Themes in Once and Future King

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T. H. White's The Once and Future King is one of the most complete and unique portrayals of the immortal legend of King Arthur. Though it has been in print for less than half a century, it has already been declared a classic by many, and is often referred to as the "bible" of Arthurian legend. White recreates the epic saga of King Arthur, from his childhood education and experiences until his very death, in a truly insightful and new way. This is not, however, the first complete novel of Arthur's life. In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Morte d'Arthur, the first complete tale of Arthur's life. Since then, a countless number of books have been written on the subject, yet none can compare to The Once and Future King. It has easily become the most popular of all the Arthurian novels as it is loved by both children and adults. Though similar in many ways to other works of the same subject, such as Malory's, White gives new details, meanings, and insightful modernization to the story, giving it an earthy quality, which the reader can identify with. White's rendering of the Arthurian legend differs from the traditional versions in that he includes contemporary knowledge and concepts, adds new stories and characters to the legend, and provides new perspectives by probing deeper into the existing tales.


It is the contemporary tone in The Once and Future King, which gives the novel its present-day feeling. This helps the reader to relate to the story, rather than placing it in strictly within the context of the Arthurian period. For example, early in the novel Eton College is referred to, which White then points out "was not founded until 1440," but the place was nevertheless "of the same sort"(4). Another example of anachronism can be found during a discussion between Merlyn and Wart, when Merlyn exclaims "Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!" (86). During the days of Arthur, Bermuda was an unknown place, and would not be discovered until the fifteenth century. Though these references have no true significance to the plot of the story, White uses anachronism as a device to aid the reader in association with the context. And, as in other of White's novels, "the author's presence is apparent" (Fries 260), giving the feeling of an oral storytelling. These "almost too frequent historical tangents are designed to underline the anachronism of the teller" (Fries 260).

White also uses anachronism to convey a more penetrating idea; relating the life of Arthur to modern society. White's novel constitutes his search for answers to the problems of the modern world. When Merlyn and Wart are discussing knighthood, Wart expresses his desire to "encounter all the evil in the world... so that if I conquered there would be none left." Merlyn then insightfully replies that "that would be extremely presumptuous", and he "would be conquered for it" (184). In this, White is conveying the notion that society cannot be governed by might alone. Stephen Dunn exposes the concept that "White's world... is still the world as we, unfortunately, know it" (367). This is made evident by Merlyn's relations of contemporary British fox hunting to medieval war. Merlyn educates Wart to expose him to faults present in society so that he may correct them when he becomes king. These faults are still present in today's society, which is precisely the point White is making.

T. H. White also conquers the task of avoiding a monotonous recreation of the Arthurian legend by adding new and unique characters and stories in his novel. The addition of King Pellinore for example is unique to The Once and Future King. When White first introduces Pellinore, he is fumbling with his glasses, falls "off his horse to search for them... visor shutting in the process, and exclaimed 'Oh, dear!'" (16). Pellinore appears throughout the novel at the traditional medieval events and plays a key role in Wart's education. Sirol Hugh-Jones credits White with...
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