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.
War Theme Icon

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 ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of War 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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War 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 War.
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).


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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 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 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 14 Quotes

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.