The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 19–21 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 19

As a goose, Wart listens to Lyo-lyok explain how geese live. They do not have kings or laws and do not own things in common. They don't have territorial rights, except for their nests. Geese decide who will be the lead pilot of a gander on the basis of ability. Wart joins a host of geese as they fly across the North Sea. He sings songs with them, flies through thick clouds, and lands in areas where various birds are jammed together. Wart learns of an injured goose that was nursed to health by a man and later took on the responsibility of herding chickens into the henhouse. Eventually Wart lands with the other geese in an area across the North Sea. Wart wakes from his dreams and argues with Kay about which of them is the worse snorer.

Part 1, Chapter 20

Six years pass. During this time Wart is changed into many different animals by Merlyn. Wart and Kay grow taller and stronger and become more skilled at handling weapons. Kay becomes belligerent and sarcastic, constantly making fun of Wart for not having real parents. Wart sadly resigns himself to not becoming a knight and living his life as a squire. He asks Merlyn what will happen when Kay becomes a knight. Merlyn explains the ritual involved. Wart says that if he were a knight, he'd like to fight all the evil in the world. If he succeeded, he'd know for sure all the evil was gone, but if he were defeated, he alone would suffer. Merlyn says that he would suffer. Wart says, "I could ask." Merlyn agrees, with a tragic look.

Part 1, Chapter 21

Wart assures Sir Ector that he will faithfully perform his duties as Kay's squire. Even so, he still feels upset about not becoming a knight. Merlyn says he can turn Wart into a badger, but this will be the last time the wizard can change the boy into another animal. After the metamorphosis, Wart feels out of sorts because he won't go on any knightly quests and won't be changed into animals anymore. So instead of visiting another badger as Merlyn wished, he stomps off in search of something to devour. As a badger he comes across a hedgehog and tells the terrified animal that he will be soon be eaten. The hedgehog begs for mercy and sings songs to pacify Wart, who relents and leaves.

Wart now visits another badger, who invites him into his large den and reads a thesis he has written. The paper describes how all animal fetuses look like human embryos. God addressed the embryos and told them they can each pick three tools to specialize in. For example, the badger picked "our skins for shields, our mouths for weapons, and our arms for garden forks." The human embryo says it wants to stay as is and construct things out of wood and metal to survive. Impressed, God grants this embryo's wish, saying humans will have "the Order of Dominion" over other animals. After reading the paper, the badger expresses concern about humans because they have become tyrants, making war against one another. Despite this Wart still wants to become a knight and go to war.


In Chapter 21 White has Wart explore the viewpoint of a badger and, in the process, conveys the themes of might versus right and the folly of war. As a badger, Wart listens to another badger read his thesis paper. This work emphasizes the unity of all animals (including humans) as well as the differences among them. The unity is shown through similarity in the embryos of all animals. White is suggesting the essence of all animals is basically the same, but each type of animal has certain specializations distinguishing it. For humans the specializations involve making tools to have dominion over other animals. However, humans have become consumed with their power and try to have dominion over one another as well. As a result they are the only animals—except for a few types of ants and one termite species—who wage war. Humans, therefore, have become convinced of the idea of might-is-right.

The concept of ownership contributes significantly to the might-is-right mentality. White shows this with Wart's experience with the geese in Chapter 19. Geese do not have any sense of ownership except for their nests. As mentioned in Chapter 18, the idea of boundaries between nations is foreign to them. As a result, they see waging war on other geese for ownership as folly. White suggests that humans' obsession with power compels them to own things and to establish authority. Because of this, they claim ownership of land and establish imaginary boundaries (which become political entities, such as nations) to defend this land. Some humans become crazed with power and begin to conquer other lands. Tyrants throughout history, such as French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, exemplify this behavior. Other people become threatened when other humans encroach on their boundaries and fight wars to defend them. The ownership of land, therefore, is supported by war and by the idea of might-is-right. Geese don't have any power conflicts; the goose with the most ability becomes the lead pilot. The other geese don't contest this because they know having the most capable goose lead the gander will be beneficial to all the geese involved. They have a type of meritocracy, or a society in which power is given based on ability. In contrast, human history is full of examples of nations and principalities plagued by inner conflict as people fight one another for power.

Through his various transformations into animals, Wart has learned progressively more complex ideas. As a fish, Wart is exposed to seeing the world from a different perspective and feels for the first time the horror of might-is-right when he is almost swallowed by Old Jack. After this Wart learns about the terror and brutality of rites of passage and hierarchical thinking from his experience in the Mews. His adventure in the ant colony shows the lad how systems of government such as communism can be oppressive. Then the geese challenge Wart to think outside the box by showing him that political boundaries are imaginary. Finally the badger emphasizes how all of life is interconnected and how humans violate the sanctity of life by waging war. Wart also learns about the unfairness and harshness of combat through the joust between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore, the rescue of Dog Boy, Wat, and Tuck, and the boar hunt.

In Chapter 20 White begins to develop Wart's situation as an ironic one. The lad is shown as severely disappointed about not becoming a knight. Even though he likes Kay, Wart does not look forward to serving him as a squire. However, Wart eventually will become the King of England and therefore have power over Kay and many other people. This is an example of dramatic irony because the reader realizes something that the character does not. Wart's ironic position also highlights the author's views about destiny and fate, which will be further explored throughout Part 1. At the end of this chapter, White telegraphs a warning about Wart's desire to fight all the evil in the world through Merlyn's "star[ing] tragically at the fire." The wizard knows that Wart, as King Arthur, will face the forces of evil and suffer greatly because of his ideals.

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