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Written by Timothy Sexton
Perhaps the singular overarching theme that unifies the disparate parts of The Once and Future King into a unified is the way that the honor codes of chivalry are consistently subverted and undermined through irony. T.H. White is but one of many to turn to the court of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table for inspiration, but he was one of the first to veer away from the standard depiction of those character as inextricably bound to their code of chivalry. The means by which White engages subversion is primarily through incident and character that consistently reveals the code as deeply flawed and irredeemably hindered by the paradoxes inherent in the very system they are foresworn to protect and uphold. King Pellinore, for instance, constantly reveals the inadequacy of depending upon bloodlines to determine worthiness and intelligence. One of the defining acts of the medieval system to which the chivalric code is frozen forever in time is the jousting competition. In White’s hands, this iconic scene devolves quickly into the reality of an exhibition of the awkwardness of attempting to assign nobility to the comical sight of ungainly opponents trying to control a speeding horse under the ridiculously oppressive weight afforded by all that shining armor.
Might v. Right
The unlikeliness of weak little Wart becoming his country’s greatest king is a constant throughout the tale that touches upon or influences many of the book’s thematic concerns. One of the themes which is inextricably intertwined with the maturating process of Arthur from Wart to King is his gradual rejection of the concept of might making right. By the time he ascends to the throne, his philosophical analysis has transformed the simplicity of might and right into the complexity of strength and justice. This leads inevitably to his desire to resolve these conflicting approaches to rule through the creation of the Round Table as both a symbol and a process of creating equality and containing violence.
Fate and Foreknowledge
The vagaries of fate so permeates modern day anxiety that it is probably more difficult to find a single book that doesn’t touch upon destiny as a theme than twenty that do. While the randomness of fate that helps to determine the improbability of Arthur becoming king is present throughout all previous versions of the tale, White imprints a modern apprehension about fate onto his version by constantly raising the specter that Merlyn’s foreknowledge of what is to come resulting from his unique backward aging properties may not be entirely preferable. The conventional wisdom would tend toward the expectation that knowing the future while heading into the past would endow Merlyn with a magic that extends well beyond simple wizardry; in his hands lies the utterly unique opportunity to allow Wart to predetermine the fate of his own choosing. In reality, Merlyn becomes complicit in the unlikely and unexpected realization that even knowing the future does extend to one the power to change fate.
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