The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 1

Part 1 of The Once and Future King begins with an epigraph taken from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called "Puck's Song."

In medieval England two boys, named Kay and Wart, are taught by an eccentric governess. When Kay grows up, he will become the lord of an estate. The other boy has been given the nickname Wart because it sounds something like Art, which is short for Arthur. Wart is a pet name given by Kay, who is older and in better standing because he is not an orphan. Kay has a certain standing and future, while Arthur does not. The nickname Wart might reflect this divide, yet it is still used affectionately. Sir Ector, Kay's father, and his friend Sir Grummore Grummursum decide to hire a tutor to continue the education of the boys. Sir Ector is the lord of a large estate that includes a castle surrounded by a moat. Intent on practicing some falconry, Kay and Wart go the Mews and take a goshawk named Cully. Wart admires Kay, who is a few years older than him. Wart feels unhappy because he doesn't know the identity of his parents. As a result Kay views Wart as his inferior. Carrying Cully, Kay heads into the forest accompanied by Wart. Kay orders Cully to hunt down a rabbit, but the bird goes into a tree and looks down at the two boys.

Part 1, Chapter 2

The goshawk Cully moves from tree to tree, showing no desire to fly down to Kay and Wart. Kay gets angry and wants to leave the bird, but Wart feels doing so would be irresponsible because a servant named Hob worked hard to train Cully. Kay storms off, but Wart follows the bird as it moves deeper into the forest. As night falls Wart continues to track the bird even though he is scared. He sits by the tree where the bird is perched and hears an arrow lodge itself in the bark. Wart hides in the brush and hears the would-be assassin walk away. Now lost in the forest, Wart comes upon a mounted knight wearing shining armor. Wart asks for directions to Sir Ector's castle. Startled, the knight falls off his horse. Wart helps him back on the steed, and the knight introduces himself as King Pellinore. He is searching for a creature called the Questing Beast, which can be found only by one of the Pellinores. Pellinore has a white dog to help him in his quest, but the animal doesn't seem interested in pursuing the beast. He explains the hardships involved in tracking the Questing Beast, and Wart offers him a bed at Sir Ector's castle if they can find their way back to it. Pellinore seems interested, but when he hears the Beast, he chases after it with his dog.

Part 1, Chapter 3

Wart goes to sleep in the forest and, in the morning, wakes up hungry. He comes upon a stone cottage and sees a man drawing water from a well. The man wears a flowing gown and sports a pointy hat and a long, white beard and mustache. Wart asks for directions to Sir Ector's castle. The man somehow knows Wart's name and introduces himself as Merlyn. Merlyn invites Wart into the cottage for breakfast. They go to an upstairs room filled with books, stuffed animals, weapons that would not be invented for years to come, and other paraphernalia. Wart also meets a talking owl named Archimedes. The owl perches shyly on Wart's shoulder. When Merlyn and Wart sit down to a delicious breakfast, Wart notices a walking, serving mustard pot. Wart asks Merlyn how he knew to set breakfast for two. Merlyn makes a mirror appear and asks Wart to draw a W from five dots on paper by just looking in the mirror. Wart attempts to do this. Merlyn explains most people move forward into the future, which is like looking at the paper while drawing a W. Merlyn, however, is moving back in time, which is like drawing the W while looking in a mirror inside out. As a result, he knows "what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them." As Merlyn, Wart, and Archimedes head toward Sir Ector's castle, Merlyn says he's going to be Wart's tutor. The boy is ecstatic.


The epigraph comes from Kipling's poem "Puck's Song," which contrasts current, rural English scenes with historic events that took place at these locations. By doing this, Kipling conveys how England's history has informed its countryside. In The Once and Future King, T.H. White will be relating a part of England's legendary history—namely stories about King Arthur—and showing how these legends connect to England and the world today. The epigraph also refers to "Merlyn's Isle of Gramarye, /where you and I will fare." It can, therefore, can be viewed as an invitation to readers to imaginatively dwell in Gramarye as they read this story.

White relates the story of King Arthur by using a style of writing in which the author often refers to aspects of the modern world and compares them to the medieval world of Arthur. The narrator's voice is that of a modern storyteller conveying a legend or fairy tale to an audience and making references to the world in which the storyteller and audience live. For example in Part 1, Chapter 1, the narrator mentions that Wart would not be "frightened of an English forest nowadays," whereas, back in Arthur's time, forests were much thicker and more intimidating. By using this technique, White makes the behavior of the characters easier to understand.

In addition White's emphasis on the characters' fallibility and foibles makes them easier for readers to relate to. The author shows these characters are not stiff, two-dimensional legends but rather real people complete with concerns and weaknesses. For example Merlyn is a legendary wizard known throughout the world: he is wise, powerful, and cognizant about the future. However, instead of showing Merlyn as a figure remote from human concerns, White depicts him as a man who can often get muddled in his thinking, like an elderly uncle. Merlyn explains, "One gets confused with Time ... all one's tenses get muddled." White uses the same approach with many of the other characters in the novel, bringing out their humanity. Wart's governess is eccentric, Kay is defensive and pompous, and King Pellinore is clumsy.

White further explores the theme of perfection versus fallibility through the characterization of Wart. Like the other characters, Wart is far from perfect; during his studies, he often does the wrong thing and, as a result, is smacked with the flat side of a sword. However, Wart's sense of imperfection goes even deeper. Because he doesn't know the identity of his parents, he grows up feeling inferior to other people. Kay reinforces this by treating Wart as an inferior. In turn Wart's inferiority complex causes him to hero worship Kay and overlook Kay's faults. Wart accepts Kay's view of himself as a superior person who is deserving of privilege. After all Kay will eventually become the lord of the estate, while Wart will never rise above being a squire. As a result Wart tends to go along with Kay's whims. However, Wart's inferiority also gives him a healthy humility. He can relate to people in lower positions, such as servants. White also stresses other traits in Wart that foreshadow his future role as king. Wart shows great courage staying in the forest during the night, and he is eager to learn from Merlyn.

In Part 1, Chapter 3, White begins to delve into the theme of exploring different viewpoints through Wart's encounter with Merlyn. Merlyn immediately exposes Wart to new ways of seeing things. For instance, he explains how he knows what will happen to Wart but not what has happened to him by having Wart draw a W while looking in a mirror. Wart, therefore, experiences a mind-bending perspective that is difficult for him to understand. Even so he is fascinated by Merlyn's world and wants to learn more about it. Merlyn has piqued Wart's curiosity about new ways of seeing the world. This path of learning will prove vital to Wart when he becomes king.

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