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Summary and Notes
The King is in his tent at Salisbury, exhausted and prone on his bed. The author lists all of the factors working against Arthur to emphasize the mood of prevailing evil and despair: all of the Good, the Right, for which Arthur worked has been destroyed, and as an old man he has only evil to contend with.
Arthur wonders whether he had been wrong in asking men to work for good, but he decides that his first premise - that men are basically decent - is irrefutable. The King looks back over his life (the reader can understand here that he is near death), and his achievements with the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and the invention of Justice, and is bewildered by his inability to surmount evil.
He wonders finally whether man is naturally evil, or, even worse, whether man was neither good nor bad, but simply reflexive, like an ant. If that is the case, then war is necessary to ensure survival of the fittest - a Malthusian proposition.
His thought processes are circular: he wonders then: why do men fight? He wonders whether it is evil leaders who lead antlike populations to war or whether the population chooses leaders to fulfill their wicked impulses.
Furthermore, he ponders the presence of the past in this particular feud: would this war have happened without the anger because of the Orkney vengeance?
And then there is the problem of possession: do men fight because of the have and have-nots?
For any student writing a paper on theme, this chapter, in conjunction with chapters 2 through 4 of Book Two are invaluable. White is trying to explain the nature and prevalence of war, and while he has no answer, his ideas are fascinating considering their historical context. The bewilderment of pacifist Europeans during the 30’s as they watched the rise of the Third Reich must have been heartbreaking, and White - not knowing how World War II will turn out, of course - is attempting to relay this mood to the modern reader.
He cannot definitively say why we continue to fight, and why peace seems to be a failing proposition, but the struggle for peace, and the despair that accompanies its failure is relevant, constant, and worthy. Arthur is the personification of the struggle, once and for all time: the once and future king.
Arthur summons a page, and a small boy enters to take a note to the bishop. Arthur suddenly calls the boy back, and asks him his name - he is Tom of Warwick. Arthur interrogates him further, and Tom of Warwick expresses his desire to kill and fight nobly in this battle.
Arthur asks the boy to sit down, and Arthur tells him about the Knights of the Round Table and about Right as Might. He explains that despite it was a noble cause, it was defeated, and everyone was killed except for a page named Tom of Warwick who went forward to the people of England and told them about Camelot, about the King’s noble intentions, and the possibility of good in the world.
The old king makes Tom promise not to fight, and to promise to spread the word about the Round Table. After Tom promises, Arthur knights him (“Sir Thomas of Warwick”), and Tom leaves.
Tom’s significance as a character, despite his brief appearance, is huge. His function as a missionary and disciple of Arthur - the King even calls him the “light” of the world - in telling the tale is imperative for the success of the Arthurian legend. In this way, then, Tom is a stand-in for the author himself: he tells the story of King Arthur to the world. Of course, the Christian parallel continues as well: the boy will spread the Word of Arthur even as it seems that evil is persevering. The light, the good, will triumph.
After Tom leaves, Arthur sits at his desk, exhausted. He weeps, and then remembers Merlyn. The novel comes full circle as Arthur’s mind revisits the wizard’s lessons and sees his life flashing before his eyes. He thinks about the joy and beauty of the geese community, and of its representative, Lok-Lyok, as is inspired anew by the possibility of truth and goodness. The reader has a brief look into the future, and finds out that Lancelot becomes and monk and Guenever a nun after Arthur’s death. Meanwhile, in the tent, the King feels a great wave of energy and vitality pass over him, and, the reader assumes, draws his final breath.