Molding the Future of a King: A Rationale for Using T.H. White’s Classic Novel in the High School Classroom
In one of the prep schools where I taught in the southern U.S., we were asked every year to identify students whom we believed possessed “leadership qualities.” Such qualities were never specified, but I had the general impression that these promising young people were to be culled from the ranks of the over-achievers, those at the top of the academic heap, the team captains, or those gregarious souls who could hold their peers rapt with natural charm. The quiet, bookish sorts who never volunteered for anything became invisible when I scanned my classroom for the potential leaders of the school.
Of course, as with so many other aspects of modern education, this method of identification was not merely wrong—it directly contradicted all that history has had to show us regarding true leaders. I could make a fairly long list of great men and women whose early lives were unremarkable; it would include Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, if I were to pose a question to anyone who works with young people – “What happens when you tell a child that he or she is inherently privileged and will someday lead his peers?”—the answer would invariably come back: “You’ll end up with a spoiled brat.” On the grandest scale, these brats would grow up to be tyrants, and all failed civilizations and systems of rule have been sunk by them.
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is an adaptation of Arthurian legend, but it is also one of the best treatises I know of on what really makes a leader. The boy who is destined to become the king, whose birthright is given not only by his Anglo-Norman father and his Gaelic mother but by God as well, is not aware until the very end of Book One that he is the rightful heir to the throne, and he is every bit as surprised as his foster-brother Kay, who is anticipating his own knighthood. Up until this moment, however, the Wart, as he has been scornfully nicknamed, has been an unwitting trainee, exposed to personal dangers and terrifying systems of government through a series of transmogrifications in keeping with Merlyn’s assertion that experience is the only real education. Any instruction the boy does receive is rendered by those who are themselves immersed in their various arts and who speak in the rich languages of tilting, falconry, practical mathematics, and so on; there is no such thing as an Education Major. The Wart is so caught up in the intensity and excitement of his journey that he has little time to ponder his own future, and in any case, he believes he will be a servant and squire to Kay:
“‘Well, I am a Cinderella now,’ he said to himself. ‘Even if I have had the best of it for some mysterious reason, up to the present time – in our education – now I must pay for my past pleasures and for seeing all those delightful dragons, witches, fishes, cameleopards, pismires, wild geese and such like, by being a second-rate squire and holding Kay’s extra spears for him…’ ”
Of course, he has forgotten how things turn out for Cinderella, but it is this innate humility and the absence of preconceptions that will shape the man who can ultimately make the right decisions both in the heat of battle and at the table of diplomacy.
In great part, the book is about this sort of looking backward in order to discern cause and effect, action and consequence. Even such seemingly arbitrary events as the escape of a hunting hawk in the forest or a punch to the nose in a moment of confrontation are later perceived as critical episodes in the shaping of a king whose own destiny is integral to that of a nation. Re-reading and teaching this book always put me in mind of Churchill’s remark in The Gathering Storm regarding the day he truly understood the eminence of his own role in the early days of World War II: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” From a boy whose father had sent him to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst only because he believed him unfit for Oxford, this tells us much about his belief in the meaning of his own failures as well as his successes. Similarly, in The Once and Future King, the young Arthur often cannot see the real value in his lessons until the appropriate time arrives.
Another intriguing aspect of White’s telling of the old tale is the manner in which he endows his character with a natural inclination to self-sacrifice. In this sense, he is rather un-kingly:
“ ‘If I were to be made a knight,’ said the Wart, staring dreamily into the fire, ‘I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, as Hob does with his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.’ ”
It’s an extraordinary remark for a child to make, and Merlyn immediately warns him not to be presumptuous. The uncomfortable irony about any king, president, or premiere who would unhesitatingly pay the ultimate price for his cause is that, in such an event, we will have lost our leader. In older times, the death of a commander on the battlefield meant the demise of his army, and so it is that in any proper telling of the Arthurian myth, we must never have the death of the hero. He does, indeed, go out on the appointed day to meet his destiny, but the circumstances of his end—and more significantly, of his return—remain mysterious. Just as the boy Arthur who turned the big roasting spits in the kitchen and who innocently vowed to be the best squire who ever lived could not have benefited from knowing his own future, the seasoned warrior-king goes out to meet his last great enemy with a single-minded sense of purpose.
Therein, I believe, lies the best reason for having this book in a high-school curriculum: for once a young person realizes that he or she, too, has a purpose, once he or she begins to emerge from the mists of childhood and to see the path clearly, once the look in the eyes which wonders “Why am I here?” is replaced by the one which says, “There it is! That is what I’ve been missing”… why, then the real excitement starts for both student and teacher, because the best teacher is also a student, and the best leader is also a follower, and the best king is also a servant. Granted, there is only one who can remove the sword, but what fun to stand up at last and see that everything you’ve done, every little thing, and even the things you forgot to do or deliberately avoided doing, have all played a part in bringing you to the realization of your own role in the unfolding myth.