The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 1, Chapters 7–9 : The Sword in the Stone | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 7

Merlyn and Wart sit in the shade near a jousting field where a sergeant-at-arms trains Kay in the art of jousting. Merlyn notices Wart is sulking and asks what's wrong, and Wart explains he'll never be a knight because he doesn't have a "proper father and mother." Merlyn asks if Wart would like to see real knights fighting. Ecstatic, Wart says he would love to see King Pellinore fight. Merlyn uses his magic to transport himself and Wart to an open area in the forest.

Dressed in full armor, King Pellinore approaches on a horse, and Wart introduces him to Merlyn. Soon Sir Grummore Grummursum, also dressed in full armor, advances on a horse. Pellinore and Sir Grummore agree to have a joust. For safety's sake Wart and Merlyn climb up a birch tree to watch the proceedings. The two knights joust and succeed in knocking each other off their respective horses. They then begin to hit each other with swords. However, because they are protected by armor, the blows do no harm. They charge each other on foot with swords raised, but run past each other and ram into trees. Wart fears they may be hurt or dead. Merlyn says they are not dead, and Sir Grummore will eventually invite Pellinore to his castle for dinner. Wart finds himself and Merlyn transported back to the jousting field where the sergeant continues to train Kay.

Part 1, Chapter 8

On a rainy day Wart mopes about the castle, not knowing what to do with himself. He visits Merlyn, who changes him into a merlin (a small falcon), brings him to the Mews, and leaves him there with the other birds, all of which are hooded. The leader, a peregrine falcon, has Wart answer a series of questions to prove his worth. With the help of another merlin named Balan, Wart answers the questions satisfactorily. The peregrine falcon then orders Wart to perform a rite of passage by having him stand in front of Cully's enclosure for a certain amount of time. Cully is a somewhat demented goshawk who has difficulty resisting the urge to kill other hunting birds near him. Wart bravely stands near the enclosure, and Cully advances for the kill. The time for Wart's ordeal expires, and he barely escapes Cully's attempt to snag him. The birds all sing a triumph song to honor Wart.

Part 1, Chapter 9

Wart wakes up in his bed. Kay scolds him, accusing him of sneaking off during the night. Wart tells Kay to shut up, and soon the two boys begin to fight. Kay sobs, saying, "Merlyn does everything for you, but he never does anything for me." Feeling guilty, Wart gets dressed and finds Merlyn in his tower room. He tells the wizard that Kay is upset because Merlyn never changes him into an animal. Merlyn says he only has the power to transform Wart. Then Wart asks Merlyn to send him and Kay on an adventure. The wizard realizes the two boys could get involved with an adventure concerning something currently happening. Merlyn tells Wart to take Kay to Hob's strip of barley. The two lads should follow the strip until they find something.


White examines the theme of multiple viewpoints through Pellinore's fight with Sir Grummore in Chapter 7 and Wart's transformation into a bird in Chapter 8. As with his experiences as a fish, Wart realizes he sees things differently as a bird. In the Mews, Wart as a merlin is in awe of the other hunting birds, which is something he never felt as a human. Once again Wart probably learns the most from seeing the similarities between the birds and humans. For example, he learns hunting birds have a strict hierarchy, as do humans. Like many human military groups, the birds have frightening, cruel initiations or rites of passage in which a newcomer has to prove his or her worth. Although Wart passes the initiation, he experiences firsthand the terror and brutality of these rites of passage.

The hunting birds celebrate Wart's success by singing a triumphant song in which they call Wart the King of the Merlins. The birds sing, "his [Wart's] birds and beasts supply our feasts." This song is another foreshadowing of Wart becoming King Arthur of England. When he is king his knights will help to serve the people by making sure their needs are met. Interestingly, Arthur uses an approach that disregards hierarchy, namely the Round Table. All the knights sit around the table, each with equal rank. They do not have to endure an ordeal to be accepted at the Round Table. Perhaps Arthur learned this from his harsh experiences with the birds' military hierarchy and initiation in the Mews.

Wart also explores other viewpoints by watching Pellinore and Grummore fight each other. At first Wart is excited about seeing these two knights clash. He had probably heard stories about knights fighting, and he dearly wants to become a knight. However, he finds the experience of watching knights fighting to be different from what he expected. Seeing them jousting, Wart fears they might kill each other. Near the end of the fight Wart wonders if he should help them, and he hopes they aren't dead. Instead of feeling stimulated by the glory of the conflict, Wart constantly worries about the combatants getting hurt.

In Chapter 7 White also explores the theme of the folly of war by showing how jousting games are silly and petty. Pellinore and Grummore pick a fight with each other as an excuse to joust. Their fight seems ridiculous; they are two men loaded down with armor, clanging about awkwardly and bashing each other with swords. Because of their armor they really can't harm each other, so the whole game is pointless. It is just an exercise to display their pride and stubbornness, and they end up calling each other names like schoolchildren. Such farcical games suggest a view of warfare as an elaborate, silly ritual fought for individual glory and honor. In real war, however, countless people are killed.

White uses the human fallibility of Pellinore and Grummore for comic relief. He does the same with Merlyn, whose spells constantly backfire. Their foibles make Merlyn, Pellinore, and other characters human and identifiable.

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