The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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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.
Fate (Time) Theme Icon

Fate is a power that predetermines the course of all events. In The Once and Future King, fate plays an integral role. White, thinly disguised as the narrator, very consciously recounts the tale of King Arthur from a contemporary perspective—thus, the narrator regularly cites modern technologies or recent historical events, such as World War II. The narrator is very present in the novel; the voice comments subjectively upon the action within the text and gives us his opinion upon characters. White very consciously shows that this book, although set in a historical era, is being narrated from a contemporary perspective. By doing so, White simultaneously accentuates the mythic nature of the tale, but also changes the way narrative omniscience is working: the narrative omniscience functions simply because the narrator is very consciously narrating from our own contemporary era, rather than because it is innately superior to the action. This consciously modern perspective lends the tale a peculiar and somewhat alternative notion of fate: characters are fated, not because of the unstoppable force of 'fate,' but because this is a mythic story whose end is already known—the story is controlled and determined by its own folkloric tradition.

Another core component of fate in the novel, in addition to the narrative perspective, is time. Traditionally, fate and time are two inextricably linked components: fate is the force that pulls characters to their destiny, while time is the vector than cannot be stopped and helps fate achieve its ends. For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet consistently laments the role fate plays in his life, but it is time that he must come to terms with—how he cannot change events that have already taken place, nor can he slow down the pace of the clock.

However, in The Once and Future King, time is instead somewhat flexible. Merlyn—a magician and Wart's tutor—experiences Time backwards. He began his life in the future and must live backwards in Time, not forwards. Because of this, Merlyn is aware of what is to come and consistently gets younger throughout the novel. This representation of Time achieves a number of things: first, it feeds into the fantastical elements of the novel and suggests that the world of Camelot is somewhat removed or exempt from the normal rules of existence. This helps the reader to suspend belief when Wart undergoes his 'lessons,' transforming into an ant or a hawk. More importantly, Time is a great burden to Merlyn; he is perhaps somewhat wiser because he has already experienced the future, but it is significantly more difficult. In the beginnings of the novel, Merlyn explains his experience of Time using the analogy of trying to draw a W in a mirror: Wart, when he attempts to do this, draws only an M. Fate necessarily plays a central role in The Once and Future King—precisely because of its folkloric tradition—but Merlyn's difficulties with Time suggest that perhaps knowing what is to come is not necessarily positive. Indeed, Arthur's character undermines his folkloric self—the chivalric knight becomes the modern, innovative leader—suggesting that although the outcome of his life may be predetermined, the process in which he both innovates and ultimately fails is not. In this manner, White uses Merlyn's experience of time and Arthur's own predetermined existence to illustrate the powerlessness of fate—it is not a powerful, unrelenting force, but simply the framework of folklore than can be molded (not broken) by a modernized perspective.

Fate (Time) ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate (Time) appears in each chapter of The Once and Future King. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate (Time) 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 Fate (Time).
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.


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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 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 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 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 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.