The Once and Future King
T. H. White

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King


Arthurian (modern)
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Parts of White’s “Pendragon” exist in different versions as separate novels. Other pages contain
The Once and Future King

Copyright © 1939, 1940 by T. H. White
Copyright © 1958 by T. H. White

The Queen of Air and Darkness  1 It was not exactly that they were afraid of being beaten if she came up. They adored her dumbly and uncritically, because her character was stronger than theirs. Nor had they been forbidden to talk after bedtime. It was more as if she had brought them up—perhaps through indifference or through laziness or even through some kind of possessive cruelty—with an imperfect sense of right and wrong. It was as if they could never know when they were being good or when they were being bad.



He did not think it was wrong for strength to have its way, but only that it was intensely wrong for anything to succeed against his own clan. He was neither clever nor sensitive, but he was loyal—stubbornly sometimes, and even annoyingly and stupidly so in later life. For him it was then as it was always to be: Up Orkney, Right or Wrong.
Perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically—to those who hardly think about us in return.
 2 “I always say that stupidity is the Sin against the Holy Ghost.”



“All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day’s work to hurt each other, and the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that’s the motto.”

“Wars are never fought for one reason,” he said. “They are fought for dozens of reasons, in a muddle. It is the same with revolts.”

“But there must have been a main reason,” said Kay.

“Not necessarily.”

“The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”
“Life is too bitter already, without territories and wars and noble feuds.”

“There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.”

“But both sides always say that the other side started them.”

“Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside themselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning.”




“I have been thinking,” said Arthur, “about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them. After all, a penny is a penny in any case, however much Might is exerted on either side, to prove that it is or is not.”

10 The bishops assured both sides that they were going to win, because God was with them, but King Arthur’s men knew that they were outnumbered by three to one, so they thought it was best to get shriven. King Lot’s men, who also knew the odds, spent the night dancing, drinking, dicing and telling each other dirty stories. This is what the chronicles say, at any rate.
“There is a thing about Time and Space which the philosopher Einstein is going to find out. Some people call it Destiny.”
14 It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost. That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur’s son Mordred, and to remember, when the time comes, that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.
The Ill-Made Knight  6 His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them. For one thing, he liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented.



 8 It was the old school, the Norman baronial attitude, which provided the adventures at this period—for few people can hate so bitterly and so self-righteously as the members of a ruling caste which is being dispossessed. The knights of the Round Table were sent out as a measure against Fort Mayne, and the choleric barons who lived by Fort Mayne took up the cudgels with the ferocity of despair. They would have written to The Times about it, if there had been such a paper. The best of them convinced themselves that Arthur was newfangled, and that his knights were degenerate from the standards of their fathers. The worst of them made up uglier names than Bolshevist even, and allowed the brutal side of their natures to dwell on imaginary enormities which they attributed to the knights. The situation became divorced from common sense, so that atrocity stories were accepted by the atrocious people.





“You fight all the time, and conquer countries and win battles, and then you say that fighting is a bad thing.”

”So it is a bad thing. It is the worst thing in the world.”

“People will do the basest things on account of their so-called honour.”



11 They kneeled between the frescoed walls, where some important-looking saints with blue haloes were standing on tiptoe to avoid foreshortening [....]

We begin to forget, as we go stolidly balancing along, that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life. It is hardly consoling to remember such a feeling, and so it deadens in our minds.

But there was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem. There was a time when Free Love versus Catholic Morality was a question of as much importance to our hot bodies as if a pistol had been clapped to our heads.

Further back, there were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was, what we were ourselves.

All these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty.




They had a year of joy, twelve months of the strange heaven which the salmon know on beds of river shingle, under the gin-clear water. For twenty-four years they were guilty, but this first year was the only one which seemed like happiness. Looking back on it, when they were old, they did not remember that in this year it had ever rained or frozen. The four seasons were coloured like the edge of a rose petal for them.

“I don’t understand,” said Lancelot, “why you should love me. Are you sure you do? Is there some mistake about it?”

“My Lance.”

“But my face,” he said. “I am so horrible. Now I can believe that God might love the world, whatever it was like, because of himself.”

15 They thought that they understood each other once more—but their doubt had been planted. Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were the seeds of hatred and fear and confusion growing at the same time: for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury.
16 Men often accuse women of driving them to unfaithfulness by senseless jealousy, before there has been any thought of unfaithfulness on their own part. Yet the thought was probably there, unconscious and undetectable except to women. The great Anna Karenina, for instance, forced Vronsky into a certain position by the causeless jealousy of a maniac—yet that position was the only real solution to their problem, and it was the inevitable solution. Seeing so much further into the future than he did, she pressed towards it with passionate tread, wrecking the present because the future was bound to be a wreck.
It is a pity that language is such a clumsy weapon that we cannot say that a mother was “unconscious” of her baby crying in the next room—with the meaning that the mother somehow, unconsciously, knew that it was crying.
It is generally the trustful and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.




We civilized people, who would immediately fly to divorce courts and alimony and other forms of attrition in such circumstances, can afford to look with proper contempt upon the spineless cuckold. But Arthur was only a medieval savage. He did not understand our civilization, and knew no better than to try to be too decent for the degradation of jealousy.
22 He was like a distracted man doing two things at once, one of them important and the other unimportant. He felt a duty to the unimportant one.

He did not look back as he rode away from Bliant Castle—and Elaine, standing on the barbican tower, did not wave. She watched him going with a still-struck concentration, like somebody who, shipwrecked, gets as much fresh water into the little boat as possible. She had a few seconds left, to make her store of Lancelot that must last her through the years.

27 “Don’t ever let anybody teach you to think, Lance: it is the curse of the world.”



“Morals are difficult things to talk about, but what has happened is that we have invented a moral sense, which is rotting now that we can’t give it employment. And when a moral sense begins to rot it is worse than when you had none.”

“Morals,” said Lionel, “are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn’t get out of.”




“If God is supposed to be merciful,” he retorted, “I don’t see why He shouldn’t allow people to stumble into heaven, just as well as climb there.”

32 “Do you know, I shall be talking about God a great deal, and this is a word which offends unholy people just as much as words like ‘damn’ and so on offend the holy ones.”

“If a boy steals sweets,” he said, “and his parents punish him, he may be very sorry and good afterwards. But that doesn’t entitle him to steal more sweets, does it? Nor does it mean that he must be given sweets. God was not punishing me by letting the black knight knock me down—he was only withholding the special gift of victory which it had always been within his power to bestow.”

“But, my poor Lance, to have given up your glory and not to get anything back! When you were a sinful man you were always victorious, so why should you always be beaten when you were heavenly? And why are you always hurt by the things you love? What did you do?”

“I knelt down in the water of Mortoise, Jenny, where he had knocked me—and I thanked God for the adventure.”




“Funny,” said Lancelot, “how the people who can’t pray say that prayers are not answered, however much the people who can pray say they are.”



35 It was well for him, with his chivalry and mysticism and all the compensations of the male world, to make the grand renunciation. But it took two to make a renunciation, just as it took two to make love, or to make a quarrel. She was not an insensate piece of property, to be taken up or laid down at his convenience. You could not give up a human heart as you could give up drinking. The drink was yours, and you could give it up: but your lover’s soul was not your own: it was not at your disposal; you had a duty towards it.
44 For in those days love was ruled by a different convention to ours. In those days it was chivalrous, adult, long, religious, almost platonic. It was not a matter about which you could make accusations lightly. It was not, as we take it to be nowadays, begun and ended in a long week-end.
45 In the new law courts—for Fort Mayne was over—the lawyers were as busy as bees, issuing writs for attainder, chancery, chevisance, disseisin, distraint, distress, embracery, exigent, fieri facias, maintenance, replevin, right of way, oyer and terminer, scot and lot, Quorum bonorum, Sic et non, Pro et contra, Jus primae noctis, and Questio quid juris?



The Candle in the Wind  1

“It should be said out loud, not whispered in cloisters.”

“The whispers will get there in the end.”

“No, they won’t. That is what they won’t do. He doesn’t want to hear, and, so long as we whisper, he can always pretend that he can’t. You are not the King of England for all these years, without knowing how to use hypocrisy.”



 3 Lovers were not recruited then among the juveniles and adolescents: they were seasoned people, who knew what they were about. In those days people loved each other for their lives, without the conveniences of the divorce court and the psychiatrist. They had a God in heaven and a goddess on earth—and, since people who devote themselves to goddesses must exercise some caution about the ones to whom they are devoted, they neither chose them by the passing standards of the flesh alone, nor abandoned it lightly when the bruckle thing began to fail.



Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever’s window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent? Do you think that they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription? Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the centre of the universe, do we not ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation? If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?



 4 He considered it ridiculous to suppose that he was not wicked, but he was grateful for their love.

Gawaine made an effort to be conciliatory. He was not a conciliatory man, so the effort looked actually physical, like an earthquake.

“Because Lancelot is stronger than others, and always stands for the Queen, it does not mean that the Queen is always in the right.”

“I am sure it doesn’t. But then, you see, moot points have to be settled somehow, once they get thrust upon us. If an assertion cannot be proved, then it must be settled some other way, and nearly all of these ways are unfair to somebody. It is not as if you would have to fight the Queen’s champion in your own person, Mordred. You could plead infirmity and hire the strongest man you knew to fight for you, and the Queen would, of course, get the strongest man she knew to fight for her. It would be much the same thing if you each hired the best arguer you knew, to argue about it. In the last resort it is usually the richest person who wins, whether he hires the most expensive arguer or the most expensive fighter, so it is no good pretending that this is simply a matter of brute force.”


“Anyone would think that you enjoyed watching people being burned.”

Morred replied contemptuously: “So will you, really. Only you think it is not good form to say so.”

“When I was a young man I did something which was not just, and from it has sprung the misery of my life. Do you think you can stop the consequences of a bad action, by doing good ones afterwards? I don’t. I have been trying to stopper it down with good actions, ever since, but it goes on in widening circles. It will not be stoppered.”

11 “War is like a fire, Agnes. One man may start it, but it will spread all over. It is not about any one thing in particular.”

People write tragedies in which fatal blondes betray their paramours to ruin, in which Cressidas, Cleopatras, Delilahs, and sometimes even naughty daughters like Jessica bring their lovers or their parents to distress: but these are not the heart of tragedy. They are fripperies to the soul of man. What does it matter if Antony did fall upon his sword? It only killed him. It is the mother’s not the lover’s lust that rots the mind. It is that which condemns the tragic character to his walking death. It is Jocasta, not Juliet, who dwells in the inner chamber. It is Gertrude, not the silly Ophelia, who sends Hamlet to his madness. The heart of tragedy does not lie in stealing or taking away. Any featherpated girl can steal a heart. It lies in giving, in putting on, in adding, in smothering without the pillows. Desdemona robbed of life or honour is nothing to a Mordred, robbed of himself—his soul stolen, overlaid, wizened, while the mother-character lives in triumph, superfluously and with stifling love endowed on him, seemingly innocent of ill-intention.


There would be a day—there must be a day—when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none—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.




text checked (see note) Mar 2005

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