It had been made into the musical Camelot. My youngest son had just been assigned it in high school. I had never read it. And for 628 of T. H. Whiteâ€™s 631 page telling of the King Arthur saga I was prepared to declare the The Once and Future King a great book.
At the end of his life, alone and facing death, King Arthur reviews his life, seeking where he might have gone wrong:
â€œThe reading desk and its seat were made in one piece, and there the King himself sat drooping. His head lay among the papers, scattering them. He looked as if he were deadâ€”he nearly was.â€
â€œArthur was tired out. He had been broken by the two battles which he had fought already, the one at Dover, the other at Barham Down. His wife was a prisoner. His oldest friend was banished. His son was trying to kill him. Gawaine was buried. His Table was dispersed. His country was at war. Yet he could have breasted all these things in some way, if the central tenet of his heart had not been ravagedâ€¦.â€
â€œLong ago he 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 than 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. He had been forged, by that deluded old teacher, into a sort of Pasteur or Curie or patient discoverer of insulin. The service for which he had been destined had been against Force, the mental illness of humanity. His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice; these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. He was like a scientist who had pursued the root of cancer all his life. Mightâ€”to have ended itâ€”to have made men happier. But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent.â€
â€œLooking back at his life, it seemed to him that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood, which, whenever he had checked it, had broken through at a new place, setting him his work to do again. It was the flood of Force Majeur. During the earliest days before his marriage he had tried to match its strength with strengthâ€”in his battles against the Gaelic confederationâ€”only to find that two wrongs did not make a right. But he had crushed the feudal dream of war successfully. Then, with his Round Table, he had tried to harness Tyranny in lesser forms, so that its power might be used for useful ends. He had sent out the men of might to rescue the oppressed and to straighten evilâ€”to put down the individual might of barons, just as he had put down the might of kings. They had done so-until, in the course of time, the ends had been achieved, but the force had remained upon his hands unchastened. So he had sought for a new channel, had sent them out on God’s business, searching for the Holy Grail. That too had been a failure, because those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and been lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better. At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws. He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state. He had been prepared to sacrifice his wife and his best friend, to the impersonality of Justice. And then, even as the might of the individual seemed to have been curbed, the Principle of Might had sprung up behind him in another shapeâ€”in the shape of collective might of banded ferocity, of numerous armies insusceptible to individual laws. He had bound the might of units, only to find that it was assumed by pluralities. He had conquered murder, to be faced with war. There were no Laws for that.â€
â€œThe wars of his early days, those against Lot and the Dictator of Rome, had been battles to upset the feudal convention of warfare as foxhunting or as gambling for ransom. To upset it, he had introduced the idea of total war. In his old age this same total warfare had come back to roost as total hatred, as the most modern of hostilities.”
“Now, with his forehead resting on the papers and his eyes closed, the King was trying not to realize. 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 heart of men was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, then the purpose of his life had been a vain one. Chivalry and justice became a child’s illusionsâ€¦â€
Was the Kingdom of God about to break into Arthurâ€™s life? Would the king finally realize that his human, earthy kingdom could never achieve the blessings he sought while part of The Present Evil Age? Was Arthur ready to surrender to the King of Kings, and offer up his kingdom to His Kingdom, his rule and reign to the rule and reign of Jesus Christ?
Like so many before him and so many after since him, Arthur returns to his original human plan â€“ the use of human force on behalf of human justice – and believes that a new and improved model would finally do the trick!
Arthur entrusts his plan to a young page and instructs him to keep his dream alive, but this time
â€œa new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had noneâ€”a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.â€
The secret lies in one-world government and increased funding for education and the arts!
The tragedy of King Arthur, and of our fellow men, is not that dreams are unrealized, but that the true Once and Future King, arrived and on the throne, Already but Not Yet, has been rejected.
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