Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lessons from The Once and Future King

"You are a strange man," she [Guenever] said, "Arthur dear.  You fight all the time, and conquer countries and win battles, and then you say that fighting is a bad thing."

"So it is a bad thing.  It is the worst thing in the world..."

King Arthur--innocent, kind, and tutored from childhood by the wise Merlin--has the best of motivations.  He observes the wickedness and corruption of his kingdom, most notably powerful knights using others for their personal benefit.  He concludes that might does not make right: power is not license for doing whatever one desires.  

What is he, as king, to do to banish this might?  The answer is Arthur's vision of the Round Table: a community of noble, chivalrous knights who use their power to dispel and conquer the vice of corrupt knights.

Herein lies the problem, however: is it permissible to use might to vanquish might?  Can wickedness be purged using wicked means?  Can an evil purposely be used in hopes of achieving a greater good?  

Arthur's vision of a just kingdom remains the same as the novel progresses, but the means to bring about that realization develop.  After Arthur's knights of the Round Table subdue the troublesome knights by force, the former--accustomed to fighting and with no more opponents--begin to quarrel and turn on each other.

The King put his head in his hands and looked miserably at the table between his elbows.  He was a kind, conscientious, peace-living fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius.  Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong.  To stop this sort of thing, they had invented the idea of the Table--a vague idea like democracy, or sportsmanship, or morals--and now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood. 

Arthur proposes that the solution is to elevate the aims of the Round Table from material to spiritual ones.  

...we have used up the worldly objects for our Might--so there is nothing left but the spiritual ones...If I can't keep my fighters from wickedness by matching them against the world--because they have used up the world--then I must match them against the spirit...the ideal of my Round Table was a temporal ideal.  If we are to save it, it must be made into a spiritual one.  I forgot about God...why can't we pull our Table together by turning its energies to the spirit?

The Round Table has a vision of the Holy Grail

However, the majority of Arthur's knights are not up to the task of finding the Holy Grail.  Only the few who begin the quest by going to Confession and having a purity of heart realize success.  Almost all return back to the King, bereft of the Grail and still ridden with the same vices.

Arthur's final attempt to build a just kingdom is the introduction of laws.  

At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws.  He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state. 

Yet, his own laws become chains around his will and heart.  Arthur's steadfast commitment to justice places him in the unfortunate position of condemning his wife to death and waging war against his best friend.  

The problem lies in the fact that Arthur's wife, Queen Guenever, has been engaged for many years in an adulterous affair with his best friend and greatest knight, Sir Lancelot.  Arthur, thinking the best of them and not wishing to bring about their downfall, chooses to (literally) turn a blind eye to the obvious romance.  

This action--or lack thereof--allows the situation to climax to the point where it is Arthur's illegitimate, vengeful son who proves Lancelot and Guenever guilty.  Arthur finds himself trapped.  He cannot disobey his own law that condemns an adulterous spouse.  He must condemn Guenever to death and wage war against Lancelot.

The laws Arthur enacted to build a kingdom of peace and justice are the laws that sunder his rule and destroy his key relationships.

"When you are a king you can't go executing people as the fancy takes you.  A king is the head of his people, and he must stand as an example to them, and do as they wish...If I don't stand for law, I won't have law among my people.  And naturally I want my people to have the new law, because then they are more prosperous, and I am more prosperous in consequence...You see, Lance, I have to be absolutely just...The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice.  Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends." 

Ironically, by being willing to execute his wife, Arthur must battle against Lancelot, who saves Guenever at the last moment.  It is exactly Arthur's justice that brings warfare and destruction.

Where did Arthur, noble and earnestly seeking to do good, go wrong?  Was Arthur truly just in sentencing his wife to the death penalty and engaging his kingdom in war against his best friend, a war that brought about far more deaths?

To stand firm by a law, one must be truly certain it is just.  Was Arthur's law just?  Did it take into account original sin?  No matter how firm the laws, no matter how lofty the mission, sin will seep in and tamper with the best of motives.

Did Arthur's law take into account mercy?  God, who is all-just, is also all-merciful.  Lancelot and Guenever were wrong, but was capital punishment the only possible reaction to their sin?

I suppose this is why Arthur's story is a tragedy.  It is difficult to have such a well-intentioned, thoroughly good protagonist meet such a sad end.  

In some ways, it was his own doing.  Arthur chose to ignore the blatant wrongdoing of Lancelot and Guenever.  Sin does not disappear, but ferments and spreads like a nasty infection.  That adultery was a poison in his life and kingdom, which Arthur permitted to continue.  By allowing that evil to go on unopposed, Arthur unintentionally allowed it to destroy all of them, as well as his kingdom.

As Arthur watches his knights prepare to execute his sentence against Guenever, vehemently hoping Lancelot will oppose his own law and save her, Arthur wrestles internally: what is right?  What is wrong? 

Maybe Arthur answered his own question, in a scene much earlier when another knight recounts how his virtuous brother heroically resisted sin.  

"I suppose the moral is," said Arthur, "that you must not commit mortal sin, even if twelve lives depend on it."

Murdering other knights, waging war (that may not have been a just war), sentencing people to the death penalty: this is all the substance of mortal sin.

Civil law should be based on divine law.  Perhaps Arthur could not be absolutely just without also falling into sin.  Perfect justice belongs only to God; for human beings, it is imperfect justice...and for that, mercy is needed.

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