The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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The Once and Future King Quotes

Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Ace Books edition of The Once and Future King published in 1987.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

The Wart was not a proper son. He did not understand this, but it made him feel unhappy, because Kay seemed to regard it as making him inferior in some way…Besides, he admired Kay and was a born follower. He was a hero-worshipper.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart, Sir Kay
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

After a storm, the Wart and Kay (two boys who are being raised in the castle of Sir Ector, Kay's father and Wart's guardian) go out falconing -- with Kay carrying the falcon Cully, as usual. Kay typically dominates Wart, who, according to the narrator, is "a born follower" and "hero-worshipper." The narrator is not oblivious to the irony of this statement; he has already alluded to the fact that the Wart's actual name is Arthur (when he acknowledged that Art, which rhymes with Wart, "was short for his real name"). Already, the sometimes satirical narrator is mocking medieval British traditions of knighthood and of King Arthur; the most influential king in history began as a submissive boy, not as a precocious or bold one, as often happens in medieval folktales and legends. As The Once and Future King opens, we can begin to appreciate the way that the narrator layers the content of this story with humor, wit, and a dose of disbelief.


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Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

Before the clink there were just the beeches, but immediately afterward there was a knight in full armor, standing still and silent and unearthly, among the majestic trunks…All was moonlit, all silver, too beautiful to describe.

Related Characters: King Pellinore
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

As Wart begins to imagine that he will be lost forever in the Old England wood where he is traveling after losing sight of Kay, he beholds a knight, who the narrator details with uncustomary reverence ("all was moonlight, all silver, too beautiful to describe"). Wart experiences a moment of rapture, in which the knight appears to live up to all of the expectations associated with a knight from Arthurian times. Visually, the knight does indeed fulfill such expectations -- he is "in full armor," and fully appears to be an extraordinary figure. As the knight begins to act in this scene, however, the features of this now-majestic appearance (such as the visor, which will droop, the lancet, which the knight will drop) will quickly begin to become ridiculous. 

Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean and nearly everything in the world goes forward too…But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Merlyn curiously knew to set two places at the table even before Wart entered his cottage, and Wart is not tentative about questioning Merlyn about this during their lively breakfast conversation. Merlyn, in response, asks Wart to draw a W in a looking-glass. When Wart only succeeds in drawing an M, Merlyn explains his unusual request: Merlyn experiences time in a distorted, reversed way and experiences time backwards. This, the first of Merlyn's lessons to Wart, introduces Merlyn's unconventional methods of teaching -- which will become even more supernatural and unusual as the narrative continues. It also calls into question traditional notions about time, fate, and destiny; Merlyn's ever-present foreknowledge creates disturbances in these seemingly unquestionable phenomena.

Book 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind's power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.

Related Characters: Mr. P (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

During the Wart's first lesson, in which Merlyn turns both of them into fish, the Wart meets the "King of the Moat," who symbolizes an "absolute monarch" and proclaims that "Power of the body" ("Might") is more powerful and significant than any intellectual effort or a consideration of broader social factors and justice ("Right"). Yet, just as this large fish seems about to devour Wart, Merlyn turns both of them back into human beings; this climax of the lesson teaches that "Right" action (which allows for intellectual, social, and other forms of effort) can indeed overcome physical, brute force. The narrator's description of this fish king as representing an "absolute monarch" solidifies how this teaching (and all of Merlyn's subsequent teachings, which rely on different animal mediums to illustrate other lessons) is intended to inform  Arthur's future as a leader. If the reader was in any doubt that Wart will become the legendary Arthur, this scene is bound to eradicate that questioning. 

Book 1, Chapter 23 Quotes

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as a scabbard.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

Wart cannot find Kay's sword, which he has forgotten, so he goes up to a sword which is stuck in the anvil of a stone in a church courtyard. Wart twice fails to remove the sword from this stone, but before his third try, he speaks aloud, asking Merlyn to help him. Immediately after Wart makes this request, "hundreds of old friends" (the animals from his lessons with Merlyn) surround and encourage him, giving tips and instructions on ways Wart can more easily remove the sword. He does not seem to use the specifics of their instructions, but rather pulls the sword out smoothly and easily, as if it is his fate. This action, of course, is the mythical removal of Excalibur, the "sword in the stone," and the moment Arthur is revealed as king.

Book 1, Chapter 24 Quotes

I know all about your birth and parentage, and who gave you your real name. I know the sorrows before you, and the joys, and how there will never again be anybody who dares to call you by the friendly name of Wart. In future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker), King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator comically describes Wart's coronation as it would appear to a boy; it was an occasion where Wart was lucky enough to receive wonderful gifts. Yet, after the coronation has ended, Merlyn suddenly appears next to Arthur and reveals that he knew all about Arthur's true name and title (or, in other words, Arthur's fate as the King of Camelot). Merlyn renames Wart as King Arthur in the last lines of the narrative's first book, moving the story beyond its childhood phase and into a more complicated phase, where antagonists such as Kay may not become truthful at the end (as Kay did, when he admitted that he had not pulled the sword out of the store) and hostility that was previously unimaginable may occur within an entire kingdom.

Book 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

Gareth was a generous boy. He hated the idea of strength against weakness. It made his heart swell, as if he were going to suffocate. Gawaine, on the other hand, was angry because it had been against his family. He did not think it was wrong for strength to have its way, but only that it was intensely wrong for anything to succeed against his own clan.

Related Characters: Gawaine, Gareth
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Cornwall children -- Gareth, Gawaine, Gaheris, and Agravaine -- discuss how Uther Pendragon forced their grandmother, Igraine the Countess of Cornwall, to marry him, each child has a slightly different reaction. These momentary reactions reveal the personalities of these individuals, who will become knights of Arthur's court. They will (and already do) provide a unique perspective on the narrative's themes of brute strength, chivalry, and moral conduct -- themes which remain potent throughout as serious issues, despite the narrator's penchant for humor and irony.

In addition to introducing these characters, though, this scene also more fundamentally forces the narrative to pivot away from the childhood story of Arthur developing his leadership capacities. We now see the Cornwalls' antagonism towards Arthur's descendants, which forebodes their potential antagonism towards Arthur. We begin to see the reasons Arthur had to develop such strong leadership capabilities in the first book; his kingdom is already threatened by hatred and discontent. 

Book 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armor, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

As Arthur and Merlyn stand on the castle battlements at Camelot, Arthur begins a conversation about a recent battle by calling it "lovely" and claiming that it is "nice" to rule as king and maintain his authority over such battles. Merlyn questions him on this, and takes a more sober view of the battle, asking Arthur how many of his footmen died -- a fact which Arthur does not remember, so Merlyn supplies the knowledge that seven hundred of Arthur's men (and none of his  knights) were killed. Merlyn comments that the defeated enemies will merely come back, even stronger, and that Arthur is only acting exactly like his father when he enjoys such prospects of warfare. From remarking on Arthur's father, Merlyn then expands to the idea of chivalry more generally, asking a contemporary audience's questions about the nature of chivalry during Arthur's time.

Merlyn inserts a modern, skeptical attitude; like a contemporary reader, Merlyn is far enough removed from medieval chivalric society to notice that its leaders are only created by material wealth and military might, not any kind of divine right or moral superiority. Merlyn momentarily seems to reject the same hierarchical society that controls medieval life (which he, too, is a part of). Similarly, Merlyn notes that chivalry revolves around needless warfare, inserting a pacifistic element into the narrative as well (a crucial theme for White).

Book 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

"Even if I wanted to," said Merlyn "it would be no good. There is a thing about Time and Space which the philosopher Einstein is going to find out. Some people call it destiny."

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

At Bedegraine, during the night before Arthur's battle with King Lot, Arthur and Merlyn have a "chat," a seemingly unimportant exchange that will nevertheless clarify the title of the novel. Before this, though, Merlyn fears that he has forgotten to tell Arthur something important. Instead of remembering, he tells Arthur a parable about the inevitability of death and destiny. In response, Arthur asks if this inevitability applies to Merlyn, who can know the future and knows how Nimue will attempt to trap him. According to Merlyn, no one can avoid the future -- not even Merlyn -- because of the fundamental physics of the world. This passage also offers, of course, another humorous juxtaposition of modern concepts with ancient mythology.

I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are going to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your latin? It means the once and future king.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker), King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

As Merlyn continues conversing with Arthur the night before the battle at Bedegraine, he claims he will "tell you something else." This inauspicious start leads into one of the most clarifying moments of the narrative, when Merlyn explains why it is titled "The Once and Future King." Arthur is indeed a king of the past, present and future; his existence was predicted by legend, he exists now, and apparently he will "come back," again. This reveals how Arthur's story, and his tragic death, does not entirely belong to the medieval era which the narrative focuses on; it is a broader pattern, indicative of enduring human truth.

Book 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

But Arthur had a different idea in his head. It did not seem to him to be sporting, after all, that eighty thousand humble men should be leu'd against each other while a fraction of their numbers…manoeuvred for the sake of ransom. He had begun to set a value on heads, shoulders and arms—their owner's value, even if the owner was a serf.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

At the battle of Bedegraine, Lot's forces fight in the "Norman way," the traditional medieval way in which noblemen engage in sport (more like "foxhunting" than fighting) while commoners engage in deadly warfare that creates a martial background for the knights. Because of Merlyn's instruction, Arthur sees how brutal this sort of combat is, and he inspires his forces to engage in the most brutal and barbaric form of warfare possible. In doing so, he reveals the intrinsic barbarism of medieval fighting; he paradoxically advocates for more pacifistic forms of fighting through making his army display the brutality of medieval battle at its finest.

Book 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

The way to use a Spancel was this. You had to find the man you loved while he was asleep. Then you had to throw it over his head without waking him, and tie it in a bow…Queen Morgause stood in the moonlight, drawing the Spancel through her fingers.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart, Queen Morgause
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

As Morgause prepares to return to England, she is sure to bring the supernatural Spancel, a magical piece of human flesh which can make a man “fall in love” with the woman who wields it and places it around his head. Morgause even sinisterly runs her fingers over the spancel -- an act which visually suggests that her spancel will have a terrible symbolic significance in the story. Antagonists such as Morgause (and the later Mordred) often act with such clearly malicious intentions; the novel certainly gives us plainly evil figures, in addition to contradictory persons such as Lancelot, who destabilize this binary between good and evil.

Book 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.

Related Symbols: The Questing Beast and Quests, The Holy Grail
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

After the narrator informs the reader that Morgause will give birth to Mordred, a boy who is conceived from a brother and sister having sexual intercourse, he shows the flawed pedigree which reveals King Arthur's relations with Morgause. Only after providing this illustration does the narrator directly state that his story stems from Malory's famous "The Death of Arthur"; both of these narratives center around this inappropriate sexual encounter. (Although it's worth noting that White seems to conflate Malory's characters of Morgan le Fay and Queen Margawse into one wholly evil character, Morgause.) The stories may seem to be diversified by other, chivalric elements -- "knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort" -- they are most completely about sin, the force which will destroy these social conventions that make up the framework for King Arthur's court.This story is more than its particular historical setting; it is a fundamental, human tragedy, a literary form with strong roots back to Ancient Greek drama.

Book 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

The boy [Lancelot] thought there was something wrong with him. All through his life—even when he was a great man with the world at his feet—he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand.

Related Characters: Sir Lancelot
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

Two years after Lancelot begins his training to hopefully excel as a knight in King Arthur’s court, he feels frustrated by his stagnation; he has not yet become knighted, and he has not yet become as close to Arthur as he wishes to be. Here, he rides towards Camelot with this discouragement and with this curious jealousy of Arthur’s wife Guenever, which will transform into another secretive yet even more dangerous emotion as the narrative continues. As the narrator describes this scene, he mentions that Lancelot was “jealous” and “ashamed”; as ever, he is torn between two of his emotions. Our narrator also curiously calls Lancelot a “hero-worshipper,” just as he described Arthur (as Wart) in the novel’s first chapter. This begins to create a curiously potent relation between these two knights – the king of them all, and the finest of them all – that will contribute to the ruin of the kingdom.

Book 3, Chapter 6 Quotes

For one thing, he [Lancelot] liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented. One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes.

Related Characters: Sir Lancelot, Queen Guenever
Page Number: 339
Explanation and Analysis:

After the narrator describes the Roman campaign, in which Lancelot emerged as the finest fighter in Arthur’s army, he dwells on Lancelot’s character, reflecting on the ways that people from later times interpret Lancelot. Lancelot is inherently contradictory, like the medieval knight, a figure who was simultaneously supposed to excel at the harshest martial combat and the gentler conquest of love, according to chivalric notions. Indeed, the narrator directly associates Lancelot with such knights (“he was a knight with medieval respect for honour”). In this context, it appears slightly less odd that Lancelot fell in love with Guenever because he hurt her; this contradiction merely underscores the essential nature of the accomplished medieval knight, who is supposed to perfectly balance both violence and love.

Book 3, Chapter 16 Quotes

The effect of such an education was that he had grown up without any of the useful accomplishments for living—without malice, vanity, suspicion, cruelty, and the commoner forms of selfishness. Jealousy seemed to him the most ignoble forms of vices. He was sadly unfitting for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 389
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the narrator starts to detail an encounter between Lancelot and Arthur in the rose garden, in which they only discuss Elaine, our narrator informs us that Arthur does indeed have a sense of Guenever and Lancelot’s inappropriate attraction towards each other. But again, the narrator claims that Arthur is still controlled by Merlyn’s teachings; Merlyn taught him the importance of love, justice, and simplicity, and Arthur cannot move beyond these principles enough to accuse his best friend or wife of infidelity, or even to punish them. It is Merlyn, not Arthur, who wields the power of the kingdom – and even controls Arthur’s own mind. This results in Arthur lacking the ability to exert his influence over Lancelot and Guenever, but only because of a kind of moral purity on his part. Even Arthur’s feelings are merely what “completed the misery of the court”; this suggestive phrasing allows us to realize that Arthur is a king without some kinds of the control associated with the crown.

Book 3, Chapter 18 Quotes

"Arthur," he [Lancelot] said. Then he gave a loud shriek, and jumped straight out of the window, which is on the first floor. They could hear him crash into some bushes, with a crump and crackle of boughs, and then he was running off through the trees and the shrubbery with a loud sort of warbling cry, like hounds hunting.

Related Characters: Sir Lancelot (speaker)
Page Number: 396
Explanation and Analysis:

The previous night, Lancelot was with Elaine, thinking that she was Guenever. In her anger, Guenever summons both Lancelot and Elaine to come to her in the following morning. Once they have arrived, Guenever calls Elaine an animal and orders Lancelot to go. He certainly does; he cries "Arthur," and then jumps out of the window and runs away through the wooded area, rather like an animal. His loyalties to Arthur and Guenever have proven too difficult for him to handle as a man, and he reverts to madness for some time, fitting in to a medieval trope (fleeing the court and becoming a wandering madman for a while) and escaping from his personal inner contradictions. 

Book 3, Chapter 26 Quotes

Lancelot looked uncomfortable. He had an instinctive dislike for Mordred, and did not like having it…He disliked Mordred irrationally, as a dog dislikes a cat—and he felt ashamed of the dislike, because it was a confused principle of his to help the younger Knights.

Related Characters: Sir Lancelot, Mordred
Page Number: 427
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly before Gareth tells Arthur and Lancelot that Mordred, Agravaine, and Gawaine have killed Morgause and Sir Pellinore for having sexual relations, the king and his best friend are conversing in general about the gossip and characters of "these decadent days" (these remarkably peaceful times). Yet even this peaceful, pleasant discussion is marred by the existence of malice in Arthur's court, particularly in Morgause and Mordred, as usual. Lancelot instinctively feels Mordred's evil, although in typical Lancelot fashion, he feels rather confused and conflicted about this because he is impelled to help Arthur's knights who are younger than him. Lancelot's mistrust of Mordred is natural, "instinctive" - "as a dog dislikes a cat." This fact, like Merlyn's lessons, points to the connectedness of human society and nature, and suggests that the simple, penetrating power of animal instinct has much to offer over-complicated human society.  

Book 3, Chapter 27 Quotes

Simple because we have got justice. We have achieved what we were fighting for, and now we still have the fighters on our hands. Don't you see what has happened? We have run out of things to fight for, so all the fighters of the Table are going to rot.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Round Table
Page Number: 433
Explanation and Analysis:

Gareth informs Lancelot and Arthur that Mordred, Agravaine, and Gawaine have killed their mother Morgause and Sir Pellinore for having sexual relations with each other, but this does not spur Arthur to punish these three knights. Rather, it inspires him to pinpoint a flaw in the Round Table, which he had begun to notice before: his knights are growing restless, having “run out of things to fight for.” The Round Table has served its purpose, to establish “justice” in the kingdom, and Arthur’s court must occupy itself with another project of sorts. It is in this vacuity that Lancelot suggests the Quest for the Holy Grail – a quest reminiscent of the Quest for the Questing Beast, to the reader; a quest which (like all others) may not serve an actual purpose at all, but will hopefully keep the knights from starting fights with each other.

Book 3, Chapter 36 Quotes

Half the knights had been killed—the best half. What Arthur had feared from the start of the Grail Quest had come to pass. If you achieve perfection, you die. There had been nothing left for Galahad to ask of God, except death. The best knights had gone to perfection, leaving the worst to hold their sieges.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart, Sir Galahad
Related Symbols: The Questing Beast and Quests, The Holy Grail
Page Number: 477
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator categorizes different parts of Arthur's reign into four main feelings, or "tones": the "companionship of youth," when knights and the Round Table were young, the "chivalric rivalry," which blossomed after the threats to the kingdom had been eradicated, the "enthusiasm of the Grail," and now the bleakest yet -- the "knowledge of the world" phase, one of intrigue and gossip and "the fruits of achievement." With the context of this timeline established, the narrator suggests that the current moment is a critical time, in which half of the "best knights" have been killed. Again, the narrator associates destiny with death; once you live out your destined perfection, "you die," according to the narrator's blunt appraisal, which seems to stem from Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" itself.

Book 3, Chapter 43 Quotes

Nobody knows what they said to each other. Malory says that "they made either to other their complaints of many diverse things." Probably they agreed that it was impossible to love Arthur and also to deceive him. Probably Lancelot made her understand about his God at last, and she made him understand about her missing children. Probably they agreed to accept their guilty love as ended.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guenever
Page Number: 503
Explanation and Analysis:

At Meliagrance’s castle, Lancelot arrives and Guenever “won the battle by mistake”; she had allowed Lancelot to live apart from her, pursuing holiness and religious piety, and this relenting had spurred Lancelot to come back to her. They become lovers again, and Lancelot goes to the window of Guenever’s inner room, where she meets him and they converse. The narrator does not reveal the nature of this exchange; instead he provides us with Malory’s description, and then speculates on what “probably” transpired between the two of them. The two lovers “probably” discussed the reasons against their behavior – Lancelot’s God and Guenever’s “missing children” – before Lancelot completely breaks the window and comes in anyways. This suggests that the “old electric message” between Lancelot and Guenever’s eyes creates a kind of inevitable attraction between the two of them, which makes their lovemaking a matter of destiny, despite their best attempts to avoid such inappropriate behavior.

Book 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever's window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent?

Related Characters: Queen Guenever
Page Number: 539
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lancelot and Guenever together gaze at Arthur’s kingdom, the narrator proclaims that these two individuals are classic medieval lovers, people who have lived and loved for many years, although they are aged and might not seem to be lovers in the modern sense. This tone of nostalgia continues as the narrator expands his focus to the land that Lancelot and Guenever are seeing; the narrator admiringly recalls the “decency” which existed in these older times, “these dark ages.” This general "decency" (or, more likely, fear of God) allowed the Catholic Church to forbid fighting during the “The Truce of God,” from Wednesday to Sunday. Although barbaric fighting, the likes of which is now usually unseen, might have occurred from Monday to Wednesday, for the majority of the week all forms of violence were forbidden. This contradictory co-existence of pacifism and violence is evocative of Arthur’s reign, which accomplished peace through revealing the depth of brutality in medieval forms of conflict.

Do you think that they with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and conscription? Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, do not we ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation? If it takes millions of years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?

Page Number: 539
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has maintained a contemporary perspective and added in anachronistic references throughout the narrative, but here he quite explicitly juxtaposes specifics of modern and medieval life (“Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription” against “Battles, Famine, Black Death, and Serfdom) before the narrative moves into “the sundown of chivalry,” when such crystallized comparisons become more difficult. He argues that we are, indeed, not more “enlightened” than medieval individuals, even after philosophical movements such as the Enlightenment. All humanity has been and is driven by a sense of pride, an intuition that human people are (or, at least, should be) the “center” of all things – a more communal version of the sin that contributed to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.

Book 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

"You see, Lance, I have to be absolutely just. I can't afford to have any more things like those babies on my conscience. The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice. Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends."

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart (speaker), King Arthur or Wart, Sir Lancelot
Page Number: 550
Explanation and Analysis:

In Guenever's solar (private upper chamber), Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur sit during the "sundown of chivalry" and discuss the problem of Mordred -- how Mordred was conceived by Morgause and Arthur, and likely bears hatred that threatens Arthur's kingdom. Although Arthur should perhaps kill Mordred preemptively, as Lancelot advocates (and as Arthur tried to do long ago, and ended up killing many innocent babies instead), Arthur claims that he cannot do so because he is king and must act according to justice. This scene is overwhelmingly ironic; at this very moment, Arthur is purposefully neglecting to punish Lancelot and Guenever. He only follows the principle of justice so strictly when it does not interfere with his powerful but simple loyalty to his best friend and wife.

Book 4, Chapter 11 Quotes

Anybody who had not seen him [Mordred] for a month or two would have known at once that he was mad—but his brains had gone so gradually that those who lived with him failed to see it.

Related Characters: Mordred
Page Number: 611
Explanation and Analysis:

At Carlisle, Guenever is embroidering with Agnes, who makes it clear that she does not trust Mordred, who has been named Lord Protector of England. Agnes jokes that she believes Mordred is there at the window, listening to them, and Guenever is struck by a horrid instinct that Agnes' instinct is probably correct. Indeed, once they open the door, Mordred is actually there. He has slowly turned mad; his hatred towards Arthur and lust for power are as poisonous for himself as they are for the kingdom. Mordred's mental decay, like England's ruin, occurs "slowly"; it is not a singular act, which can be counteracted or prevented, but rather is a gradual progression towards a certain inevitable date.

Book 4, Chapter 14 Quotes

What was Right, what was Wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery for fear of a Doing which might lead to woe.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart (speaker)
Page Number: 631
Explanation and Analysis:

Arthur sits, dejected, at his pavilion in Salisbury, occupied by his thoughts. He is "nearly dead," primarily existing in his reflections instead of acting in the world. The narrator lists Arthur's many complaints -- about his wife, his best friend, his son, his Round Table, his country -- but then claims that Arthur's intense dejection is due to his disappointment in humanity. Arthur had learned, from Merlyn, that humanity was "decent," but this lesson has proven tragically, terribly false. This contrast between belief and reality is incredibly depressing. 

Arthur wonders "Why do men fight?" and then moves to a fundamental binary of the book: that of Might vs. Right. Here, as the narrative slows to a close, we have our answer: Right cannot be above Might (as Arthur once thought) because Right is an unstable, uncertain construct -- one can never know all the consequences of any action or decision. 

There would be a day—there must be a day—when he would come back to Gramayre with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none—a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart
Related Symbols: The Round Table
Page Number: 639
Explanation and Analysis:

The very end of this narrative is fittingly tragic; Arthur only comes to his most significant realization after he has already sent a page (the future Malory, who writes “Le Morte d’Arthur”) to share the ideals which founded the Round Table with the rest of the world. Malory’s famous text, thus, cannot express Arthur’s most important realization.

When Arthur remembers Merlyn, the character whose beliefs and lessons seem to control so much of Arthur’s actions and Arthur’s very self, Arthur finally understands that wars occur for fictitious reasons and national boundaries are merely imaginary lines. For Arthur’s Round Table to be effective, it would have to be truly “cornerless,” not affected and divided by geographical or national divisions. Arthur sees why the Round Table failed, at last – right before he dies. Death and destiny have the ultimate power, over men’s little attempts at reason and right.

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