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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 3

Summary and Notes

Lancelot and Guenever gaze out an upper window of the aisle, and the author describes the scene upon which they gaze. White returns both to the history books and to Malory in this chapter for reference.

Throughout the novel, the author has been slowly establishing Arthur as a true historical figure, and not just the stuff of legends, by attributing real historical fact to his policies. Now, in the chapter, White drops the subtlety, and in one last passage writes that not only was Arthur responsible for some of the important events of the Middle Ages, but all of the innovations of that time; not only that, but the figures that we learn of in school are the imaginary and mythic ones and Arthur is the true king. So, for example, the Plantagents and Capets are storybook characters; Arthur is the one who can take credit for the invention of English Common Law or the Magna Carta. Furthermore, Arthur reigned during the entire Middle Ages, it seems - his lifetime is something on the order of a thousand years, from the fall of Rome, until the dawn of the Renaissance.

This is a strange and noteworthy device. White is accomplishing several things at once at the beginning of Chapter 3. The first is to explain the title of the novel to some degree: Arthur is The King of all time, both in legend and in historical fact: he transcends Henry Plantagent or William the Conqueror. And from a literary perspective, this is true; when the literature scholar thinks of this time period, he automatically considers King Arthur as the representative of the time. Whether this is from a comparable lack of written material about other characters, or from the force of Arthur’s own myth, Arthur is the medieval ambassador to the modern reader. He is, then, a king of staying power, larger than life, overdetermined: the once and future king.


Secondarily, and less importantly, by dismissing real actions and events as mythological, White continues in his effort to define these legendary characters as “real” people. The reader has watched a progression in Arthur’s personality from fantastical child in Book One to a real conflicted man in Books Two and Three. It is now time for White to articulate his character as a real king. He has persisted in psychoanalyzing characters that until this point had been the flat two-dimensional stuff of legends; he has tried to make them relevant for the modern mind. It is the natural extension of this fleshing out to take his protagonist completely out of myth and place him in real history - he has to make him responsible for the Middle Ages as a whole.

The tone of this section is breathless and impressed, but the reader should note the distinct change that is happening: the Middle Ages are ended, and the “Age of Individuals” (that is, the Renaissance, or what you will) is beginning. This means necessarily the end of Arthur’s reign.

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