This question was posed on Writerface.com and I thought I’d share my words on the subject.
Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.
— G.K. Chesterton
In The Once and Future King, Arthur learns of the bestiality of men by studying with Merlin. We are wicked, cruel creatures, akin to ants and not geese, whose joy is derived from battle and dominance. What is more astonishing to Arthur is that those who want to fight are not the ones who get hurt. The knights in their fine armour and atop their mighty warsteeds rarely receive more than a bruising and are ransomed back to their family. Meanwhile, the peasants and militias are rounded up to fill out the army, to create a jolly good show, and are slaughtered en masse.
This all seemed horribly unfair to Arthur, as I’m sure it does to you, and so Arthur devised a cunningly romantic plan. First, he decided that the key to stopping the senseless violence inherent in the feudal system that surrounded and embodied his kingdom was to give some sense to those aggressive emotions. To that end, King Arthur formed the Knights of the Round Table. The august individuals who sat at this table represented the most honourable and chivalrous of knights, not because they were truly all that honourable or chivalrous, but because Arthur essentially tricked them into channeling their might into right.
The job of the knights was to patrol the kingdom and discern where might was being used to bully and harm innocent people. In this manner, the knights could go about bashing heads, but would be constrained to bashing the heads of people who deserved it. Unfortunately, this plan was not suitably romantic enough, and the knights found themselves bored as peace began to take hold in the kingdom. Before long, they were returning to fighting one another.
So Arthur dreamed up another plan and set his knights to the quest for the Holy Grail. By command of God, they were to traverse the land, fighting all manner of monsters and demons to discover the grail from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. This should have been perfect, because of course the grail didn’t really exist, or at least it did not in England.
You see, T.H. White was working with an older definition of romance, one steeped in the genre of romance literature and one which I find infinitely more appealing than “enjoying someone’s company” or, “respect, time, and space.” In romance literature, the focus is on the unattainable. Romance is about a quest, and its goal is one that cannot be fully realized.
There is something beautiful and poetic about this to me. Love cannot be grasped, only given. We cannot truly love until we have been truly loved. And above all, the quest never ends. The heights of love are uncharted and always over the horizon, always beyond the compass point, and so we venture on to see what we can see.
Moreover, romance and love inspires us to be greater than we might otherwise be, to become better men and women for the attainment of a higher goal, whether that is the love of an individual or becoming worthy of finding the grail.
Unfortunately, we are often too shortsighted to recognize the need for it. Love is not, when it comes right down to it, horribly complex, and so it took a simple man like Arthur to say, “No, this should be no more!” Arthur observed that there must be a better way, and set forth his knights upon that path.
Maturity leads us to the path, romance spurs us upon the quest, and love is the ultimate reward that is always just out of reach. It is a heart bursting with yearning, a gift that never exhales or ends, and a promise eternal.