The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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Might vs. Right 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.
Might vs. Right Theme Icon

In The Once and Future King, Arthur is not depicted as a traditional heroic figure—the chivalrous, military hero—but as a political innovator. Throughout his rule, Arthur seeks to temper force and strength ('might') with justice ('right'). In the novel, these two words are symbolic for the warring forces Arthur unsuccessfully attempts to control.

Merlyn's early lessons for young Wart are vehicles to teach Arthur about the correct parameters for ruling; they are to prepare Arthur to be a heroic and successful ruler. In the medieval England of Arthur's youth (as described in "The Sword and the Stone"), characters are unable to distinguish between might and right and the only justification necessary for rule is force, as opposed to justice.

In "The Queen of Air and Darkness," once he is king, Arthur establishes the Round Table: the round table symbolizes Arthur's attempt to balance force with justice. The table is round so that there is no hierarchy and all knights (even Arthur) are equal. Arthur wants situations and conflicts to be resolved equally and with reason, rather than with hierarchy and strength. Arthur wanted the table to not only be symbolic, but also a vehicle for breeding a new generation of knighthood, with the importance of justice over strength instilled in them—the best of who is to be Lancelot.

Arthur's attempt to temper might with right ultimately fails. In the last few pages of the novel, as Arthur is dying and coming to terms with the failings of his rule, he begins to understand the notion of justice as merely a child's dream, rather than something attainable. Perhaps the most symbolic illustration of this failure is White's depiction of Lancelot—Lancelot was to be the first of the new generation of knights who use war and violence only in the name of justice. However, Lancelot is a complex figure, neither moral nor immoral; he is a real character and, because of this, cannot attain the perfect figure of knighthood Arthur had envisioned.

White seeks to challenge the mythic idealization of King Arthur as the heroic warrior, portraying his leadership as one that hopes only to replace force and strength with justice. The novel illustrates the barbarity of traditional knighthood and undermines the romanticism of the medieval era. Ultimately, however, Arthur's attempt fails; this failure is one that parallels contemporary attempts at justice—the narrator consciously places Arthur's reign against the context of World War II. White's commentary upon the medieval ideal and Arthur's failed attempt to temper power with justice highlights a perpetual human flaw, how, even today, justice and right collapse in the face of brute violence.

Might vs. Right ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Might vs. Right 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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Might vs. Right 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 Might vs. Right.
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 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

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 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 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 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.