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
Might vs. Right 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
"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."
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.