Essay: Arthur's Dystopia


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Dear Reader,
This is my expository essay on utopias and dystopias and how they relate to The Once and Future King by T. H. White. I explain the definitions of both utopia and dystopia and add some facts about the places of these terms in history. I then use Deconstruction to take apart the concept of a utopia, or perfect society. I use textual examples from White’s novel to make my points regarding the utopia of Camelot really being a dystopia under the surface, and how Arthur sees this but fails to prevent the downfall of himself and his society. Though I mention Lancelot, Guenever, and Mordred, I ultimately place the blame upon Arthur for the failings of his society. He creates the Round Table and decides that, instead of knights fighting to take what they want, these knights will only fight for the moral “Right.” I point out the paradox of this situation, as by enforcing morality in the society, the king and his knights are still using Might to make Right. I also discuss Whites influences from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur and World War II, implying a comparison between Arthur and Hitler, though they are viewed differently. This text allows readers to deconstruct the concept of utopia and wonder if one can truly exist. At the same time, readers can debate about the meaning of “Right,” who should fight for it, if anyone, and why. This essay informs all of my other MGP pieces and serves as their basis.
Eric Gal

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Essay: Arthur's Dystopia

  1. 1. Eric Gal ENG 322 Dr. Reynolds April 27, 2010 King Arthur’s Dystopia The concept of a perfect society dates back to Ancient Greece and has influenced many systems of government. This perfect society, or utopia, has been theorized and discussed in many forms of literature. One of these works is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which tells the story of King Arthur’s ascent to the throne, the society of Camelot that he does his best to moralize, the problems that he and his knights faced in enforcing the moral Right, and the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom due to these problems. The problems with Camelot in The Once and Future King represent issues with the concept of utopia that allow readers to deconstruct the idea, often revealing a dystopia under the surface. A utopia means “any visionary system of political or social perfection” ( Dystopia, in contrast, is defined as “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding” ( Ideas about the perfect society are first recorded in Classical Greek works such as Plato’s Republic. The very word “utopia” is taken from the Greek word ou-topos, which means “no place” or “nowhere” (British Library Board). Utopian ideas are also prevalent in the Bible and other religious and prophetic literature, in which they “require a leap of the imagination, neutralizing the normal and familiar” (Apostolo). These ideas developed further in the sixteenth century, when Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, in which he coined the term and described his perfect society as an island set apart from other societies, with its own rules, customs, and rituals. Since then, various works have been produced about a perfect civilization, though often their way of life turns out to be imperfect. In The Once and Future King, Arthur tries to fix the problems in his country by
  2. 2. issuing a new rule: “Might isn’t Right,” which is intended as a response to knights and lords who do what they please because they can, as well as a lack of any justice system to catch and punish them (White 215). Arthur nobly seeks to change this injustice, though he ultimately fails in his upholding of the law by using Might to enforce Right. Quite often in literature, a utopia is deconstructed, or taken apart in order to have its pieces examined, with its result being a dystopia. Many believe that a utopian society is impossible due to human nature and the nature of society. In The Philosophy of the Good, author J. A. Macaluso states that the animalistic trait called “survival instinct” interferes with our ability to trust and therefore to cooperate with each other entirely (Macaluso). A perfect society “must instill trust and cooperation between all members of the state,” which no society has ever completely accomplished (Macaluso). In a blog on, Connor Pope adds that the nature of a utopian society contrasts human and animal nature of “survival of the fittest.” She believes that “without a weeding process… humanity will slowly and surely degenerate,” meaning that allowing the “weak” humans to exist on the same level as the “strong” humans will cripple our species (Pope). Another primary factor against the true existence of a utopia is the fact that everyone is different, and society cannot or has not yet found a method of accepting all kinds of people. Again, the selfish behavior of humans complicates any sacrifices to produce unity. “To build the Utopia that will give all, the equitable society that everyone wants, we will all have to make some commitments, some sacrifices, and even eat some crow” (Macaluso). In contrast, yet to prove the same point, the sacrifice of individuality for the good of the society could reduce humanity to little more than the status of machines working to continue the existence of a larger machine. Do either of these options sound like they result in perfect societies?
  3. 3. In The Once and Future King, Arthur establishes his policy to transcend the darker side of human nature. He creates the Knights of the Round Table, an elite force of chosen knights, to enforce the chivalric laws of the land. By “dig[ging] a channel for Might,” however, Arthur creates a situation in which his knights can kill in the name of justice (White 422). They often make mistakes that result in the deaths of innocents, such as Gawaine’s killing of a maiden. The knights still compete to prove their physical prowess, creating rivalry in a system supposedly designed for cooperation and common goals. Representative of this fact is Sir Lancelot, who beats every knight he fights, and who is named in White’s chapter of him “The Ill-Made Knight” (White 303). Lancelot becomes Arthur’s right hand and commander in chief, yet he has a love affair with Queen Guenever, Arthur’s wife. At the urging of his malicious bastard son, Mordred, Arthur must reluctantly submit to his own laws and charge Lancelot and Guenever with treason. He finds a way to rescue Guenever (through Lancelot), but Lancelot accidentally kills one of Gawaine’s brothers during the rescue. While Arthur and Gawaine battle Lancelot in France, Mordred usurps the throne, and Arthur abandons his campaign and returns to England to confront Mordred. Gawaine dies in the first clash of their armies, and before Arthur rides to fight Mordred again, he knights a page and sends him away to tell Arthur’s story. Readers can assume that Arthur, Mordred, and their armies were all killed, bringing down the society of Camelot. T.H. White drew his influence from Morte D’Arthur, which was written by a knight named Sir Thomas Mallory. White acknowledges this source by naming Sir Thomas as Arthur’s page, who Arthur knights before sending him away from the future battle. Mallory believed that “order falls into chaos,” and in his story, “the fall of the Round Table represents the destruction of the feudal system, with all its attachments to chivalry” (Lombardi). White adds a story about
  4. 4. Arthur’s childhood and magical ascention to the throne called “The Sword and the Stone,” which builds up to Arthur’s idea of Right over Might. White also makes many World War II references, appropriate with the 1939 publishing of The Once and Future King, and particularly refers, through Arthur’s magician/teacher, Merlyn, to “an Austrian” named Hitler who tried to create a perfect society through use of force (White 256). One can blame King Arthur for the downfall of Camelot, saying that he “created this city on dreams and desires but… dreams and desires are not the only ingredients one must have to operate a city” ( Arthur may have had the wisdom to prevent these catastrophes but did nothing to stop Lancelot, Guenever, Gawaine, or Mordred until it was too late. One can also see Arthur, however, as a victim of fate, a naïve boy who was placed on the throne by “accidentally” pulling a sword out of a stone. As king, “Arthur does not always understand the implications of events and is unable to draw his own conclusions without Merlin’s help” (Little). When Merlyn leaves, the situation grows worse. Whatever his circumstances, Arthur still bears the responsibility for the fall of his utopia, which came about through his imperfect rule of using Might in service of Right. Texts like The Once and Future King are used to critique the idea of a utopian society and could be interpreted as warnings or prophetic texts, as they often include mention of God and/or religious symbols and imagery. Many authors see them as “revolutionary texts” that have “moved away from seeing utopia as blueprints” (Apostolo). These texts hold valuable warnings about the dangers of a “perfect” society. King Arthur’s failure to see the complications in his policy ultimately leads to his downfall and the downfall of his society. Students can use this text and others to learn about utopia and dystopia, which allow them to become intelligent, critical thinkers. They can connect these ideas to present day societies, how theory of utopia seems to
  5. 5. contradict the social Darwinism present in many cultures. These observations can lead to questions concerning if a utopian society can ever truly exist.
  6. 6. Works Cited Admin. Essay: King Arthur and Camelot. Online, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. Lombardi, Esther. “Arthurian Romance.” Classic Literature. The New York Times Company, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. Apostolo, S. Utopia and Dystopia in Prophetic Literature: A Summarizing Review., 2009. Web. 25 April 2010. British Library Board. “Utopia.” Learning: Dreamers and Dissenters. The British Library, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. “Dystopia.”, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. “Utopia.”, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. Little, Steve. King Arthur: A Character Analysis. New York City: Pace University, 2009. Web. 25 April 2010. Macaluso, J. A. “The Utopia of the Good.” The Philosophy of the GOOD., 2008. Web. 25 April 2010. Pope, Connor. The Problems with a Utopian Society. What are your thoughts?, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010. White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958.