The Once and Future King: Nostalgia for Feudalism, Contempt for Modernism
In his novel The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s tone as a writer goes from that of a medieval enthusiast to a disgruntled citizen of the twentieth century. The novel begins with the first book, “The Sword in the Stone,” the endearing story of King Arthur’s innocent and adventurous childhood told in the voice of a contemporary author. Many of us remember the classic Disney film based on this first book, in which “Wart” begins his exciting adventures with Merlyn away from the rather dim-witted Kay and overbearing Sir Ector. However, as the story goes on, it becomes less jovial and more serious as Arthur grows and encounters deeper and more serious problems than those he faced as a child.
This shift symbolizes more than just the story of a boy growing up – it illustrates the evolution of England from a content feudal society to a competitive warring state (“The Sword in the Stone,” after all, being the only part of the novel written before the breakout of the Second World War). Through this story, T. H. White demonstrates nostalgia for the medieval feudal England and furthermore resentment of what the twentieth century world has become. Throughout the book, White makes brief deviations from the story to give political commentary mildly clouded by the creations within his fictional world. These sections are important to analyze, as they are the key to understanding White’s views both of twentieth century politics and of the Arthurian legend as a whole.
The Good Earth: An Ideal Feudal Society
One of the major themes in “The Sword in the Stone” is politics, as T. H. White acts initially as a sort of apologist for the feudal system. He describes Sir Ector’s estate working in preparation for winter, saying, “Everybody was happy. The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at it in one way – but, if you chose to look at it in another, they were the same farm laborers who get along on too few shillings a week today. Only neither the villein nor the farm laborer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector” (White 130).
In this section, White is acknowledging the low and permanent social status of the working class, but is slyly criticizing any opposition to feudalism by mentioning the society of modern England. In a way, he is portraying the medieval laborer as having an easier life since they at least had a chance of having a vassal who looked after them. Sir Ector, while portrayed at times as hot-headed and foolish, represents this ideal vassal. “They (the laborers) were healthy, free of an air with no factory smoke in it… They knew Sir Ector was proud of them… He walked and worked among his villagers, thought of their welfare, and could tell the good workman from the bad” (White 131).
White is making a subtle comparison of world leaders. He seems to admire the leader who takes the needs of the masses into account, and his mention of “factory smoke” implies resentment towards industrialization. As if these illustrations were not clear enough, White states that “the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system” (131). This section could be seen as a criticism of leaders who do not take the welfare of the lower classes into account, such as, possibly, the authoritarian dictators during World War II. Andrew Lynch writes that “Totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century … were satirised by White in his transformations of Malory’s original” (181), a claim that becomes more evident as the novel continues. However, White focuses his criticism primarily on the Axis powers of the Second World War, and Lynch claims that “British versions of power get off more lightly” (181).
White’s mild criticism of English politics is made evident through Merlyn’s opposition to making violence a sport, such as when the magician says, “A lot of brainless unicorns swaggering about and calling themselves educated just because they can push each other off a horse with a bit of stick! It makes me tired… The trouble with the Norman aristocracy is that they are games-mad, that is what it is, games-mad” (55). The rest of the book focuses on more foreign forms of government.
Nationalist Ants and Peace-Loving Geese
Such an obvious commentary from the author on politics is not often found in “The Sword in the Stone.” Instead, White presents both his beliefs in and criticisms of various political systems through the animalistic societies Wart temporarily joins (The book, after all, being about children, for children).
One example is when the Wart is transformed into an ant. François Gallix writes, “In the allegory of his stay among the ants, the king finds himself involved in a society that is both communist and fascist, the two terms being, in White’s opinion, very close in meaning” (Gallix 288). It is important to note that White characterizes these two ideologies into one metaphor. At the beginning of Wart’s travels as an ant, he sees a sign which reads, “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY” (White 121). This alone is a more communist idea, that no member of the community may have property that is not necessary to the welfare of the state.
Next, the Wart begins to feel sensations through his antennae, and White says “the easiest way to explain it is to say that it was like a wireless broadcast” (121), a clear reference to the radio propaganda that was increasingly used during the Second World War. Another allusion to the Nazi state is found soon after when an ant greets the Wart by saying, “Hail, Barbarus!” (122).
There is also a sort of fascist ideological history introduced when White writes that “Ant the Father had ordained in his wisdom that Othernest pismires should always be the slaves of Thisnest ones” (127), giving the ants an idea of supremacy over all others. This is comparable to the racism, nationalism, and militarism demonstrated within Hitler’s Germany. At this point, it is clear that White is opposed to both communism and fascism. Both ideologies were on the rise when the book was written, and both starkly contrasted his idea of a pacifist society.
The Wart later encounters a way of life quite unlike the ants’ “collectivist and warlike society” when he joins a group of “peaceful wild geese who constitute a model for man to follow, an ideal society” (Gallix 290). The geese live in familial groups, yet altogether have a “comradeship, free discipline and joie de vivre” (White 168). As a result, the Wart becomes “restless” to join them. This sentiment alone can be seen as White’s view that a good, peaceful society will always be sought after by members of other communities, no matter how nationalistic and organized they may be.
However, when the Wart accidentally brings up the idea of war to one of the female geese when he asks why there are sentries, she is quickly disgusted by the idea. “What a horrible mind you must have,” she says, “of course there are sentries. There are the jer-falcons and the peregrines… the foxes and the ermines and the humans… These are natural enemies. But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” (171). Once again we have a less subtle political commentary clouded by the fact that it is geese who are delivering it. Throughout “The Sword in the Stone,” White presents an advocacy for pacifism and contempt for war, sentiments which he presents with less subtlety in the following books.
The Onset of War and Fascism
The tone of the novel changes in its second book, “The Queen of Air and Darkness.” Andrew Hadfield writes that the beginning of this book “marks the transition from the relative innocence of the Wart’s boyhood… to the savagery of the adult world outside” (Hadfield, “T. H. White’s” 420). This transition is likely due to the shifts that were also occurring in the world surrounding White. Hadfield argues in another essay that “White’s conception of the purpose of his retelling of the Arthurian legends grew more grand and precise as the project continued into the years of the Second World War” (Hadfield, “Pacifism and Violence” 209).
White’s references to the war grow more numerous and less subtle from this book onward. His work becomes less of an enjoyment for children and more of a medium through which he may both educate and inspire England during its dark days ahead. In order to do this, White must incorporate what Hadfield calls “the adult world outside.”
The “adult world,” according to White’s writing, is full of problems of a more serious and political nature. Arthur and Kay have grown and are currently at war with King Lot. In a discussion about good reasons for starting wars, Kay says to Merlyn that “there might be a king who has discovered a new way of life for human beings… if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests, by the sword.” Merlyn is shaken by this and responds, “There was just a man when I was young – an Austrian who… tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos” (274).
Here, Merlyn acts as White’s political persona. He is agitated, even angered by the idea of authoritarianism, an ideology that was being taken to the extreme by the “Austrian” in Germany when “The Queen of Air and Darkness” was written. Merlyn then mentions Jesus Christ, saying that “the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers… On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not impose them on people” (274). This passage is not a confession of faith in Christianity. Rather, it is White’s recognition of, if not admiration for, Jesus of Nazareth’s ability to spark a worldwide, two thousand year-long belief system without the need to resort to violent force. If anything, White is using Jesus as a political archetype for the modern head of state.
This anti-fascist attitude is further demonstrated in “The Candle in the Wind,” when White makes Mordred into the head of a sort of medieval Nazi party, whose aims, White writes, “were some kind of nationalism, with Gaelic autonomy, and a massacre of the Jews as well, in revenge for a mythical saint called Hugh of Lincoln. They were already thousands, spread over the country, who carried his badge of a scarlet fish clenching a whip, and who called themselves the Thrashers” (628). In the novel, medieval England has become weak under the breaking of the Round Table, much like Germany during the decline of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930’s. As a result, Mordred is able to rally a “popular party” and spread his own hatred for Arthur’s monarchy among his followers. The badge and the far-fetched pretense for killing Jews are obvious references to the Nazi Party.
Furthermore, Arthur receives and shares the news that “(The Thrashers) are besieging her (Guinever) in the Tower of London now, and Mordred is using guns,” after which the Bishop of Rochester “asked in bewilderment: ‘Guns?’” (658). This introduction of firearms is a first in the story and, historically speaking, marks the end of the Middle Ages as we know it. White writes that this use of guns “was too much for the old priest’s (Rochester’s) intellects,” and the bishop cries, “To use cannons against men!” This is probably a reference to similar outrage sparked by the Blitzkrieg during which Germany targeted and bombed civilian areas in England.
The Once and Future King
White’s final and arguably most significant commentary is given at the end of the novel, when Arthur, old and weary, sits in his tent before his final battle against the cannons of Mordred. “Chivalry and justice became a child’s illusions,” he writes, “if the stock on which he had tried to graft them was to be the Thrasher, was to be Homo ferox instead of Homo sapiens” (667).
Here, Arthur is feeling what England must have felt. Nothing but misery and bloodshed surround him, and certain death awaits him on the battlefield. Arthur then ponders his reign as king, wondering where he went wrong in his hopes of bringing England to a warless era. “Was it wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?… A leader was surely forced to offer something to appeal to those he led?… If it was so easy to lead one’s country in various directions… why had he failed to lead her into chivalry, into justice and into peace? He had been trying” (668).
This is both Arthur and White wondering why a man like Mordred or Hitler could thrive when their ideals went against peace and justice, and whether it was they or those they led who truly sparked their movements. White continues with Arthur’s thoughts as his persona, saying, “Perhaps the great cause of war was possession… Perhaps war was due to fear… Perhaps wars happened because nations had no confidence in the Word… Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it” (679-671). In the end, White and Arthur cannot decide on what causes war.
In the end, however, Arthur is encouraged by two things. Firstly, by his final order to his page, a young Thomas Malory, whom he tells to “remember their (the Knights’) famous idea… to remember that you (Malory) are a kind of vessel to carry on the idea… and that the whole hope depends on you alive” (674). Here, Malory serves as a metaphor for Arthur’s old ideals of chivalry and justice, that they may live on in the hearts of the English people.
The second occurrence that gives Arthur new hope is when he thinks of Merlyn, and suddenly sees in his recollection all of the animals he had encountered during his lessons with the old magician. White comes to his conclusion as he describes Arthur’s thoughts: “He saw the problem before him, as plain as a map. The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing – literally nothing… Frontiers were imaginary lines… Countries would have to become counties – but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws” (676).
This is both White’s final presentation of political commentary and Arthur’s forming of plans for when he returns as the Future King. The King had been able to conquer as far as Rome, so surely he could do so again when he returned, only this time get rid of boundaries and rule his kingdom with a bit less centralization. Arthur is suddenly clear-headed and “his spirits are finally buoyed by his realization that the dream and legend are alive, even though the institutions have crumbled” (Lacy, Ashe, and Mancoff 182). This is White’s solution. He recognizes that feudalism is gone and that tyrants now thrive. However, he shows that there is a chance that as long as the legend, or idea, of justice lives on, England and the world may yet abandon war and reestablish their own sort of Table Round, only this time it may last eternally.
The Once and Future King, a modern Arthurian classic, went from being a retelling of Malory for children to T. H. White’s microphone to the world of politics. White demonstrates some degree of longing for the organized and mostly all-pleasing form of feudalism found in the Middle Ages, and much resentment of the warmongering attitude the world has cultivated in modern times. Through his criticism of rising radical ideologies, White shows the many flaws in the idea that “Might makes Right,” and that forms of government such as fascism and communism cannot exist if they continue to thrive on war and the blind, unfulfilled support of the people. Instead, White presents the possibility of peace as almost achieved by Arthur and his court. Although Arthur lost this chance, White encourages the world to hope that justice, like Arthur, may yet return so long as its legend lives on.
Gallix, François. “T. H. White and the Legend of King Arthur: From Animal Fantasy to Political Morality.” The Once and Future King. Ed. Edward Donald Kennedy. King Arthur: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1996. 281-297.
Hadfield, Andrew: T. H. White, Pacifism, and Violence: The Once and Future Nation Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate, (6:2), 1996, 207-26. (Electronic publication.).
Hadfield, Andrew. “T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.” Companion to Arthurian Literature. Ed. Helen Fulton. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 420-433. Print.
Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff. “Modern Arthurian Literature.” The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland Pub., 1997. 181-82. Print.
Lynch, Andrew. “Imperial Arthur: Home and Away.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Ed. Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2009. 181. Print.
White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: Ace, 1996. Print.
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