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Conclusions on Conflict

An analysis of how characters in The Once and Future King by T.H. White handle conflict.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White is a novel from the Camelot canon chronicling the tale of King Arthur following him from childhood to his final battle. As the protagonist of the story, he faces many internal and external conflicts, however the internal challenges are the ones that truly shape his character. As a child he learns through inferiority to his foster brother, Kay, a sense of altruism and humbleness. These traits allow him to become a successful ruler, but he is forced to reevaluate this selflessness and good morals when they cause a series of events that could be the downfall of Camelot.

Arthur’s strong principles make him a benevolent and trusting ruler who brings a new age of justice to Camelot. Many of these principles he learned from his childhood tutor Merlyn. Merlyn, a magician, who gave him many lessons by turning him into various animals and placing him in their environment. One of these lessons warned hims of the faults of absolute power by turning him into a fish and having him meet the largest fish in the moat of the castle. This “King of the Moat” boastfully tells him that “Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right” and then proceeds to attempt to eat him (52.) With this and many other lessons in mind, he sets up a radically different system of law based on justice rather than the practice of power for its own sake. However, his queen Guenever takes advantage of his trust of commits adultery with one of his knights, Sir Lancelot, a crime punishable by death under his new law. When he learns of their treachery he must decide between either abusing his power and allowing them to live or sentencing them to death and sending his kingdom into chaos at the death of their queen.

On one hand, he could end the whole ordeal quickly by executing his illegitimate son Mordred who, holding a grudge, exacerbates the situation by threatening to make the affair public. However, he is completely opposed to this as it would also be abusing his power. He outlines this to Lancelot clearly: “When you are a king you can’t go executing people as the fancy takes you” (549.) This unwillingness to break his morals, although it is what made him such a great ruler, proves to be his downfall. In the end though, Mordred does manage to make Guenever’s doings public and Arthur is forced to sentence her to death. Lancelot does manage to save her from this awful death but the damage is done. The turbulence that follows is too much and Camelot topples.

In some ways, Arthur came out victorious in his internal conflict by sticking to his morals. It is a hollow victory though. His tale is one of self-sacrifice but he dies a true knight: a man of honor, loyalty to his country, and virtue. He asked Merlyn “Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right?” but his tutor was wise (248.) He knew that it could never work in a system of absolutes: absolute trust, power and laws. Arthur’s inability to violate his own ideals leads to the downfall of Camelot.

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