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
Fate (Time) Quotes in The Once and Future King
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.