The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 16–18 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 16

Wart wakes up in the morning, anxious to go on the boar hunt. He eats breakfast with the other hunters, including William Twyti, Sir Ector, Sir Grummore, and King Pellinore, who seems nervous. The hunting group, accompanied by Merlyn and a pack of hounds, joins up with Robin Wood near the forest. The expedition heads into the forest and soon encircles the boar's lair. Hounds rout out the boar, who charges at Sir Grummore. Grummore uses a spear to wound the boar, but it continues to gallop into the forest. The hunters, followed by peasants from the village, chase the boar, but the situation becomes chaotic, with people going in different directions. Wart stays close to Twyti. Cornered, the boar charges at Twyti and knocks him down. Robin Wood then kills the animal with a knife. Pellinore announces he has found something shocking and takes the hunters to the Questing Beast, who seems ill. Pellinore claims the beast is wasting away from sorrow because he isn't chasing it anymore. The king plans to take the creature to Sir Ector's castle and nurse it back to health.

Part 1, Chapter 17

On a lovely spring afternoon, Merlyn decides to give Wart another "dose of education" and asks him what kind of animal he wants to be turned into. Wart wants to be a bird again because when he was a bird previously, he never got a chance to fly. Merlyn agrees with his choice and says the owl, Archimedes, can act as Wart's guide. Wart says how much he likes rooks. Archimedes claims rooks are intelligent and have their own form of government, but he adds that he prefers pigeons because they are wise, dutiful, and loyal lovers. Merlyn likes the chaffinch because it has the good sense to separate into male and female groups during the winter. Merlyn expounds on his theory about how birds developed the rudiments of language by imitating the sounds of their prey and other sounds. Archimedes does not seem impressed by this theory.

Part 1, Chapter 18

During the night Wart lies awake as Kay sleeps. Archimedes arrives and gives Wart a mouse to eat. As he eats it, Wart changes into an owl. He accidentally falls out the window and flaps his wings frantically to prevent hitting the ground. Archimedes tells him to wave his wings instead of flapping them. Wart does this and finds himself gliding through the air. Even though it is night, he can clearly see his surroundings. Archimedes explains how to land on a branch and, following his instructions, Wart does this. Archimedes tells Wart that Merlyn wants him to try being a goose.

Wart finds himself in the form of a goose on a vast mudflat. As dawn comes he realizes he's surrounded by hundreds of geese. The geese begin to take flight, and Wart joins them. He enjoys the freedom of flying and seeing the earth below him. In a field Wart eats grass with other geese. A female goose directs him to be the next sentry. For half an hour Wart looks around the area, not knowing what he is looking for. He confesses to the female goose that he's a human turned into a goose; she is surprised by this because most humans want to be swans. Wart wonders if sentries are looking out for armies of enemy geese. Insulted by the idea that geese would attack other geese, she explains that sentries look out for natural enemies such as foxes and falcons. She introduces herself as Lyo-lyok and explains that geese have no boundaries because imaginary lines mean nothing to them when flying.


White conveys various aspects of the theme of exploring viewpoints via the boar hunt in Chapter 16, the conversation among Wart, Merlyn, and Archimedes in Chapter 17, and Wart's transmutations into birds in Chapter 18. With the boar hunt, Wart has a real-life experience of participating in a large-scale "battle," in which hunters attempt to kill a fierce boar. This conflict has many traits of a military campaign, including a large number of people, weapons, strategy, and casualties. Wart is surprised by much of what he encounters. First, the actual fighting is amazingly quick and confusing. The strategy used to attack the boar seems to fall apart after the hunt begins, with people shouting and going every which way. Second, Wart experiences the casualties of war through the death of Twyti's beloved dog. When Robin kills the wounded dog to put him out of his pain, Twyti grieves. Wart finds this spectacle painful and doesn't even want to look at Twyti, who seems to be crying.

White contrasts the boar hunt with the relationship between King Pellinore and the Questing Beast. The Questing Beast represents a goal that is difficult to attain but worth pursuing. The goal of capturing this creature seems to dominate Pellinore's life. The author deepens the relationship between the king and the beast by showing the affection between them. The beast wastes away from sorrow because Pellinore is no longer chasing it. The king immediately realizes what the problem is and feels guilty about abandoning his quest. When Pellinore nurses the creature back to health, he has really achieved his quest because he has captured the animal. This is an example of situational irony because what happens differs from what is expected to happen. Instead of keeping the Questing Beast as a trophy, Pellinore lets it go and then continues to chase it. By doing this, Pellinore shows the importance of the process of engaging in a quest over the achievement of it. In fact, as participants in the quest, Pellinore and the beast have formed a type of symbiotic relationship in which each benefits the other. The beast gives meaning to Pellinore's life; when he stops chasing the beast, it finds that life is not worth living, and vice versa.

Pellinore's relationship with the Questing Beast is in many ways the opposite of the boar hunt. The hunt is entirely based on achieving a goal and involves casualties in the pursuit of this goal. In contrast Pellinore really doesn't care about capturing the beast. He and the beast just have fun taking part in the quest. Also, the boar is killed, but Pellinore and the beast definitely do not want to harm each other. Perhaps this is why Pellinore is so ill at ease taking part in the boar hunt.

In Chapter 17 White explores other viewpoints through the discussion among Wart, Merlyn, and Archimedes about various types of birds. Through their talk the reader understands that each type of bird has a different personality, set of abilities, and type of society. The author shows that people are attracted to animals that reflect their own personalities. For example Wart is an active, playful boy and, as a result, likes rooks, who enjoy playing pranks.

When Wart is changed into an owl in Chapter 18, he again experiences a different way of seeing the world. He realizes he can see at night. However, when Wart becomes a goose, he has an even more profound experience, which ties in with the theme of the folly of war. Wart is amazed when he finds out geese do not wage war on other geese. (Indeed the female goose Lyo-lyok finds this idea offensive.) The main reason for this lack of war is that geese do not believe in boundaries. When flying over the earth, the invisible boundaries between nations don't matter to them and they feel free to go where they want to find food. Wart senses this freedom when he flies with the other geese, and he sings, "Free, free: far, far: and fair on wavering wings." Later in the novel Wart as King Arthur remembers his experiences as a goose as he gets embroiled in a war.

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