The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 2, Chapters 4–6 : The Queen of Air and Darkness | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 4

As peasants harvest Arthur's fields, Merlyn, King Arthur, and Sir Kay sit at the edge of a cornfield. Merlyn explains that the only justifiable reason for going to war is when another man, group, or nation starts the war. Arthur says each side in a war always claims the other side started it. Kay gives hypothetical scenarios involving two men fighting, wondering what would happen if both men struck the first blow at the same time. Merlyn insists the aggressor in war can be determined 90 percent of the time. If the aggressor is unclear, then Merlyn advocates being a pacifist. The wizard then describes Morgause's husband, King Lot, as a noble who likes to go to war for sport. Others go to war for racial reasons. However, the people who really suffer in a war are the poor men who serve as soldiers.

Part 2, Chapter 5

Gawaine, Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris enter the hut where Mother Morlan lives. The boys notice that St. Toirdealbhach is in the hut as well. The lads ask to be told a story. Toirdealbhach relates a tale about King Conor, who got a bullet lodged near his temple. To prevent the bullet from killing him, Conor had to stay calm and quiet. However, when he heard Jesus was being crucified, he grabbed his sword and ran out to defend his Lord, which resulted in Conor's death. The boys debate whether Conor's death was worthwhile. Toirdealbhach claims he doesn't fight in wars anymore because he's not sure what they are about. The boys leave the hut and ride two donkeys, beating them harshly. Meanwhile, King Pellinore, a black Saracen, and another knight get off an enchanted barge. Gaelic folk, including the four boys and Mother Morlan, gather around the knights, gape at them, and wonder why the men have come.

Part 2, Chapter 6

The people in Arthur's kingdom prepare to go to war against the Gaelic forces led by King Lot. Meanwhile Arthur calls a council that includes Merlyn, Sir Ector, and Sir Kay. Arthur explains an idea he has been pondering since he and Merlyn talked on the battlements. Arthur has come to the conclusion that might is not right. He thinks that might could be harnessed for right. After the upcoming battle, Arthur plans to set up an order of chivalry, which Lot and the Gaelic knights will be invited to join. The king hopes knights will regard being a member of this order as an honor. These knights will take a vow to use might only for good. Arthur wonders what Merlyn thinks of this idea; the wizard blesses the endeavor.


In Part 2, Chapters 4 and 5, White examines the theme of the folly of war by comparing two viewpoints—the Gall (or Norman) view and the Gaelic view. Each of these views is expressed by an elderly wise man (Merlyn for the Normans and St. Toirdealbhach for the Gaels). Both of the men have come to the conclusion that war should be avoided in most cases. However, their reasons are somewhat different. Merlyn believes the only justifiable reason to go to war is to stop an aggressor. A group or nation, therefore, should never begin a war, even if they are being oppressed. For Merlyn it is crucial to reason out who is the aggressor. By doing this a nation can stop the culprit responsible for starting the conflict and resume peaceful relations.

In contrast, St. Toirdealbhach doesn't fight in wars anymore because everything has become muddled. In the old days a person fought another person for a concrete reason. For example, if a neighbor stole a person's cow, the person fought the neighbor because of the theft and to get the cow back. However, now Toirdealbhach sees so many groups fighting that it's difficult to determine the real reasons. For Toirdealbhach, therefore, most wars are folly because the participants really have no idea what they're fighting for.

White begins Chapter 6 with a brief episode in which Merlyn chases away Arthur because he did not invite the wizard in the proper way to a meeting. The author emphasizes that Merlyn is trying to distance himself from Arthur. At first Arthur enters Merlyn's room as if he were Wart coming to ask the wizard to change him into an animal. But Arthur is not a child anymore; he is a man and the king of a country. Because of this, Merlyn wants to be invited to the council as a king would invite him, by using a page. This formality places distance between Merlyn and Arthur and stresses Arthur's royal position. The reason Merlyn establishes this distance is that he wants to encourage Arthur to think independently and not rely on him. As Merlyn has pointed out, he will not always be with Arthur. Merlyn's plan seems to be producing results. Arthur has begun to think for himself and has come to the significant conclusion that might is not right. Arthur sees a way of channeling might to serve right. His experiences being changed into various animals have borne fruit, and he sees war and might from a different perspective, or outside the box.

Arthur plans to use honor to convince the knights to join his order of chivalry that defends the right. He knows most kings and knights want to give the appearance of having right on their side, even if it isn't. (For instance, King Lot uses old grievances against the Normans to justify the Gaelic rebellion against King Arthur.) To preserve the appearance of righteousness, Arthur hopes knights, even the Gaelic ones, will want to join his order. A person who spurns the order would almost be admitting he doesn't care about doing what is right.

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