Near the end of this, the last volume of The Once and Future King, White offers his readers a short "obituary" of Arthur, the mythical figure whom he has examined through the course of four novels: "He was only a man who had meant well . . . But it had ended in failure."
Since his boyhood, Arthur has moved from being the Wart, a naive but earnest boy, to being King Arthur, a man whose destiny and ideals were to become forever associated with England, the Round Table, and the age of chivalry. White humanizes Arthur as "only a man who had meant well," but a reader of The Candle in the Wind knows that White is being modest for his protagonist's sake. For as The Candle in the Wind makes clear, Arthur was a man whose ideas about might, right, and law stood far ahead of those believed by all his opponents — and even some of his allies. True, Arthur's attempt to institute a "total justice" in his kingdom proves "too difficult" and he is defeated by Mordred's might, but his attempt ennobles him and his example, forever recorded by the young page, Tom Malory, will inspire generations. What is myth for if not to serve as a guide to behavior and a framework through which one can view very modern issues? As The Iliad invites its readers to think about the effects of war and Paradise Lost examines the cosmic battle between good and evil, The Candle in the Wind is ultimately the record of one man's rise against wanton and terrible force — and how, despite his own destruction at the hands of it, he triumphs morally, if not militarily.
All four volumes of White's series are concerned with the workings of Force Majeure: the idea that any dispute can (and will) be settled by means of physical force. When (in The Sword in the Stone) the Wart meets Mr. P., the despotic perch, he sees Force Majeure in action: Mr. P. will eat anyone he pleases, whenever he has the urge. When (in The Queen of Air and Darkness) Arthur institutes a new kind of warfare and is able to "harness Might so that it works for Right," he is sure that he is forging a new idea that will forever change the way men think of battle. In The Ill-Made Knight, Arthur's Round Table effectively destroys the notion of Force Majeure and convinces the strongest knights in the realm to use their strength only in the name of God. However, after godliness has been attained by the Round Table's representatives, "those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better." Arthur's final attempt at curbing Force Majeure — an all-inclusive Law that will "make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down" — is the subject of The Candle in the Wind. Arthur thinks that the combination of "Customary, Canon, and Roman law" into "a single code which he hoped to call the Civil one," will finally end the bloodshed that Lyo-lyok, the goose who taught him about boundaries as a boy in The Sword in the Stone, found so horrifying.
Arthur's idea is a fine one and worthy of a king who so codified masculine aggression that it became an instrument for doing right. However, Arthur's civil law — like the sin of his sleeping with Morgause — eventually "comes home to roost" and forces its very inventor to apply it to the two people he loves most: Lancelot and Guenever.
Arthur knows that laws should not be invented simply to crush one's enemies, for in that way tyranny lies, and tyrants need no excuse for killing their enemies in the first place. Such thinking is why, when Lancelot advises Arthur to cut off Mordred's head "and be done with him," the king instantly refuses. The only way that Arthur can "keep clear of force is by justice," and the hard fact of justice is that, "Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends . . . And his wife." The function of law is to implement right without the presence of Force Majeure; for this to be done, those who wish to defer to law must be willing to have it applied without any consideration for their own individual passions. Thus, Lancelot and Guenever must become the test case of Arthur's civil law, else its entire premise is undermined. Any exceptions made for the king's friend and wife will make the law a joke and its inventor a tyrant, like Mordred, who has no use for justice and calls it something that Arthur "does to people" simply "to amuse himself."
Naturally, Arthur despairs of his predicament. As Lancelot in The Ill-Made Knight finds himself torn between two equally powerful forces (Guenever and God), Arthur here finds himself pulled by both his desire for justice and his love for his friend and wife. After being forced, by his own logic, to allow Mordred and Agravaine to catch Lancelot with Guenever, Arthur has no choice, as a monarch, but to try and convict them. As a husband and friend, however, he constantly betrays his partisan hopes, like a judge who will pass down a guilty verdict if he is forced but who also hopes that he will be prevented from doing so. To his credit, Arthur never gives in to his own heart: He knows that Gawaine will follow the banished Lancelot and eventually kill him, and Arthur sits by his window to view Guenever's execution, because if he does not do so, the punishment will not be "legal." Caught in the ironies of his own creation, Arthur loses hope of reconciling his heart with his law — until the king watches Lancelot rescue Guenever from the stake and betrays his delight in his banished friend's actions: "My Lancelot! I knew he would! . . . Look, he is coming up to the Queen. . . . We shall win, Gawaine — we shall win!"
Arthur, delighted over having his legal cake and eating it too, then calls for a drink and is certain that he has eluded the grasp of his law — until Mordred appears and sours the moment with the news that, during the course of the Queen's rescue, Lancelot killed Gareth and Gaheris, both unarmed. His son has caught Arthur in another legal bind, for if Arthur does not capture and then try Lancelot for these two murders, he again risks the belittling of his precious law. Of course, Mordred only evokes justice in an attempt to get Arthur out of the country and further his own political ends — but he knows that Arthur (a man infinitely more honorable than he) cannot renege on his law and will be forced to apply it to his friend a second time. Guenever shows a keen understanding of her husband's predicament when she explains to her lady-in-waiting, "The king likes Lancelot so much that he is forced to be unfair to him — for fear of being unfair to other people." If Arthur fails to bring Lancelot to justice for the deaths of Gareth and Gaheris, he is betraying these two subjects as well as the political foundation of his kingdom; the fact that Lancelot killed them accidentally is — like his friendship with Arthur — irrelevant. Justice is supposed to be blind.
Thus, Arthur is forced to follow Lancelot to France and allow Gawaine to seek revenge on his brothers' killer: Although the king has repeatedly asked for an end to blood feuds, he must acknowledge Gawaine's right to demand justice for his loss. Another legal snare is that Arthur must leave Mordred as Lord Protector while he is away; the fact that Mordred — ostensibly the most evil character in all four novels — cannot be stopped because he has not, technically, broken any law suggests the faith Arthur invests in it. After Mordred does overstep his legal boundaries, however, Arthur is free to pursue and battle with him: As with his previously discussed love for both Lancelot and the law, Arthur again is given license to act more according to his heart than his sense of legal prudence. Gawaine's final letter to Lancelot, in which he asks the ill-made knight for his forgiveness and to help Arthur defeat Mordred, reveals the impact of Arthur's law on one of his disciples. If a man as set on the use of Force Majeure as Gawaine can view the law as a better alternative, surely there is hope for a future end to violence.
But the present still plagues Arthur, who, in the novel's last scene, sits in his tent and ruminates over his life and achievements. These thoughts serve as both an effective summary of the volumes of The Once and Future King as well as White's last lecture to the reader on the terrors of a world governed only by Force Majeure — a world he had just witnessed during World War II. Although Arthur is described as a man whose idea was "doomed to failure," this description is a half-truth. True, the Law will not stop Mordred, who will slay his father after the novel ends. But as Arthur's thoughts continue, the reader detects White's linking these supposedly "medieval" ideas about war and law to the twentieth century, which is one of the overall aims of all myth and White's retelling of the Arthurian one. Arthur considers: "Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe . . . Perhaps there were no virtues . . . Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. Perhaps he himself . . . But he could challenge it no further."
A reader cannot but help detecting the voice of Darwin speaking through the king — a voice so disturbing to him that he does not even complete his last question, which is, that perhaps he himself was only a creation of Nature, designed to keep the survivors in order. Arthur's thinking, like the England of White's imagination, grows more modern as the novels progress. Mordred is a blueprint for Hitler (with his hatred of Gaels and Jews, swastika-like badges, and stormtrooper "Thrashers") who brings Camelot into the twentieth century with his guns — the times of knights dueling like nobles and not striking each other when they fall are no more. Force Majeure has returned and will obliterate Camelot and its leader. When Guenever figuratively remarks earlier in the novel, "Civilization seems to have become insane," she speaks as a prophet, foretelling the fall of the Round Table, but not the ideals that kept it intact.
What is crucial to remember, however, is that the destruction of Camelot and the rebirth of Force Majeure comes about as a direct result of Arthur's, Guenever's, and Lancelot's own actions. "Sin coming home to roost" is a phrase repeated throughout the volumes of The Once and Future King, and the fact that Arthur's own son destroys him symbolically suggests the capacity for self-destruction that lies within each of us — even the most noble and forthright humanitarians are cursed with the free will that can engender their own destruction. In his tent, Arthur thinks that perhaps Mordred and he are "nothing but figureheads to complex forces which seem to be under a kind of impulse." This impulse is the human movement toward civilization — but as Arthur notes in The Ill-Made Knight, "I suppose that all endeavors which are directed toward a purely worldly end, as my famous civilization was, contain within themselves the germs of their own corruption." Man contains within him the capacity for unparalleled goodness (witness the Quest for the Holy Grail) but an equal capacity for evil (as seen in Mordred's attempt to willingly commit the same acts as that of the mythical Oedipus).
And so Camelot, and Arthur's entire way of thinking, is likened by White to a candle in the wind, literally extinguished by the mechanized terrors of the very modern Mordred. However, Arthur's meeting with Tom Malory, who will eventually compose Le Morte D'Arthur, ensures that the candle will be relit and will burn, as an example for future knights who struggle for right in the face of blind force. One of Arthur's final ruminations concerns a day "where he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table." The history of the world has shown the rebirth of the Round Table several times (the Allied Forces in World War II being just one example) and proven that, while Arthur's flesh may have been taken to Avalon, his ideas have not. The series ends with the statement
EXPLICIT LIBER REGIS QUONDAM REGISQUE FUTURI
to suggest that the death of Arthur may be the end of a book, but the beginning of a force of good in the world still at work today. Mordreds may come, but young Tom Malory's reporting of the Round Table will continue to inspire present-day knights to fight the Thrashers in whatever form they may arrive. Thus Arthur is both the "once" and "future" King.