The Once and Future King

Characterization in the work

Perhaps most striking about White's work is how he reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:

  • Arthur evolves from a fallible but inquisitive and enthusiastic youth ("the Wart") to an individualized and psychologically complex man.[2]
  • Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of Arthur's Knights. He is also a sadist, a trait he represses, but which leads to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight.
  • Merlin lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger.
  • Sir Galahad is not well liked by many of the Knights as he is truly perfect – to the point of being 'inhuman'.

White allows Thomas Malory to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Also of note is his treatment of historical characters and kings as mythological within the world that he creates. In addition, due to his living backwards, Merlin makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times; of note are references to World War II, telegraphs, tanks, and "an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos" (i.e. Adolf Hitler).[3]

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