The major character of The Once and Future King is Arthur, whom Merlyn affectionately nicknames “Wart.” One of the strengths of White’s novel is that it keeps its focus on Arthur; in many versions of the Arthurian legend, the major emphasis falls on Lancelot and Guenever.
White does not portray Arthur as an all-powerful legendary hero but as a good, honest person, not very clever but willing to work hard to understand the lessons Merlyn teaches him. This is most obvious in The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn changes Wart into different animals so that the boy can learn the ways of nature. Even after Merlyn departs, Arthur must struggle in order to rule justly and keep the kingdom at peace.
Arthur’s chief flaw, which helps to bring on his downfall, is his excessive goodheartedness. This trait makes him unwilling to acknowledge evil in those around him. He is deliberately blind to the evil of Queen Morgause, and will not recognize the adulterous behavior of Lancelot and Guenever. Even though Lancelot and Guenever are basically good, their actions are evil-an evil that will destroy all that Arthur has aimed for and accomplished. Yet Arthur refuses to face what is occurring.
The most delightful character in the novel is the wizard Merlyn, who “lives backward in time,” remembering the future and predicting the past. Merlyn gives voice to White’s philosophy and at times launches into excessively long speeches. White, however, undercuts Merlyn’s preachiness. Clearly the cleverest person in the novel, Merlyn is also a bungler who forgets to tell Arthur a crucial piece of information that might save the kingdom.
Perhaps the most enigmatic character in the novel is Lancelot. Even though Lancelot is the greatest of all knights, White portrays him as cursed by an ambiguous secret flaw, an undefined darkness inside that prevents him from ever being at peace with himself. Lancelot is very conscious of his own faults. He knows that his adultery with the Queen goes against the laws of his church, and he does not want to hurt his beloved friend Arthur. Still, he cannot not stop himself. In Lancelot’s futile struggle, White portrays a basically good man torn by his failure to live up to his own standards. In many ways, Lancelot is the novel’s most completely human character.
Guenever is less fully developed than either Lancelot or Arthur. Throughout his career, White had difficulty portraying women, and felt more at ease imagining the minds of animals than the mind of a woman. He wanted Guenever to appear “good,” and as narrator he is always making excuses for her, but in the end she appears a little selfish. She is neither as high-minded and idealistic as Arthur nor as religious as Lancelot.
The truly evil character in the book, however, is Queen Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister. She seduces the King and gives birth to Mordred, who will eventually destroy the Round Table. Since she is Arthur’s half-sister, both she and Arthur commit the sin of incest, even though it is clear that Arthur does not know that they are related. But Arthur is not sinless, for he realizes that she is the wife of King Lot and knowingly commits adultery. It is ironic that he commits the same crime for which he brings Guenever and Lancelot to justice.
Morgause’s evil is all the more chilling because she demands total love from her sons but offers none in return. Poisoned against Arthur, these sons-Mordred, Gareth, Gaheris, Gawaine, and Agravaine-are the King’s foremost rivals. Arthur understands that Morgause’s sons have their reasons to oppose him. In this way, White shows that people who might appear to be enemies often have understandable reasons for believing and behaving as they do.
Education is a major theme in The Once and Future King. For White, a close acquaintance with the forces of nature is fundamental to human education and its most important result, self-reliance. At the end of the first book, when Arthur tries to pull the sword from the stone, he imagines his animal friends around him, urging him to use all his powers.
The other principal theme of the story is the quest for an antidote to war. As the story progresses, Arthur’s view of the proper use of power undergoes a series of changes. He moves from the realization that “might” is not right, to the hope that might can be used for right, to the belief that might should not be used at all. Finally, he comes to believe that people should strive to reach God through a search for the Holy Grail, and that an earthly human society built on justice can at least help people to live civilized lives.
As Arthur’s thinking progresses, White introduces the reader to a number of philosophical ideas. But the narrative of human tragedy overtakes the philosophizing. Arthur’s father sinned when he took another man’s wife and Arthur sinned when he committed adultery with his half-sister Morgause. These sins set into motion forces that inevitably destroy Arthur’s dreams.