arthur understands: “He has to be proud because he is frightened” (90).

The third part is about Lancelot. I love the way White writes about Lancelot’s faith and his affair with Guenever.

This knight’s trouble from his childhood — which he never completely grew out of — was that for him God was a real person. He was not an abstraction who punished you if you were wicked or rewarded you if you were good, but a real person like Guenever, or like Arthur, or like anybody else. Of course he felt that God was better than Guenever or Arthur, but the point was that he was personal. Lancelot had a definite idea of what he looked like, and how he felt — and he was somehow in love with this Person… He had not given up his mistress because he was afraid of being punished by some sort of Holy Bogy, but he had been confronted by two people whom he loved… Unfortunately, as so often happens in love affairs, the two objects of his affection were contradictory. It was almost as if he had been confronted with a choice between Jane and Janet — and as if he had gone to Janet, not because he was afraid she would punish him if he stayed with Jane, but because he felt, with warmth and pity, that he loved her best. (483)

It was not so lucky for the Queen… Well for him, she exclaimed — she was growing madder every day, and it hurt people to watch it — well for him to wrap himself in his new delight. He had a grand feeling, no doubt, a compensation of vigour and clarity and uplifting of the heart. Perhaps his famous God did give him something which she could not give. Perhaps he was happier with God, and would soon be doing miracles left and right. But what about her? He was not considering what she got out of God. The position was exactly the same, she railed at him, as if he had left her for another woman. He had taken the best of her, and now that she was old and worthless he had gone elsewhere. He was behaving with the beastly selfishness of Man, taking all he could get from one quarter, and then, when that was used, going to another. (486)

Reading about the adultery in Malory — Tristram and King Mark’s Queen La Beale Isoud, and Lancelot and Guenever — it is just annoying, because everyone seems to act like Tristram’s and Lancelot’s prowess as good knights justifies their betraying their kings, and that the kings have no right to be upset about it. And because Lancelot lies, declaring the Queen faithful to Arthur, and takes no account of God’s possible righteous intervention, instead trusting in his prowess to “prove” his quarrel.

White gives a compelling account of how Lancelot could struggle with his love of God and for Guenever and for his friend Arthur, and how Arthur could subconsciously know about the affair and yet desire no harm to his friend nor his wife (though Malory hints at this), and how Guenever could fail to understand Lancelot’s turning to God.

I could go on — the rich psychology of Gawaine’s twisted and stunted family, the heroic tragedy of how Arthur’s quest for justice ruins his kingdom…

I’ll end with the ending. Facing his ruin in the final war, Arthur tries to think through what has gone wrong, debating such things as whether people are innately good or bad or pawns of fate, whether the trouble is possessions or boundaries, and what the solution could possibly be. Tragic hero Arthur is not given the power to solve the problems of the world, at least not at this time. And yet White neither points to the real Christ, nor does he let the tale end with Arthur’s tragic failure — he is the once and future king, either to return himself for a fresh try at the solution, or to return in Malory’s writings (and White’s and others), to inspire the solution through readers.

I wonder what White thought of his ending. The whole book careens towards this tragic failure, making such a strong case for the impossibility of anyone solving the problems of humanity, and yet he ends with this vague, unsupported hope. I suppose he knew that humanity is not designed to be left to tragedy, and though he didn’t quite grasp what form the redemption would take, he felt he had to hint at redemption anyway.


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