Like the other volumes in The Once and Future King, The Queen of Air and Darkness begins with an epigraph: "When shall I be dead and rid / Of the wrong my father did? / How long, how long, till spade and hearse / Put to sleep my mother's curse?"
The pleading questions asked here are never directly posed by the Wart (now King Arthur) in the novel; however, the sense of the "sins of the fathers" affecting the son — and the past affecting the present — is a chief component of the Arthurian legend (and White's retelling of it). Throughout The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur struggles to reform and "civilize" the bloody nation (torn by racial strife) left to him by his father, Uther Pendragon. However, as White implies before the book even begins, the time when Arthur will be "dead and rid" of the troubles engendered by his father's (and other Normans') tyranny may be slow in coming — or never arrive at all. The focus of the novel is war, but the war fought here is one that has origins in the distant past. To "put to sleep" the problems plaguing his country, Arthur revolutionizes his own (and other characters') thinking about wars, their origins, and who fights in them. Seen in this light, The Queen of Air and Darkness is, like The Sword in the Stone, a tale of Arthur's education. As he learned of the horrors of war in the first volume, he puts his learning into practice in the second, attempting to actually eradicate war completely from his nation.
Arthur's revolutionary theory of entering and then winning a "war to end all wars" does not occur to him instantly, early in his reign. When the novel begins, Arthur is still very much like the Wart he was in The Sword in the Stone. White introduces him with the description, "He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it." Even Merlyn has become restless and impatient with his pupil: When Arthur asks Merlyn if he has "been doing something wrong," the wizard replies, "It is not so much what you are doing . . . It is how you are thinking. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's stupidity." The "stupidity" that so infuriates Merlyn is not of an academic strain; rather, he detests Arthur's ideas about war and violence, which are revealed to him when the King describes his battle with Lot of Orkney as "splendid." After his boyhood lessons, Arthur should know better than to use such a word to describe a thing so terrible; however, Arthur is still like a schoolboy in many ways, including his conception of war. Merlyn must again become his tutor so that the King can think for himself after the wizard is locked "in a hole" (as he will be by Nimue) later in life.
To make his student rethink his ideas about the "splendid" nature of war, Merlyn offers Arthur a brief history lesson in which he outlines the last three thousand years of military conflict.When Arthur calls Sir Bruce Sans Pitie a "swine" and a "marauder," he fails to realize that a man like Sir Bruce is simply "an example of the general situation." A long time ago, the Gaels who fought with copper hatchets were defeated by another clan of Gaels with bronze swords, who were then driven West by Teutons with iron weapons, who were themselves attacked by the Romans and, eventually, the Saxons. The Saxons, however, were then conquered by the Normans, leaving the present situation in which the Gaels resent the Gauls (their Norman oppressors) and see Arthur's coronation as a "chance to pay off racial scores, and to have some blood-letting as sport, and to make a bit of money in ransoms." The universal thinking that "Might is Right" disgusts the wizard, who contends that wars are "the greatest wickedness of a wicked species." "There is no excuse for war," he explains, "and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine — short of war — my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it." Merlyn's words here recall those of Lyo-lyok, the wild goose, who tells Arthur in The Sword in the Stone that he is a "baby" because he finds war a "knightly" pursuit.
What infuriates Merlyn even more than the savagery of war, however, is the complete and nonchalant acceptance of it as an institution wherein nobles, fully protected in armor, exploit the lower classes out of greed and even boredom. He cites various battles where the nobles applied the rules of sport and etiquette to the death of their own people, such as that of King Henry II, who borrowed money from his opponent in order to continue fighting him. This thinking of war as something to be "indulged" in "seasonally" is presented by Merlyn as morally repugnant. Using his knowledge of the future, he compares war to a Victorian foxhunt — an activity that's fun and exhilarating for the hunters (the nobles) but terrifying and violent for the foxes (the soldiers who actually die in battle). A foxhunt's only purpose is to entertain leisured aristocrats (a fox is not eaten nor killed for any real reason), so warfare's only purpose is to inflate the egos of a masculine and violent band of nobles. He tells Arthur: "You have become the king of a domain in which . . . the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt. Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles . . . ."
As other parts of the novel demonstrate (such as Igrane's sons torturing the donkey and later butchering the unicorn), human beings have a seemingly innate capacity for violence. Merlyn wants Arthur to understand that there is nothing "splendid" in war or those who boast of their prowess in entering it.
Thus, Arthur's triumph in The Queen of Air and Darkness is more mental than military. After seriously considering Merlyn's argument, the King is finally able to think for himself and come to the conclusion that "the last battle we had — in which seven hundred kerns were killed — was not so much fun as I thought it was" and that "battles are not fun when you come to think about them." This epiphany may strike some readers as obvious, but these readers should recall that Arthur is not living in a twentieth-century democracy; he is a product of the feudal system and a world that, in every economic, political, and social way, continually asserts the idea that "Might is Right." Kerns, what the military today might call "common soldiers," are seen by Arthur's contemporaries as expendable; Arthur, of course, thinks differently. His thinking here is a breakthrough, akin to Galileo's idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun — and just as shocking and dangerous to his opponents. Arthur conjectures that people are "half horrible and half nice," but they often let themselves "run wild," in part due to their "Norman idea about the upper classes having a monopoly of power, without reference to justice."
Arthur plans to "harness Might so that it works for Right" — in other words, he will fight the upcoming battle of Bedegraine in order to stop people from thinking of war as he once did. As World War I was called "The War To End All Wars" and viewed, in its time, as an event that would destroy the old world to make way for new progress in humanity, so Arthur plans to win this last battle in order to institute his own idea of order: chivalry, whose oath will be "Might is only to be used for Right." The King has freed himself from the clichéd notions of war held so dear by other nobles, and has formulated a new world order. This conclusion is exactly the one that Merlyn wanted Arthur to draw, for after he hears the King explain it, he begins reciting the Nunc Dimitis: a canticle beginning with the words, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." The wizard is at peace because the King will bring peace to the nation and attempt to right the wrongs mentioned in the epigraph.
White's description of the battle of Bedegraine stresses the ways in which Arthur's new concept of war is put into practice. According to the nobles' custom, a "good war had to be full of 'arms shoulders and heads flying about the field and blows ringing by the water and the wood.' But the arms, shoulders, and heads would be those of villeins, and the blows which rang, without removing many limbs, would be exchanged by the iron nobility." Such is the idea of warfare held by Arthur's opponents, the Eleven Kings. He orders that there will be no ransoms and that his knights will only fight other knights, observing no "ballet-dancer's rules." They are to "press the war home to its real lords — until they themselves" are "ready to refrain from warfare, being confronted with its reality." Arthur is waging war on an idea as much as on another army. White's tone in describing the battle suggests his endorsement of Arthur's thinking. He frequently becomes sarcastic (Arthur begins with an "atrocity" by "not waiting for the fashionable hour") and adopts the point-of-view of Arthur's enemies to display their foolishness in still thinking of war like a foxhunt. When Arthur chases his enemies' nobles without their own footmen, "They were indignantly surprised by what they considered an unchivalrous personal outrage — outrageous to be attacked with positive manslaughter, as if a baron could be killed like a Saxon kern." White even states that Arthur's "second atrocity was that he neglected the kerns themselves," instead "concentrating his indignation upon the leaders who had seduced their addled pates." King Lot realizes too late that he is being faced with "a new kind of warfare" which holds that "the death of gentlemen" is an acceptable part of battle. Because he ignores the traditional ways of thinking about war, Arthur gains an easy victory over the Eleven Kings. To recall the issue raised in the epigraph, the future of warfare (embodied by Arthur) defeats the past (embodied by the Eleven Kings), creating a peaceful present in which nobles who begin wars are taken to task for risking the lives of their own subjects. The foxhunt is over, at least for the moment.
While Arthur's growth in the novel is exemplary, however, he is still not free from other forms of malice. Although he has revolutionized warfare, refuted the accepted wisdom that "Might is Right," and conceived of the Knights of the Round Table, he is still a man and therefore still prey to human weaknesses. As soon as his guard is relaxed and he sits in his Great Hall, contemplating the peace he is sure will come to England, he is seduced by Queen Morgause, the novel's title character. Their unholy union will engender Mordred, who, in turn, will topple Camelot from all its glory and reinstitute the "Might is Right" way of thinking. So as the epigraph concerns the sins of the fathers, White tells the reader (in the novel's last paragraph) that Mordred's birth is what makes the Arthur legend a tragedy of "sin coming home to roost." Although dubbed "The War To End All Wars," World War I was followed by an even more bloody and terrible conflict twenty-one years later; similarly, after creating a "new kind of warfare" to prevent future conflict, Arthur still brings about his own, inevitable destruction. As White concludes, "He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough." The novel is therefore named after Queen Morgause because it is she who, in her own secret way, eventually plants the seeds that will destroy Arthur's reign, just as World War I, in its own way, paved the way for an even more horrifying sequel.