The importance of symbolism in literature should not be underemphasized because it links the concrete everyday experiences of our lives with more significant interpretations the author applies to those experiences. “Symbols are a major element in how literature works.”(Oldham) Symbolism is used by T. H. White throughout The Once and Future King, and each of the symbols used enhances and adds depth to the story. The Questing Beast is more than a monster; it represents meaningless quests.(Ogden-Korus) The sword is more than a weapon; it is a symbol for all that is honorable and courageous in Arthurian legend.(Lozon) The Round Table is not merely a piece of furniture that King Arthur chose to place in his castle; it is a symbol representing the ideals of knighthood and Arthur’s leadership style.(Lupack) The Holy Grail is not only a pursued treasure; it represents a promise of a new beginning.(Howard) Symbolism in The Once and Future King is important because of the enhanced depth and meaning it gives to the story as can be seen in the Questing Beast, the sword, the Round Table, and the Holy Grail.
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Symbolism is often difficult to interpret in literature because symbols can have complex meanings which go beyond their literal or a single meaning. In truth, the most expressive symbols in literature do represent a range of meanings. This often confuses and frustrates readers and results in them failing to appreciate the full meaning and depth of a literary work.(Ricouer) For example, a flag can be much more than a symbol representing a particular country. For many people, a flag can symbolize abstract ideas about the ideals of what that country represents to them.(Ohio University) When the complex meanings of the symbols in The Once and Future King are discovered, a new level of understanding is gained by the reader. It becomes apparent that not only is the story about the Arthurian legend, it is about the spirit and ideals that are represented by that legend.
The Questing Beast is an iconic symbol of Arthurian legend.(Batt) As implied by its name, its function is to be the object of quests. This beast, with a monstrous barking noise coming from its stomach, is often described as having a leopard’s body, a serpent’s head, a lion’s hindquarters, and a deer’s feet. In The Once and Future King, T. H. White uses this misunderstood creature to explain Pellinore’s quest for the beast and to symbolize that there is really no good reason for Pellinore to spend a large part of his life in this quest. Pellinore holds no real personal anger against the beast, and pursues him only because everyone in his family has always done so. Pellinore’s long search symbolizes all the pointless knightly pursuits encouraged by chivalry ungrounded in the belief ‘might makes right.’ The unlikely body parts which form this beast symbolize the chaos of those pursuits.(Ogden-Korus) When the reader understands the symbolism in the Questing Beast, a new meaning and depth is given to the story. The life depicted by the knights and, in turn, many quests sought by people are often fruitless endeavors with no real purpose.
While the symbolism in the Questing Beast represents fruitlessness, the symbolism in the sword is much different. The mystical sword of King Arthur is a weapon of great physical and magical powers, and is one of the most famous items associated with Arthurian legend. It, however, is more than a weapon. In the sword is symbolized everything that is noble and valiant in the world. It is a symbol of strength, pride, power, and the authority one man can command to bring an entire nation under his rule.(Lozon) Such swords are made so that only a few or one specific person can use them effectively because they are a symbol of divine kingship. In T. H. White’s The once and Future King, the words engraved on the sword are “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.”(p. 197) Arthur’s ability to pull the sword from the stone proves his worthiness as a leader and his acceptance of all the responsibility that such leadership entails.(Lai) The sword is really a test used to distinguish outer physical strength from an inner morality, and only the worthy posses that quality.(Lai) Understanding the symbolism of the sword in The Once and Future King gives depth to what are the true qualities of power and leadership in the world and the responsibilities that accompany that leadership.
Comparatively, the true qualities of power and leadership are further symbolized in The Once and Future King by the Round Table. In the story, the table is not merely the physical object around which Arthur and his knights sit, it is the physical representation of the equality among them. Its round shape symbolizes fairness and justice for all. When seated around the table, no one could claim more importance than another. (Lupack) The great sense of equality depicted by the Round Table can be found in Robert Wace’s poem, “Le Roman de Brut.”
Arthur fashioned the Round Table
Of which many tales are told
There sit his knights,
Each one equal to the next:
They sit equally at the Table
And are equally served.
None of them can boast
That he sits ahead of the next.
None has a favored position,
And none is excluded.(9751-60)
An understanding of the sense of equality symbolized by the Round Table enables the reader to realize the importance in the shape of the table.
Further symbolized in the shape of the table is the entire order of knighthood and the code of chivalry to which the knights committed themselves in their lives and in the pursuits they followed. This code of fairness was expressed by many characteristics including courtesy, honor, and loyalty.(Lupack) Each of these characteristics stress the importance of leading a moral and righteous life. Through an understanding of the symbolism in the Round Table, the reader gains a deeper appreciation for the importance of ‘right makes right’ and the necessity of equality in life and its quests.
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Regardless of one’s quests in life, the aim of each is to obtain a treasure. In The Once and Future King, an important treasure sought is the Holy Grail. Reading the story without understanding the symbolic meaning of the Holy Grail leads one to believe that it is simply a cup. Understanding the symbolism, however, leads to a much deeper appreciation of the significance of this treasure: its promise for a new beginning in life. The hardships involved in obtaining that promise are reflected in the degree of difficulty it takes to achieve it. Most people would prefer to cling to the familiar, no matter how unsatisfying it may be, rather than face the new. The desire and the ability to strive for change distinguishes the hero from the rest of humanity. (Howard) Looking at the symbolic meaning of the Holy Grail gives the reader a better understanding of all that can be achieved through the quests in one’s life.
In conclusion, although it is often difficult to interpret symbolism in literature, it is important to do so in The Once and Future King because of the enhanced depth and meaning the reader can gain from the story. From the Questing Beast, the reader learns that might does not necessarily make right. The qualities of honorable and valiant leaders can be discovered in the sword. The Round Table supports the ideal that right does means right. Finally, the symbolism in the Holy Grail uncovers a new meaning to the quests that one attempts in life. Indeed, symbolism in literature should not be seen as frustrating. Instead, it should be viewed as exciting because it opens doors to additional reading, rereading, and discussion. This, in turn, gives a further insight and meaning to literature. Symbolism, through the many layers of meaning it conveys, gives literature its deep and lasting qualities.
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