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Life's Lessons in The Once and Future King
"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then -- to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing, which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."
Throughout The Once and Future King, Wart learns many lessons in some unlikely places. Young Wart is the adopted son of a nobleman when he meets Merlyn, a magician, who takes him on many adventures, turning him into several different animals and teaching him skills, both mental and physical. Wart learns to treat people with respect and kindness. Soon after, Wart pulls a magical sword from a stone, which proves him the rightful king of England. Merlyn, who knew this from the start, advises Wart-now called Arthur- on how to be a good king. What Arthur really wants to do is end the chaos that passes for law in his country. He wants his men-the knights of the round table- to help defenseless people and prevent the rich and strong from simply dominating everyone. Many young knights love the chivalrous idea and admire Arthur.
Arthur's wife Guenever has an affair with one of Arthur's best knights, Lancelot. Since he is a just king, Arthur feels obligated to persecute them for adultery and treason. This went along with Mordred's plan to upset the court and, since he was the only son of Arthur (not with Guenever however), to become King of England. Lancelot kills Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine, all knights of the Roundtable. Mordred convinces a surviving knight, Gawaine that Lancelot killed them out of his own hatred of England.
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Arthur realizes he must die and accepts the idea that each person's fate is a mere drop in the ocean of life. In hopes that his story will be remembered, Arthur tells a young boy, by the name of Tom Malory, his story. Arthur knows that his ideas for law and justice will return and that is why he is the "once and future king."
As Wart explores the underwater kingdom of the fish, he meets Mr. P, who tells Wart "only Might is Right" (52). Mr. P, the ruler of the moat, represents the monarch in an absolute monarchy; he has all the power and strength but is lacking in the intelligence department. Mr. P tries to eat Wart the fish, but in this battle between brains and brawn, Wart learns that intellect can help him outsmart the more powerful creature.
During Wart's time as a bird, he stays in the Mews where he learns about etiquette. Wart is advised by Merlyn to pay close attention to his manners while visiting the Mews. Wart, using his knowledge as a hunter who uses birds to sight prey, manages to pass the first part of their demanding, and scrutinous initiation test.
Wart learns about war from a society that is content to follow directions and live a monotonous existence. After being injured by the Griffin, Wart is desperate to get out of bed and go on another adventure, and therefore, Merlyn turns him into an ant. Wart is easily accepted into this society of ants and soon learns of their "loyalty" to the queen in how they constantly repeat chants about her. He learns that the ants all work together Wart discovers that the ants have a blind duty to their queen, even though the rules make no sense. For example, they say that the enemy is more numerous than they, and is thus unfairly trying to conquer them, but also that they are more numerous than the enemy, so they have a right to be conquerors. Their view on war is that it is required; "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY" (121) was written on a sign outside the entrance to the nest.
Consequently, when Arthur is a goose, he learns that the opposite is true for them. Each of the geese thinks for themselves, and it just so happens that their instincts lead them to a peaceful society where everyone is benefiting from this individualism. Unlike the ants, the geese feel like they have a purpose. In addition, unlike the ants, the geese don't believe in war against their own species, only against natural predators. When Arthur tells Lyo-Lyok, a goose, that he likes fighting, she responds, "Because you're a baby" (172).
From the Badger, Arthur learns a theory about Mankind. The Badger tells Arthur that he has recently written a paper about how Man came to be the leader of the animals, and describes it to him. He tells him the story of how God created all the animals. God gave them each a choice of what tools they would like-for example, badgers asked for their skins to be tough shields, for their mouths to be weapons, and for their arms to be strong tools to dig with. However, Man asked for nothing: Man only wanted to be able to use homemade tools, but to be defenseless without them. God was pleased by this, and made Man the master of all the other animals. Still, the Badger does not think that Man is really the luckiest of all the animals, because Man is one of the very few that makes war on its own kind. After Arthur argued his case about how war sometimes brings bravery, comradery, and endurance, the Badger asks him, "Which did you like best, the ants or the wild geese" (196).
Arthur's tutor, Merlyn, ended up teaching him more than any jousting class, or archery lesson ever could. Merlyn taught Arthur priceless lessons through first-hand experience of many different societies.
White, T.H. The Once and Future King; York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1958