The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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T. H. White | Biography



Terence Hanbury White was born in Bombay, India, on May 29, 1906. India was under British rule at that time. His father, Garrick Hanbury White, was a district superintendent of police and an alcoholic prone to violent outbursts. White's mother alternated between being possessive of her son and emotionally distant. White's parents often argued and eventually separated. As a result, at age 11 White ended up in England under the care of his maternal grandparents.

Schooling and Early Career

Starting in 1920 White attended Cheltenham College, where he was placed in a division that prepared young men for the army. In this setting he often encountered cruelty and violence. White graduated from Cheltenham in 1924 and then entered Queen's College, Cambridge, as a student of English literature. Soon thereafter he met L.J. Potts, a teacher and writer who mentored White and became a lifelong friend. Influenced by Potts, White began to study Arthurian legends, especially Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

In 1927 White was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease he thought was terminal. Feeling sympathy for the young student, several of his professors gathered a collection of money, which enabled White to spend several months recuperating in Italy. During his sojourn there, White wrote the poetry collection Loved Helen and Other Poems (1929). Eventually White realized he wasn't going to die from tuberculosis in the near future and returned to Cambridge, graduating with honors. White then taught at several schools and eventually attained the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School. During his summer vacations he wrote novels, including the detective yarn Darkness and Pemberley (1932) and the humorous works They Winter Abroad (1933) and First Lesson (1932). With the success of his 1936 autobiography, England Have My Bones, White was able to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to writing.

The King Arthur Novels

Financially strapped in the late 1930s, White lived in a small gamekeeper's cottage and re-immersed himself in Le Morte d'Arthur, realizing it had all the ingredients for a realistic tragedy. In 1938 he published a book about the childhood of King Arthur called The Sword in the Stone. The work viewed the story from a modern perspective, giving the characters believable motivations. The novel became an immediate success and was honored as a Book of the Month Club selection. As World War II (1939–45) began in Europe, White retired to Ireland to continue writing his saga about King Arthur. In 1939 he published The Witch in the Wood (renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness)—a story about Arthur's early years as king. In 1940 he published The Ill-Made Knight—a tale about the relationship between Arthur, his wife (Queen Guenever), and the knight Sir Lancelot.

By 1941 he had finished writing his last two volumes about King Arthur, The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn. White wanted to combine all five volumes into one large novel about King Arthur, but his publisher felt the addition of the last two volumes made the saga into a type of war epic; the first three novels would also need extensive revision to fit with the last two. White disagreed, and a long argument between writer and publisher commenced. As a result White's five-volume saga about King Arthur was shelved and The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn remained unpublished.

The Once and Future King

White eventually gave up the struggle to have all five King Arthur volumes published together. He agreed to publish The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind as an epic novel titled The Once and Future King (1958). The Book of Merlyn would remain unpublished until 1977. The Once and Future King received rave initial reviews, and White soon sold the rights for a Broadway musical version. Camelot, a musical starring English actors Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, premiered in 1960 and ran for three years. White attended the premiere and thoroughly enjoyed the production based on his text. In 1963 Disney productions released an animated version of The Sword in the Stone.

The Once and Future King encompasses many of White's personal experiences, interests, and beliefs. For example, during the 1930s he developed a keen interest in falconry—a sport he pursued along with other forms of hunting and fishing—and he included many scenes depicting falconry in The Once and Future King. His childhood with his parents is also reflected in the novel; the character Agravaine is an alcoholic who has violent outbursts much like White's father, and the witch Queen Morgause has a very inconsistent relationship with her four sons, at times doting on them and at other times ignoring them, just like White's mother did. White's experiences with violence in his family and at school led him to adopt an antiwar stance as an adult. White wrote his friend L.J. Potts, "I have ... discovered ... the ... theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war." Influenced by Le Morte d'Arthur, he developed the antiwar theme in The Once and Future King.

In the decades since the release of The Once and Future King, criticism of it has generally been favorable. Andrew Liptak of Kirkus calls the novel "an important legacy of fiction, transforming myth into modern, relatable storytelling." Time critic Lev Grossman characterizes the novel as "a sprawling masterpiece of glowing historical prose and psychological power." American author Jane Smiley, writing in The Guardian, refers to the work as "intense and rich" and says it is "full of insights, scenes, and flourishes that are really quite astonishing."

Later Life and Career

White's abusive upbringing haunted him throughout his life. He had difficulty forming close relationships and tended to live as a recluse, spending long periods alone in the country, where he hunted, fished, and wrote. He published two books about 18th-century England, The Age of Scandal (1950) and The Scandalmonger (1952), as well as a study of falconry, The Goshawk (1951). In 1963 he went on a long lecture tour to the United States, returning to Europe via ship. At Piraeus, Greece, crew members found White dead in his cabin on January 17, 1964, apparently of heart disease. He was buried in Athens. The continuing popularity and critical appreciation of The Once and Future King remain White's chief legacy.

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