The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 22–24 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 22

At the Castle in the Forest Sauvage, King Pellinore tells Sir Ector, Sir Grummore, Kay, and Wart that King Uther Pendragon is dead. Sir Ector and Sir Grummore are stunned, and Kay suggests they fly their banners at half-mast. Sir Ector issues an order to this effect, which Wart executes. While Wart is out of the room, Pellinore explains that King Uther had no heirs. As a result, a sword in an anvil on a stone outside a church in London could determine who becomes the next king. An inscription on the sword reads, "Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil is ... King ... of All England." Several men have tried to pull out the sword, but to no avail. A tournament is called, which men throughout England will attend; the man who pulls out the sword will be the next King of England. Ecstatic, Kay convinces Sir Ector to let him participate in the tournament. By the time of the tournament, Kay will be a knight, and he looks forward to pulling out the sword. Wart enters with Merlyn, who announces his departure because his time as tutor is over. With Archimedes on his shoulder, he vanishes. Wart sadly says, "Good-bye."

Part 1, Chapter 23

As Sir Ector's household prepares to travel to the tournament, Kay is dubbed a knight. Soon after, Sir Ector, Sir Kay, Wart, and their servants journey to London, where they stay at an inn. At the tournament Sir Kay realizes he has forgotten his sword back at the inn and tells Wart to fetch it. Wart rides his horse to the inn, which is closed and locked. He spies a sword in an anvil on a stone in the courtyard of a church, walks to it, and strains to pull it out, but the weapon remains lodged. Then he cries to Merlyn for help. The animals Wart has encountered during his transformations appear like ghosts around him. They have come to help Wart out of love. A goose spirit advises Wart to focus the "spirit of [his] mind" on his task. On his third attempt, Wart gently pulls the sword, and it easily comes out of the anvil.

Back at the tournament, Wart gives the sword to Kay, explaining how he pulled it out of an anvil. Amazed, Kay shows the sword to his father and says he pulled it out. Sir Ector, Sir Kay, and Wart return to the anvil on the stone. When Ector tells Sir Kay to put the sword back in the anvil and pull it out again, Sir Kay admits it was Wart who pulled it out. Wart demonstrates, pulling the sword in and out of the anvil several times. When Sir Ector and Sir Kay attempt this, the sword doesn't budge. Sir Ector and Sir Kay kneel before Wart in homage to their new king, but Wart feels uncomfortable, and he tells them to get up. When they remain kneeling, Wart begins to cry.

Part 1, Chapter 24

Most of the people of England accept Wart as their king, except for a few Gaels, but they, too, came around later. Many people are tired of the constant conflicts they experienced under King Uther and hope Wart's rule will be more peaceful. At the coronation ceremony Wart receives gifts from his friends. Sir Ector sends the best gift—a pointy hat. Wart lights the top of the hat, causing it to grow; when the flames go out, he sees Merlyn standing before him. The wizard is the first person to address Wart by his royal title—King Arthur.

Analysis

In the three chapters that conclude Part 1, White presents the complex symbol of the sword in the stone. In Chapter 22 the author gives a description of the sword, including its inscription. He explains that the person who pulls the sword out of the stone will be the King of England. On one level, therefore, the sword in the stone represents the authority of kingship and destiny. The fact that the sword in the stone is situated in a churchyard supports this interpretation. This location suggests a divine blessing on the significance of the sword and the person who pulls it out. This religious meaning also relates to destiny or providence. Apparently the sword was created many years ago before Wart lived and before King Uther died without an heir, so it indicates foreknowledge about a person who will become king when no heirs are apparent. The sword is meant for one specific individual, and Wart is fulfilling his destiny when he becomes king; he just needs to take hold of his own destiny, represented by his grabbing the sword and pulling it out of the anvil and stone.

In Chapter 23 White takes this symbol further. It is important to note that Wart fails at his first two attempts to remove the sword from the stone. During these attempts, he strains as hard as he can to budge it, but it doesn't move. The sword doesn't respond to force. As far as the sword is concerned, might is not right. In addition, when Wart grabs the sword, he sees the world differently. Everything seems much clearer, including the church, the banners, and the snow. It's as if through his connection with the sword, Wart sees all of life as precious or sacred. The music Wart hears when he grabs the sword intensifies this feeling. Finally the spirits of Wart's animal friends gather around him to help him pull out the sword. The narrator says they "had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow." So on a deeper level, the sword can be seen as representing the spirit and power of love, which unifies all creatures and makes life sacred. Only when Wart handles the sword with love is he able to pull it out of the stone.

Wart finds not just his true destiny by pulling out the sword; he also accepts the burden that comes with this destiny. He senses this burden immediately when Sir Ector and Sir Kay bow to him. Wart is extremely uncomfortable about his adopted father acting in a submissive way. He wants their relationship to return to the way to it was before. But after Wart pulled out the sword, his life changed forever. Although many people will submit to his authority, Wart now has the responsibility of caring for these people as best he can. In a way he has become the father of Sir Ector and all other English people. Wart is extremely uneasy about this and says, "Oh, dear, oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all." As Wart matures into the King of England, he will feel this burden more and more. Merlyn predicts this when he says in Chapter 24, "In future it will be your [Wart's] glorious doom to take up the burden." The wizard then commemorates the moment by addressing Wart for the first time as King Arthur.

Considering the sword's connection to the power of love, it is appropriate that many people accept Wart as king because they are tired of the constant fighting that took place under King Uther. The narrator says they were "sick of overlords ... of racial discrimination, and of the rule of Might as Right." With Wart as the new king, many—including Normans such as Sir Grummore and Saxons such as Robin Wood—sense an opportunity to move beyond conflict.

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