The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Once and Future King, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon

The myth of King Arthur has been recounted in many different texts—including Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Chrétien de Troyes' Four Arthurian Romances and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. In all these accounts, knights are depicted as heroic and highly chivalrous: knights are bound to the chivalric code and are portrayed as honorable, loyal noblemen. The chivalric code is a code of conduct associated with the medieval tradition of knighthood; the code entails following the ideals of honor, courtly love, courtesy, gallantry and service to others. However, in The Once and Future King, White systematically undermines the ideal of the chivalrous knight—both by satirizing the chivalric code and revealing its paradoxes and flaws.

The first way in which White undermines the notion of chivalry is through satirizing the knight and portraying him as a clown. The first Knight that Wart encounters in the text is King Pellinore; Wart, in his naivety, is awed by the figure of King Pellinore. However, White describes King Pellinore as a clumsy, idiotic figure on the quest for something that does not exist. Another component of knighthood is the quest—a journey for some ultimate goal that entails many challenges. Upon first meeting King Pellinore, Wart learns he has been pursuing the 'questing beast' for many years. However, as soon as Sir Grummore invites him to Camelot, King Pellinore immediately gives up this quest in return for a clean bed. King Pellinore's weak adherence to the challenge of questing illustrates the arbitrary nature of the values of knighthood—King Pellinore's quest is purposeless and his dedication to it lackluster.

Knighthood is governed by the chivalric code (which White pays a great deal of attention to), but also by a series of practices associated with medieval life—all of which White seeks to satirize. For example, early on in the text, King Pellinore and Sir Grummore challenge one another to a jousting match. White describes the pair as clumsy and idiotic—their armor is so heavy they are unable to canter with much speed, and when they are both dismounted they proceed to charge at each other using their bodies as weapons. Moreover, White describes their jousting tournament as though they were simply acting out a script; they consistently remind one another of the line they must say next. In this manner, White represents the so-called honor of jousting—and therefore honor in general—as simply a form of superficial rote learning, or the act of unthinkingly following a set of rigid rules.

If King Pellinore is one representation of knighthood and one way in which White undermines the ideal figure, then the character of Sir Lancelot is the other. It is through Lancelot's representation that White reveals the true flaw of the knighthood ideal: Knights must commit enormous acts of violence, but must also stay true to the code of honor and chivalry—something innately incompatible. In this manner, Lancelot is simultaneously supremely insecure about his honor, but commits huge acts of violence. His is an incongruous figure and reveals the paradox of the knightly ideal.

White's depiction of medieval life is a complex and evolving one: when Arthur first comes to the throne, the medieval England depicted is one very much in the dark ages—knights commit acts of violence unchecked, life is dark, harsh and illiterate. However, by the end of Arthur's rule, medieval England has altered radically: knights are bound to a different honor code where they can only commit acts of violence in the name of justice, men are educated, and life is far more enlightened. Although the medieval life depicted towards the end of Arthur's reign is arguably better, White still satirizes many of its ideals, such as its excesses and political intrigues.

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Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Quotes in The Once and Future King

Below you will find the important quotes in The Once and Future King related to the theme of Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life.
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 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 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 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.