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Feb 26, 2020

The Once and Future King is a Lesson About Absolute Power

Terence Hanbury White satirizes the myth of King Arthur in order to explain the dangers of absolute power.

The 1938 novel The Once and Future King by Terence Hanbury White satirizes the myth of King Arthur in order to explain the dangers of absolute power. Rather than depicting King Arthur as fearless, White portrays Arthur as gullible, naive and easily duped by his flirtation with power.

White’s first book portrays the state in a satirical lens. He pokes fun at how the confused Arthur unexpectedly became king, the shallowness of knighthood, and how Arthur’s naivety would ultimately lead to his downfall. The Once and Future King is composed of four separate books. In the first book, The Sword and the Stone, White uses the animal kingdoms as metaphors for different forms of government.

The scatter-brained wizard, Merlyn, knows Arthur will be king one day. So Merlyn decides to turn the boy into different types of animals in order to teach him about governing. He explains to Arthur that “Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.” 

For the first lesson, Merlyn turns Arthur into a fish. Arthur quickly meets another fish known as the King of the Moat. King of the Moat has a melancholy expression, which the author describes as  “lean clean-shaven chops giving him an American expression, like that of Uncle Sam. He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless.”

The King of the Moat tells Arthur that the only thing that exists is the power one pretends to seek. “There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right,” Through this story,  White describes how people can blindly fixate on power and pursue it recklessly like naive young Arthur who was nearly eaten by The King of the Moat.

This lesson teaches Arthur about the frenzied nature of absolute power. Later in life remembering the King of the Moat, Arthur attempts to uphold a form of equality and justice by limiting the amount of power one person can have through the Knights of the Round Table

After the first lesson, Merlyn changes his pupil into a hunting bird and places him on the castle’s mews. The experience is startling for Arthur as he learns that these birds are obsessed with militarism, obedience, and order. The falcons immediately interrogate Arthur on his lineage and ancestry. 

The blind obedience of the hawks and falcons is so ingrained that they stand still like “ a motionless statue of a knight in armour.” Arthur then sees Kay’s pet hawk named Cully who insanely mutters off to the side about the “damned bolsheviks.” The birds then force him to stand by Cully, despite Cully’s clear insanity, to prove himself in the infantry. At first, Arthur expresses fear when it turns out Cully is actually terrified of Arthur and tries to attack him. Arthur narrowly escapes.

Arthur’s lesson is fruitful in learning that violent and power-hungry despots are secretly cowardly and try to give off a sense of bravado to mask their cowardice and fear. He also learns that military societies can be dangerous, even more so when run by an insane leader.

Eager to continue, Arthur insists on becoming an ant so he can fit through a keyhole. Merlyn warns him that such animals are dangerous and belligerent. Despite all the warnings, Arthur insists. As Arthur is transformed into an ant, he comes to a fortress and sees a huge sign that reads: “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.”

Arthur hears broadcasts about the history of Antland and lectures about war and patriotism. White writes, “There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for their opposites. He [Arthur] felt like a dumb man trying to shout “Fire!” The nearest he could get to Right or Wrong, even, was to say Done or Not Done.” This importance of this lesson is not understated as Arthur starts to learn the value of individual freedom after noticing the absence of freedom in the ant community. 

Arthur hears plight on the broadcasts about how the ants are part of a starving nation and cannot afford more expensive armaments. He is saved by Merlyn just before the ants from Nest A go to war with the ants from Nest B.

After some time has passed, Merlyn decides that it is time for Arthur’s final lesson. This time, Merlyn changes him in to a rook. This lesson is important for Arthur’s continued education about laws.

Merlyn’s talking pet owl Archimedes notes that rooks are intelligent and much to Arthur’s surprise, this is the first non-authoritarian government he has encountered.  Instead, rooks have a social system that includes a parliament.

Archimedes also teaches Arthur about other types of peaceful birds, calling the pigeon a kind of pacifist since, “no pigeon has ever committed an act of aggression nor turned upon her persecutors: but no bird, likewise, is so skilful in eluding them.” The birds are litigious and are all equally subject to the law.“They are loving individualists” the wise owl adds. These types of birds are highly individualistic and have their nests which they regard as their private property.

Lyok-lyok, Arthur’s bird friend, “told him how every White-front [bird] was an individual—not governed by laws or leaders, except when they came about spontaneously.” The birds had no kings and considered their nests private property, yet they were peaceful and get along. Individualism allowed for the birds to leave peacefully and calmly. This dramatically contrasts Arthur’s previous lessons while living in authoritarian societies.

The bird system of government was eye-opening compared to Arthur’s prior exposure to the paranoid monarchy of the perches, the conformist authoritarianism of the falcons and xenophobic collectivism of the ants. In comparison, the rooks’ system of government was highly individualistic-granting the different animals the fullest degree of freedom.

Despite learning the basic lessons on political power, Arthur fails to act on his newly acquired knowledge.

T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone shows the shortcomings of Arthur. While Arthur learns about the dangers of absolute power, tyrants, and the use of brutal military force to achieve your ends, he is still beguiled by the bravado of the animal tyrants that he meets. 

Arthur’s animal lessons are a cautionary tale of the dangers of absolute power. White portrays the horrors of authoritarian and militaristic forms of government to encourage people instead to look for peaceful and individualistic societies. The most valuable lesson Arthur experiences as a rook; learning the power of private property to secure the birds’ freedoms and agency. Arthur remembers these lessons as king, hoping to make Camelot more peaceful and just. 

White expresses his amusement at the frivolity of Arthurian legends. As the first book closes, White remarks sardonically, “perhaps there ought to be a chapter about the coronation.” He explains that at the time of Arthur’s coronation, the British people were sick of the anarchy from the previous rulers, the knights, and the use of force from leaders to instill power.

When Arthur is a squire, his brother Kay is being dubbed a knight. During the ceremony, Kay realizes that he left his sword in the local inn, and instructs Arthur to retrieve his weapon.

Arthur obliges, however, the inn is locked. Unable to reach Kay’s sword, he miraculously finds Excalibur, a sword lodged in a stone. Arthur believes it is a war memorial, and surprisingly, he is able to pull it from the stone.

As Arthur hands Kay the sword, explaining how he found the sword. Kay explains to him that this is the famous Excalibur. He tells the ignorant Arthur that one who can pull a sword out of the stone will become the king of England.

The book then ends with an old Arthur, asking a young Sir Thomas Mallory to write his story so that future people can understand his ideas of government, specifically the ideas of using Might for Right, and the dangers of power. 

The book also doubles as an important lesson for readers because it teaches us about how innocent people can blindly follow power without proper checks to the system. As T.H. White demonstrates through Arthur’s lessons about political philosophy, it is easy for the innocent to get duped by authoritative government and greedy for power. Merlyn’s teachings explore the dangers of absolute power through the monarchical structure of the perch’s government, the hawk’s despotic military society to the nationalism of Antland to instruct readers to be wary of power and fight for a liberal society.