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Thoughts: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future KingThe Once and Future King by T.H. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my joys in reading comes from discovering a certain uniformity in a sequence of unrelated works. For example, I read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich after reading Kafka’s The Trial and interpreted the latter work in terms of death. Perhaps I did so because of Ivan Ilyich or perhaps because a strange coincidence paired the two for me.

I conscientiously chose to read The Once and Future King after reading Don Quixote. I wanted to experience for myself the romance and chivalry that allegedly drove the Don mad. Let me say now and leave the matter to rest: the knights depicted in “The Sword in the Stone” cower over Don Quixote in absurd madness. Aside from the apparent silliness in their behavior, I wondered if the general folly of knight-errantry might derive from the erroneous idea that heroes can be bred, systematically and institutionally, generated by Man rather than Fate or Fortune. Knight-errantry, as it is described, seems like a manufacturing system which would render the hero’s essence void of any genuine heroism. The rituals mimic the mythical plot line of the hero’s awakening but the knighthood assembly line extracts the valor and essence of the profession that Don Quixote meant to observe. In the same fashion, as the church can pulverize and replace faith, manufactured knights result from a lack of the profession’s true essence; a man-made substitution. They end up attracted to and focusing selfishly on refining their honor and deeds rather than on serving those in need of defense, a traditionally thankless and low station. A true hero rises from the dingy muck of modesty by the inexplicable power of aligned circumstances and character.

However, I had not counted on my recent reading of Joseph Conrad’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces playing a much more tantalizing role in my encounter with Arthur and his knights. The reader immediately meets Arthur, or The Wart, who learns about society and the nature of Man under the tutelage of the magician Merlyn, not unlike Dante’s journey through hell under the guidance of Virgil or the countless mythical guides leading the hero to his destiny. Merlyn also exists outside of time and space as, what Conrad might describe, an enlightened hero himself. But Merlyn does not shape the Wart for his own satisfaction or mold him according to his personal design. The hero lies in Wart, outside of time, and that hero needs release rather than construction. He must discover himself by his own volition and openness, not be shaped out of something else into the desired hero form.

Merlyn never fails to amuse, either, with his temperament and nonchalant approach to what the reader may consider as gravely consequential matters. He carries an air of carefree surrender; as if he not only knew but lived outside the illusory control which men seek. For one so wise and seemingly enlightened, he agitates easily and blunders about forgetting things. While imagining the archetypal mythical guide, I think of a serene and peaceful character whose every action holds efficient purpose. Merlyn introduces a human element which transform the guide into a relatable character rather than a hero’s tool.

Arthur, as a pupil, seemed to embody a similar innocence. His nurturing lacked the discord of inner-conflict and even in his old age he seemed to cling to a kind of one-dimensional aspiration. After his tutelage under Merlyn, and to match the mythical hero archetype, he literally bends his will to inject life into society through the power of the throne. He accepts what he has learned and returns to society as a man ready to bring it out of the “Dark Ages”. As a king, he challenges the status quo. But, arguably, he never has to deconstruct his Self.

Queen Margause, the Questing Beast, the incestuous nature of Arthur’s firstborn, etc. point to the power of the feminine. But White then portrays the duality of the father god-head and mother earth through the love triangle between Lancelot, Arthur and Guenever. Arthur represents the paternal god-head for Lancelot and Guenver, Mother Earth. If the feminine symbolizes the earth, in mythical archetypes, Guenever’s robbery of Arthur’s love from Lancelot shows how the earth deceitfully takes God, knowledge and atonement from Man. Lancelot represents Man in his most complete and conflicted form; strong yet insecure and partially void. He portrays both virtue and vice, divinity and demon. The earth separates man from his ethereal Self, from his God, and Guenever, in Lancelot’s mind, does just that. She stands between Lancelot and Arthur’s heart. Yet man exists as a result, a consequence, of female and male, heaven and earth, God and the terrestrial womb. His life, however, yearns for atonement to God, the father, of whom Mother Earth denies.

This triangle models after the ideology which King Arthur spent his life perfecting and had to leave to other men to continue perfecting. His ideology sprouted from the idea that Might cannot equal Right. Therefore, he designed the Round Table and commissioned his knights to defend Right with Might. However, when the widowed and fatherless were avenged and defended, Might needed another outlet. Might lingered. Therefore the King decided that a spiritual quest for the Grail would occupy Might’s ill nature for good. Yet these journeys, though good for some, only seemed to confuse and muddle his knights. Arthur’s last great attempt at refining a peaceful civilization resulted in Law. With Law, Might was extracted from the muscles of the strong and injected into the tongues of the weak. As this age has introduced the Enlightenment of Reason, Arthur introduced the Enlightenment of Law. In both times, law and reason have been elevated beyond human control and manipulation (theoretically); have transcended above human mastery. Mankind had enslaved itself to the absolute powers of reason and law. Yet because the Law, an unbending and unmerciful master, rules over the love triangle of God, Earth and Man, the three must fight. Injustices must shrivel under the torrents of executed justice. A fourth power enters the web to create a square ruling over the actions and choices of the three. The only balancing factor is born of love; exacted through forgiveness. The love between the three trounces the demands of Law and forgiveness eases the seeming necessity of vengeance. Might disappears from existence. Possession dissipates like a mist in the breeze.

By forgiveness, the destroyer of Might, Man may unite with God, reach a hero’s enlightenment, despite infidelity to the earth, perhaps original sin.

Or maybe the true Self, indistinct of gender or duality, exists as a cosmic unification of the three. Arthur’s question: can such a cosmic balance of love and forgiveness bereft of Might and personal will reflect itself in the highest societies of Man?

This book embellishes the questing of humanity, the horrors and absurdities of wars and tilting knights, love and humility, honor and vanity, magic and adventure. For once, we might entertain ourselves with these episodes, but perhaps for the future we can envision ourselves living a civil perfection.

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Posted by on December 29, 2011 in T.H. White

 

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