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The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 4–6 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 4

Wart returns in triumph to Sir Ector's castle, accompanied by Merlyn and Archimedes and carrying the goshawk Cully; he gives him to Hob, who is proud of Wart for retrieving it. Wart excitedly explains how Merlyn set a trap for Cully. Kay, the boys' nurse, and Sir Ector greet Wart and are relieved to see him returned. Wart describes how he went on a type of quest during which he found Merlyn. Wart wants Merlyn to tutor him and Kay. Because Sir Ector normally requires tutors to provide testimonials, Merlyn makes testimonials from famous people such as Aristotle magically appear. He then performs magic, making it snow and conjuring up an umbrella. Sir Ector is impressed by Merlyn's tricks and hires him as tutor.

Part 1, Chapter 5

The people on the estate use Sir Ector's castle, called the Castle of the Forest Sauvage, when they are attacked by enemies. The castle has many devices, such as trapdoors, to thwart attackers. Wart loves to explore all the nooks and crannies in the building. In the kennel he befriends Dog Boy, the caretaker of the estate canines. This lad had his nose bitten off by Wat, a witless man who also doesn't have a nose. The Dog Boy has a special connection with his dogs and adores Wart because he can read and write.

Merlyn begins Wart's lessons by transforming the boy into a fish swimming in the moat. He also changes into a fish and joins Wart. After practicing, Wart learns how to swim as a fish and enjoys the feeling of weightlessness. He's amazed at how everything looks different from a fish's perspective. Merlyn then introduces Wart to the King of the Moat—a huge pike called Old Jack. Old Jack seems proud, selfish, and lonely. He tells Wart that power is everything. Terrified, Wart darts away as Old Jack attempts to gobble him up. Suddenly Wart finds himself human again and standing on the drawbridge.

Part 1, Chapter 6

As Kay and Wart practice archery, Merlyn goes to sleep nearby under a tree. Kay becomes bored with shooting at targets and suggests hunting for rabbits. He and Wart head into the forest, and each hides behind a tree. Eventually rabbits appear and Kay shoots one in the head. In celebration Kay and Wart each shoot an arrow into the sky. Wart watches transfixed as his arrow soars toward the sun. However, as the arrow starts to descend, a crow snatches it and flies away with it. Kay is frightened by this event, seeing it as a portent. Wart is furious because it was his best arrow. Kay says the crow must have been a witch.


In Chapter 4 White expands the idea of the quest. Previously he showed the quest as the obsessive pursuit of a goal to which a person (such as King Pellinore) devotes his or her entire life. Now White shows quests can also have a less formal, spontaneous meaning. Wart believes he went on a quest during his adventures in the forest tracking Cully and meeting Merlyn; he did not plan it, it just happened to him. However, Wart did achieve important goals, namely capturing Cully and finding a tutor.

In Chapter 5 White continues to make modern references by using a literary technique called breaking the fourth wall. With this method the writer addresses the reader directly, using the second person. When describing the Castle of the Forest Sauvage, the narrator says, "you can see its lovely ruined walls with ivy on them." Authors often avoid using this technique because it tends to interrupt the narrative flow, bringing the reader out of the story. However, White uses it to emphasize the connection between the modern reader and the historic legends of King Arthur. In Chapter 6, when Kay and Wart are practicing archery, the author refers to golf ("as in golf"), which had not yet been invented in Arthur's time. In this way White makes a direct connection between the reader, who presumably has played golf, and Kay and Wart as they shoot arrows.

White conveys the theme of exploring viewpoints through Wart's transformation into a fish. This experience shows Wart that how one views the world can change completely depending on one's vantage point. As a fish, Wart discovers the horizon is circular rather than straight. He also sees the horizon consisting of the sky above the water and the world underneath the water reflected in the water's surface. Wart finds this new viewpoint disorienting but beautiful. He also enjoys the sensation of swimming as a fish in the water, which is akin to flying.

Wart learns from the differences as well the similarities between a fish's perspective and a human perspective. Even though he is experiencing a new world as a fish, he finds there are parallels between the aquatic realm and life on earth. Merlyn points out that being a fish in the moat is like going through the forest. In both cases Wart felt lost, discovered new things, and took risks. When Wart talks to the huge pike named Old Jack, he recognizes the same selfishness, pride, and thirst for power of many human kings. Indeed, before Wart visits the pike, Merlyn tells him, "You will see what it is to be a king."

Through his frightening encounter with Old Jack, Wart confronts for the first time the idea of might-is-right. For Old Jack, power—especially physical power—is everything. He says, "the mind's power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end." Old Jack tries to demonstrate his thesis by swallowing Wart, who is a much smaller fish. The pike's gaping mouth with rows of sharp teeth is a terrifying image, and Wart learns firsthand about the fear of facing such a ruthless, power-mad opponent. He also experiences the inherent injustice of the notion of might-is-right. Wart was not doing any harm as he listened to Old Jack, but the pike wanted to kill him merely to show his dominance over all things.

In Chapter 6 White uses the image of Wart's arrow flying toward the sun and being snatched by a crow to foreshadow his adventure with the witch, Morgan le Fay. Later, when Wart and Kay approach Morgan's castle, they see a crow holding an arrow in its beak on the highest tower. The crow snatching the arrow foreshadows Wart's life as king. White describes the arrow flying toward the sun as a "burning ambition in the sunlight." As king, Wart will have the burning ambition to do good, which will be thwarted by evil designs.

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