The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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Quest and The Holy Grail 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.
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon

The Quest is a traditional literary device. In literature, a quest is a journey towards a goal and can serves as a plot device or as a symbol. In a quest, the hero must overcome many obstacles and the quest usually requires extensive travel and a series of trials to test the knight's valor and piety. One of the most famous quests in literature is that for the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend.

The first quest the novel describes is King Pellinore's search for the 'questing beast.' Although this is not greatly expanded upon, King Pellinore has been searching for the questing beast for years and has never found it. The 'questing beast' is symbolic; it represents the elusive quest itself: the journey to locate something that cannot be found and the aimlessness it entails, a journey that mirrors Arthur's own ultimately unsuccessful journey throughout the novel to harness tyranny and use justice as a mode of rule.

Although this is one literal depiction of a quest, the quest plays a fundamental role in Wart's education and his transformation into King Arthur. Throughout The Sword in the Stone, Wart undergoes a series of his own quests—mini adventures that form the central part of his education under Merlyn. For example, his transformation into an ant. Each of these journeys are not the traditional form of quest, in that Wart is unaware of the specific goal or purpose of the adventure, but each journey serves as a lesson about how to lead and govern, so that the later King Arthur will use non-traditional (at least, non-medieval) methods of rule. With the example of the ant, Wart witnesses how ants follow the dictatorial rule of their queen unquestioningly. Although these 'citizens' are orderly, they do not question the morality of the battle the ants engage in—the reasons given for war are, by Wart's questioning of them, shown to be illogical and purely propaganda.

The Holy Grail is, as already mentioned, a central component of the Arthurian myth: it is the search by King Arthur and his Knights for a copper cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In The Once and Future King, the Holy Grail is Arthur's last resort, the ideal he turns to when his attempt to 'harness Tyranny' fails with the collapse of the Round Table and the continued domination of force over justice. However, this attempt once more proves unsuccessful; those who are successful in the Quest are too perfect, and therefore cannot exist in King Arthur's world of injustice; and those who fail do not change or improve.

In traditional literature, quests are almost always successful. However, in The Once and Future King, quests are unachievable—they are ideals that almost always collapse when you move closer to them: the questing beast is forever elusive, and the Holy Grail requires an impractical level of perfection. Indeed, the only quests that do not prove unsuccessful are Wart's lessons as a child; these quests are non-traditional because they do not have a specific goal and are thus about the 'journey,' or what is learnt throughout. Thus, in The Once and Future King, the quest itself becomes an illusion when it generates false and unattainable ideals, and can only prove useful when the quest is an end in itself rather than a means.

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Quest and The Holy Grail ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Quest and The Holy Grail 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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Quest and The Holy Grail 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 Quest and The Holy Grail.
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.

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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 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.