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“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 womb, he had been protected with love meanwhile.
The effect of such an education was that he had grown without any of the
useful accomplishments for living-without malice, vanity, suspicion, cruelty,
and commoner forms of selfishness. Jealousy seemed to him the most ignoble
of vices. He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing
his wife. He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these
things” (White, OAFK 389) In other words, if Arthur gained exposure to
hate, jealousy, and greed, he would have known how to retaliate against
it and handle it. But, being incapable of such feelings and emotions, it
enabled people to treat him harshly, knowing that he could not hate them
for it. He underestimated Might, believing that it could be eliminated
just as he felt that the nature of men could be perfected.
In T.H. White’s OAFK and BOM, Arthur, not
give the proper education on the violent, selfish, and greedy hearts of
men, was not able to create a stable, progressive, and peaceful society
because he, as well as those close to him made mistakes that eventually
led to his downfall. Arthur grew up in a loving and kind environment, making
him incapable of hate, jealousy, and greed. This led him to forgive and
love those who betrayed him and treated him badly. His close friends, in
return, continued to betray him for they, not being capable of such decency
and kindness as he put out, knew he would love them no matter what they
did. The task set before this kind and good-hearted king was doomed to
fail. Just as the grass-snake told him in the Book of Merlyn, “You will
fail because it is in the nature of men to slay, in ignorance if not in
wrath. But failure builds success and nature changes. A good man’s example
always does instruct the ignorant and lesson their rage, little by little
through the ages, until the spirit of the waters is content: and so, strong
courage to Your Majesty, and a tranquil heart” (White, BOM 128)
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