The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Context


King Arthur in History

Historians are not certain whether King Arthur ever existed. Many scholars claim this legendary figure is based on a leader named Arthur who lived in the British Isles during the early 500s. In his ninth-century Historia Brittonum, Welsh monk Nennius mentions 12 battles fought by Arthur against Germanic invaders, or Saxons. During the last battle, Arthur achieved a significant victory.

During this period, Anglos and Saxons from modern-day Denmark and northern Germany were constantly raiding Britain, and by 449 the Anglo-Saxons had begun to establish settlements in the area. The natives of Britain, called Celts, traced their ancestors in the region back thousands of years. In The Once and Future King, White often refers to the Celts as the Gaels or the Old Ones. The Celts had been conquered by the Romans during the first century, and when the Anglo-Saxons invaded, the Celts asked the Romans to protect them. Roman rule in Britain had weakened by this time, however, and they could offer no help. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons conquered much of Britain, pushing the Celts to western and northern areas, including Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, and Scotland.

The historic Arthur was a Celt fighting against the Saxons. In The Once and Future King, Arthur is part Celtic and part Norman. However, Arthur often fights against the Celts to establish control over Britain. White based this change on legends about King Arthur, especially Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. White also made many other significant changes from history to narrative. For example, he moved the time period from the Early Middle Ages (500s) to the High Middle Ages (1200s) at the start of the novel. By this time the Normans (who came from northern France and were also of Germanic descent), under the leadership of William the Conqueror (reigned 1066–87), had subdued the Anglo-Saxons. In The Once and Future King, White mentions that the Celts viewed the Normans and Anglo-Saxons as a common enemy because they both were of German stock.

In White's novel, Arthur (Wart) is born around the year 1200. However, by the end of the novel, Arthur's son Mordred and his soldiers use cannons. Artillery was not used as a weapon in Europe until 1450, so the time span of the novel is about 250 years. Arthur, though, is not past his 60s by the end of the novel, which means White condensed the time span of the novel to fit Arthur's life. In doing this White presents Arthur as a mythic king who guided Britain as it established a parliament and the rule of Common Law. White credits Arthur with the accomplishments of several real British monarchs such as Henry II and Edward I. The establishment of a legal system helped unify England into a political unit called a nation-state. Nation-states gave rise to a feeling of nationalism, which Mordred exploits for his own ends at the end of The Once and Future King. In the character of Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon (1066–1216), White likewise incorporates the personalities of several early Norman rulers, from William the Conqueror to King John, who died in 1216.

King Arthur in Legend

Legends about a British leader named Arthur started to become popular in Wales before 1100. Around 1136 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a fictionalized history of Britain called Historia regum Britanniae, which became one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages. This history culminates with the military victories of King Arthur over Roman forces. Geoffrey depicts Arthur as a world conqueror in the vein of the Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Historia regum Britanniae also includes a wizard named Merlin, who makes predictions about Britain's political future. In the late 1100s the French poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote five verse romances based on Celtic legends about King Arthur, introducing the love affair between Lancelot and Guenever and the quest for the Holy Grail (a legendary cup purported to have held Christ's blood when he was crucified). In the early 1200s a group of French Arthurian prose romances, called the Vulgate cycle, also circulated. Scholars believe these works—which delved into Arthur's birth and childhood and introduced the motif of Arthur drawing a sword out of a stone—were written by Cistercian monks.

By the 1400s there was renewed interest in Arthurian legends. Around 1470 Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur, which he based on the French romances of Chrétien. Malory made some significant changes, however, stressing the brotherhood of the knights and the conflicts of loyalty among Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur. Le Morte d'Arthur is the first account of the Arthurian legend written in English prose and is the main source used by T.H. White for The Once and Future King. White directly refers to this work several times in the novel. Malory's work is a sprawling epic that goes into extensive detail about Arthur's childhood, Arthur's marriage to Guenever, the various quests of the Knights of the Round Table, and the eventual collapse of the Round Table. In The Once and Future King, White emphasizes certain aspects of the tale while ignoring or skimming over others. For example in Le Morte d'Arthur, Malory relates several stories about Sir Tristam, but White just gives a summary of this character's tale, delving more deeply into the motivations and psychology of the characters he did choose to feature in his work.

Arthurian legends received less attention during the 1600s and 1700s, but garnered renewed interest during the Victorian era (1837–1901). Most notably, English poet Alfred Tennyson wrote a series of 12 poems titled Idylls of the King (1859), based on the legend of King Arthur. White's The Once and Future King is one of the chief 20th-century works to deal with the Arthurian legend; others include American authors—John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights and Marian Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.

The Once and Future King within the Fantasy Genre

The fantasy genre can be broadly defined as any story that deals with the impossible (as opposed to science fiction, which deals with events that are unlikely but might be scientifically possible one day). Fantasy, therefore, includes works ranging from English writer J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy to Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez's magical realist One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In her Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), scholar Farah Mendlesohn divides fantasy into four categories: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusion, and the limited.

  • A portal-quest is a story that involves a person entering a fantasy world.
  • In immersive fantasy the characters and all the action take place in a fantasy world.
  • Intrusion fantasy deals with fantastic events that break out in the normal world of the story (which might or might not be the real world).
  • Limited fantasy involves magical events that might or might not be happening in the real world.
The Once and Future King belongs to immersive fantasy. All of the characters live in a fantasy world with many similarities to actual historical events in British history. White used anachronism, a unique type of immersive fantasy, in creating his epic. An anachronism is someone or something that does not belong in a certain time period. For example, if Abraham Lincoln suddenly appeared in a story taking place in ancient Rome, Lincoln would be anachronistic. In The Once and Future King White intentionally introduces anachronisms through the character of Merlyn and through references made by the narrator. Merlyn's cottage has a case containing weapons that did not exist in the Middle Ages. The narrator often makes modern comparisons, such as comparing medieval tournaments to cricket, which also did not exist in the Middle Ages. The language spoken by White's characters in the novel is modern-day English (including slang terms and nicknames), not the English that would have been spoken in the 13th century. Through these stylistic techniques, White creates a fantasy story with a strong connection to the real world. He did not want to create escapist fantasy but rather fantasy that speaks directly to the problems of the modern world. The Once and Future King is immersive fantasy with a strong link to reality.
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