Perhaps the singular overarching theme that unifies the disparate parts of The Once and Future King is the manner in which 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 characters as inextricably bound to their code of chivalry. The means by which White engages in such subversion is primarily through incidents and characters that consistently reveal the code as deeply flawed and irredeemably hindered by the paradoxes inherent in the very system that Arthur and his comrades are foresworn to protect and uphold. King Pellinore, for instance, constantly reveals the inadequacy of depending upon bloodlines to determine worthiness and intelligence. Moreover, 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 versus Right
The unlikeliness of weak little Wart becoming his country’s greatest king is a constant throughout the tale, one 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
While the randomness of fate that helps to determine the improbability of Arthur becoming king is present throughout all previous renditions of the Arthurian legend, White imprints a modern apprehension about fate onto his version by constantly raising the specter that Merlyn’s foreknowledge of what is to come (which results from Merlyn's 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.
Education in Human (and Animal) Nature
The central elements of Arthur's instruction under Merlyn—or at least the elements that White depicts in the greatest detail—are Arthur's explorations of the animal world and its various group and hierarchical arrangements. Such arrangements are meant to stand in for different possibilities for governance, from absolute monarchy (the fish) to military regimentation (the hawks in the mews) to harmonious meritocracy (the geese). Though Merlyn's methods are oblique, Arthur ultimately learns about human nature in an intensive manner. Yet the eventual king's education is not comprehensive: though the societies formed by the fish and the ants introduce Arthur to some of the worst potentialities in any given society, they do not introduce him to the level of intrigue and spite that characters such as Mordred exemplify.
Comedy into Tragedy
The Once and Future King is a saga that grows progressively darker; it begins with The Sword in the Stone, a sprightly narrative that was transformed into a Disney animated feature with little trouble, and ends with The Candle in the Wind, a meditation on Arthur's old age and on the vulnerability of his achievements. Admittedly, White never works in a purely serious or purely humorous register, since even The Sword in the Stone features surreal and strange images, and even The Candle in the Wind features moments of ironic physical comedy. But as figures of eccentricity and whimsy such as Merlyn and King Pellinore are eliminated from the narrative and the aging Arthur is left to fend for himself, a mood of melancholy and even of loss settles over the once madcap and welcoming, but now ominous and intrigue-fraught, world of White's Middle Ages.
Although The Once and Future King focuses on characters—Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot among them—who operate at a distance from their biological families, family itself is a surprisingly important theme in White's narrative. Family bonds are after all important to another set of characters: the knights of the Orkney faction, who must choose between vengeance for their blood relations and adherence to Arthur's new order on multiple occasions. Yet even where Arthur himself is concerned, the theme of family does play an important role. With Sir Ector and Sir Kay, the orphaned Arthur forms a family unit that endures even into the days of the Round Table—itself a sort of extended "family" of knights, complete with quarrels and favoritism and belief in a common purpose, much as a true family might possess.
The Consequences of Infidelity, or Lack Thereof
Much of The Ill-Made Knight explores the liaison between Lancelot and Guenever, an illicit romance that is most notable for how little trouble it causes Guenever's actual husband, Arthur. Infidelity is indeed a major theme of White's narrative, and in the most surprising ways. Because White avoids the rather standard portrayal of a love triangle—devious lovers, cuckolded husband—he can focus on matters such as the very real but very tense love between Lancelot and Guenever. They are not stage villains duping a third party, yet Arthur is no dupe to begin with; the more real possibility is that he is a man who must juggle the duties of his private life with the duties of statecraft, and who realizes that reacting to his wife's infidelity would distract from the latter set of all-important obligations.
The Once and Future King Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Once and Future King is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.