Places: The Once and Future King

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1958 (as tetralogy): The Sword in the Stone, 1938; The Witch in the Wood, 1939 (also known as The Queen of Air and Darkness); The Ill-Made Knight, 1940; The Candle in the Wind, 1958

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Arthurian romance

Time of work: Middle Ages

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*England

*England. Once and Future King, TheThe England of the legendary King Arthur, often called Gramarye, is a totally imaginary realm. T. H. White’s narrator refers to the historical kings of England as mythical, and other real and imaginary characters such as John Ball and Robin Hood (here called Robin Wood) are anachronistically jumbled into Arthur’s time period.

White’s mythical kingdom can be divided into two periods: before and after Arthur’s succession. Before Arthur, England is a savage realm, “without civilization,” in which might makes right. The narrator is careful to point out that the feudal system was not inherently bad; under good lords, such as Sir Ector, the peasants are well treated. Indeed, at times the narrator’s descriptions of lower-class life resemble the romantic imaginings of the Merrie England school of English history, represented by writers such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Even England’s weather is tame. According to the narrator, the greatest modern fault in imagining life in the Middle Ages is to base one’s views on the pale and bare ruins of the era that remain in modern times. Arthur’s England was, according to the narrator, an almost inconceivable riot of colors.

During Arthur’s reign, England becomes a much safer place after the abolition of Fort Mayne, the force of might. Lawyers and legalisms take over, and the realm begins to resemble the one described by Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present (1843), where a child with a sack of gold could walk from one end of England to another without being accosted. But even justice has its limits, and Arthur’s England is already crumbling when the novel ends.

Camelot

Camelot. Mythical seat of King Court’s court. Both Camelot and London are frequently mentioned in White’s narrative, but it is difficult to tell which of them is England’s primary city.

Castle of the Forest Sauvage

Castle of the Forest Sauvage. Castle of Arthur’s foster father, Sir Ector, where Arthur (who is called “Wart” as a boy) is raised under the tutelage of Merlin. There and in the surrounding forest, he is taught by being transformed into different beasts. Although his surroundings themselves seem typical (such as the moat in which he is a fish), his lessons are definitely not. In the ant farm, for example, he encounters a society not far removed from the totalitarian human society depicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

The Forest Sauvage itself, like Sherwood Forest, is described as being incomparably larger and wilder than modern forests; however, during Wart’s adventures there (finding Merlin, rescuing the prisoners from the Castle Chariot), the forest does not seem much harsher than those of modern times.

Castles

Castles. Descriptions of the various castles throughout the novel stress the vibrant and rich colors with which they were adorned, both inside and out. The stained glass windows, for example, that form so prominent a part of their construction, make their interiors glow: “They were in a magic world of gems, a glade under trees whose leaves were jewels.”

Castle Chariot and Dunlothian Castle, the homes of Arthur’s half-sisters Morgan le Fay and Morgause, are surmounted by towers with weather-cocks of carrion crows. Castle Chariot, in its enchanted form, is made entirely of food, the total effect of which is nauseating, rather than tempting. Dunlothian Castle, home to Sir Gawaine and his brothers, is run-down and dilapidated, emblematic of the passing of power from the older Celts to the newer invaders, symbolized by Arthur and his father.

Merlin’s cottage

Merlin’s cottage. Home of the court magician Merlin. As befits a wizard, Merlin’s dwellings are crammed full of unusual and abstruse objects, some of which do not belong to his time period, such as a gun case, an encyclopedia, and a set of cigarette cards.

Justice Roome

Justice Roome. One of the few interior locations described in any detail, this room is where Arthur is forced to pass judgment on Lancelot and Guinevere. Its boxlike walls are covered with tapestries that illustrate stories of justice from the Old Testament. However, as Arthur discovers at the end of the novel, justice is not enough to overcome the human ills he first sees illustrated during his youthful animal transformations: “Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong.” The cures for these ills lies far beyond the ken of Camelot.

BibliographyLacey, Norris J., and Geofrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1988. A critical survey of Arthurian legend from the fifth century to the late twentieth century.Logario, Valerie M., and Mildred Leake Day, eds. King Arthur Through the Ages. Vol 2. New York: Garland, 1990. A study of contributions to Arthurian literature from the Victorian period into the twentieth century. The Once and Future King is acknowledged as the “most influential and enduringly popular of modern Arthurian fiction.”Owen, D. D. R., ed. Arthurian Romance: Seven Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1971. Collection of essays reflecting late twentieth century interest in Arthurian romance that range from close textual scrutiny to overviews of artistic purposes.Sandler, Florence Field. “Family Romance in The Once and Future King.” Quondom et Futuris: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations 2, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 73-80. An examination of the medieval concept of family and romance as applied to White’s novel.Tanner, William E. “Tangled Web of Time in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.” Arthurian Myth of Quest and Magic: A Festschrift in Honor of Lavon Fulwiler. Dallas: Caxton Moern Arts, 1993. Considers White’s treatment of historical time in relation to his concern for war.
Categories: Places