The Once and Future King - Arthur's Failure


"He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along the course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt-to do nothing which was not just. But it had ended in failure" (White, OAFK 634). The "he" in this passage refers to King Arthur, the main character in T.H. White's The Once and Future King and Book of Merlyn, who failed in his attempt to unite England due to the mistakes made by him and those close to him. Arthur, betrayed by those close to him, not properly educated on the greedy, selfish, and violent heart of man, failed in his attempt to create a stable, progressive, and peaceful society.

To begin with, those close to Arthur made mistakes that would lead to his eventual downfall. Merlyn's forgetfulness kept him from informing Arthur of his mother's name. "...but suddenly he remembered it in his sleep-the simplest thing! It was Arthur's mother's name which he had forgotten to mention in the confusion!" (White, OAFK 310). If Arthur had known the identity of his mother he would not have slept with his own sister, "...but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough" (White, OAFK 312). This account with his sister created Mordred, who, taught by his mother that revenge had to be taken, would be his father's killer. Others close to Arthur betrayed him as well. Gwenever's selfishness and jealousy as well as Lancelot's "evil steak" played an important role in the King's downfall. They chose to sleep with each other behind the King's back, knowing that the discovery of their affair would destroy his life's work. If Gwen and Lance could have just come to the realization that they could not sleep each other and still be loyal to their King, this tragedy would not have taken place. Perhaps Lance put it best when he said "...your friend can hardly be your friend if he is also going to be your betrayer" (White, OAFK 336).

Arthur did not receive a proper education on the greedy, selfish, and violent heart of man. As the young Wart growing up in the Forest Sauvage, Arthur "...had been taught by an aged benevolence, wagging a white beard. He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent that beastly; that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good.....the whole structure depended on the first premise; that man was decent" (White OAFK 628). Because Arthur possessed such a wise and loving tutor who showed him the good and decent side of human nature, he himself grew up "...kind, simple, and upright" (White OAFK 387) Merlyn taught him through the use of animals that were much more peaceful and serene than humans could ever hope to be. Because Arthur possessed such a kind and moral heart, he could not find it in his heart to hate his best friend, his wife, or anyone for betraying him, and his forgiving nature and naivete eventually led to his downfall. If Merlyn had only showed him that all men possessed a streak of evil in them, Arthur would not have been so quick to assume that all men were good "...for if there was such a thing as original sin, if man was on the whole a villain, if the bible was right in saying that the hearts of men were deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, then the purpose of his life had been a vain one" (White OAFK 629).

In the end, Arthur lost his battle with might and failed to create a stable, peaceful, and progressive society. This was due to several factors including the mistakes made by those close to him, his naivete and forgiving nature, and the evil and/or ignorance that lurks in the hearts of men. If he could have just known that none were as lucky as he had been, concerning the lessons he had been taught as a boy. "He, unfortunately for himself, had been beautifully brought up. His teacher had educated him as the child is educated in the womb...and, like the child in the