The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 13–15 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 13

Wart recovers in bed from his collar-bone injury and soon grows bored. He begs Merlyn to turn him into an animal. Because Wart has two ant colonies in his bedroom, Merlyn transforms him into an ant. Wart finds himself in one of the colonies, which seems like a field of boulders. He realizes that ants communicate through their antennas, as if giving radio messages. He hears songs and orders referring to each ant by number. Wart tries to converse with another ant but realizes that ant vocabulary is very limited. They have no words for freedom or happiness. The idea of right and wrong is expressed by the words done and not done. Headquarters transmits a number and a task to Wart.

Wart joins other ants in the mash squad and devours mash, which he finds unfulfilling. The ants constantly talk about how wonderful their beloved leader is. Wart then follows his group of ants to the central fortress, where the Leader complacently lays eggs and gives orders. Suddenly the normal broadcast is broken by a call to arms. Apparently ants from another nest are invading this nest. Wart and the other ants receive orders on how to prepare for war. He sees all the ants accept orders like automatons, without any emotion. Their goal is just to make sure the orders are done. The monotony of an ant's life begins to make Wart sick. Merlyn soon changes him back to a boy, and Wart is glad to be back in his bed.

Part 1, Chapter 14

In the autumn the peasants on Sir Ector's estate perform various tasks to prepare for the winter. Sir Ector has received a letter from the king, Uther Pendragon, which upsets him. The king plans to send his huntsman and hounds to Ector's manor to hunt for boar. Sir Ector finds this demand totally unfair; first of all, he doesn't have any place to keep the king's hounds, and second, the king expects his huntsman to capture some prize boars. It is too early in the season to know where the best boars are located. The hunt could also become chaotic if the king's puppies were to go chasing after a unicorn or the Questing Beast.

Part 1, Chapter 15

On Christmas night at the Castle of the Forest Sauvage, Sir Ector gives a sumptuous feast for the people on his estate and for several guests, including King Pellinore and the king's huntsman, William Twyti. Pellinore sings a song followed by Twyti's singing a brief, self-deprecating ditty about himself. Sir Ector gives a speech during which he thanks God and welcomes his honored guests. Everyone then sings the national anthem. After this the hall gradually empties as people go home. The castle seems peaceful "in the strange silence of the holy snow."

Analysis

White continues to examine the theme of exploring viewpoints through Wart's metamorphosis into an ant in Chapter 13. As with his other transformations, Wart as an ant perceives the world in a totally different way than as a human. For example, Wart realizes ants have no sense of individuality but see themselves only as part of a group or as cogs in a machine.

White makes a direct connection between the ant colony and communist governments, especially totalitarian ones. Communism is a form of government striving for social equality for all citizens and for abolishing class-based society. In communist states the welfare of the whole is seen as being much more important than the welfare of the individual. Communism also advocates communal ownership of property and businesses. However, history shows many communist nations, such as the Soviet Union, end up being ruled by an elite group—or by a totalitarian dictator such as Josef Stalin—and severely oppressing the masses.

In the ant colony Wart experiences firsthand the oppression of living in a society where individuality, creativity, and critical thinking are repressed. The good of the whole as determined by the dictator or leader is all that matters. Morality can be summed up by whether the orders of the leader are accomplished or not. As a result done is good, and not done is bad. In addition Wart realizes much of the food he consumes is not meant for himself but rather is to be shared with other ants. This situation can be seen as a form of communal ownership. Wart's exposure to the ant colony will shape his view of communism in the future.

In Chapter 14 White deals with how placing might over right can have unjust results. Sir Ector receives a letter from King Uther ordering him to accommodate his huntsman William Twyti. On the surface this command does not seem unreasonable. The king wants his huntsman to hunt boar to help feed the people he rules. However, the letter places a severe burden on Sir Ector, for he must make certain arrangements that he'd rather not deal with. The worst part is that Sir Ector has no say in the matter. The king has might on his side and, as a result, Sir Ector must obey no matter how unfair the demands may be. Because of this, Sir Ector resents the king and views him as a tyrant.

In Chapter 15 the author idealizes the medieval world of Wart by contrasting it with the modern world. The narrator says, "There was no unemployment because there were too few people to be unemployed." White goes on to describe an idyllic winter setting for the Castle of the Forest Sauvage: the snow lay evenly but never turned to slush; boys threw snowballs but never put rocks in them; and even the wolves "wandered about slavering in an appropriate manner." Later in the novel the author continues to contrast the modern world with the medieval world, often to the detriment of the former. Although the medieval world has many problems that Wart as King Arthur will have to confront, White seems to view it as at least as good, if not more idealized, than the world in which he lived.

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