War occupies a central role in The Once and Future King. The Medieval England depicted in the novel is almost a perpetual battlefield, with multiple political factions vying for power. Indeed, war is canonical in the Arthurian myth; however battle scenes are barely described in this text, and when they are, White presents war as something barbaric and violent, rather than heroic and justified.
The first presentation of war is during one of Wart's lessons as a child, when he is transformed into an ant. The ant community is robotic, the ants follow commands unthinkingly—indeed the quote written above the ant nest reads "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY." During Wart's time as an ant, the ant nest declares war on a neighboring ant nest. However, the justifications given for battle are highly illogical and paradoxical: from "We are more numerous than they are, therefore we have a right to their mash[food]," to "They are more numerous than we are, therefore they are wickedly trying to steal our mash"; or "We are a mighty race and have a natural right to subjugate their puny one" to "They are a mighty race and are unnaturally trying to subjugate our inoffensive one." Once the time for the war comes, Wart has become so sickened, not even by their wickedness, but by the terrible monotony, so as to kill the joy of life of his boyhood.
At the beginning of the second book, "The Queen of Air and Darkness," Merlyn teaches Arthur about the wickedness of war—about how in the future men believed it is wrong to fight in wars of any sorts–and how there is only one fairly good reason to fight and that is if the other man starts it. This lesson and conversations along this vein determine both how Arthur will come to consider the role of war, but also the stance the book takes towards war.
White was a conscientious objector during WWII—the period in which he wrote the majority of this novel. The novel maintains an anti-war stance—running contrary to the traditional Arthurian canon. White seeks to illustrate that war, as the ultimate wielding of violence, is neither heroic nor chivalrous. Rather, he sees it as barbaric, violent and only justifiable as the last measure to uphold justice and protect the weak. To some degree, this attitude is a marked statement against the use of propaganda during World War II. In order to keep up morale, the allies would rotate false photographs of battlefields to show the chivalry and heroisms of the allied troops. But, as White illustrates with his depiction of war in The Once and Future King, the ideal of war is false; war is not a chivalric pursuit but should be something simply necessary as a means of defending justice and peace.
War Quotes in The Once and Future King
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.