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The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Part 4, Chapters 1–3 : The Candle in the Wind | Summary



Part 4, Chapter 1

Part 4 begins with an epigraph taken from the novel The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler.

Sir Agravaine and Mordred talk in the cloisters, where the hunting birds are kept. Mordred wants to take revenge on his father, King Arthur, for trying to kill him when he was a baby. Agravaine insists that personal vengeance is not a good enough reason to launch a rebellion against the king. Not enough people will get behind it. Instead they need a national movement that will pit one group against the other, such as Saxons versus Normans, or communists versus monarchists. Perhaps they can use a scandal involving Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever's affair to form a schism between Lancelot and Arthur. Mordred likes this idea, as he is the son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. At the time Arthur did not know Morgause was his half-sister. Morgause raised Mordred and filled him with hatred for Arthur.

Part 4, Chapter 2

Sir Gawaine, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Gareth join Agravaine and Mordred in the cloisters. Mordred claims he and Agravaine are going to confront Arthur about Lancelot and Guenever's affair. Gawaine orders them not to do this. Agravaine and Mordred disregard his order and start to leave to see the king. Gawaine prevents them from leaving. A quarrel starts, in which Gawaine almost stabs Agravaine. Arthur enters, breaking up the argument.

Part 4, Chapter 3

Lancelot and Guenever, now a late-middle-aged couple, sit at a window and look out at Arthur's domain. Arthur has succeeded in replacing the chaos and cruelty of might-is-right with a more civilized approach, which involves using the law to defend right. As a result, under Arthur, culture flourishes, and art, architecture, and science advance. In Arthur's era there are also a variety of social positions—such as nobles, clergy, crusaders, alchemists, and clerks—and social advancement is possible.


The epigraph conveys how a person can learn lessons from animals. In the novel The Way of All Flesh, a character named Mr. Pontifex is sent to a zoo to learn, similar to the way Merlyn taught young Arthur by transforming him into various animals for the boy's edification. In Part 4 Arthur comes back to the importance of these lessons.

In Chapter 1 of Part 4, White conveys the theme of the folly of war through Agravaine's analysis on how to start a war. Agravaine knows that for people to go to war they need to hate another group, thereby seeing everyone in that group as the enemy. War, therefore, is based on vilifying entire groups of people. A historical example of this is the Jewish people. Since the Middle Ages, Jews have often been scapegoated as the cause of problems in society. At times hatred of the Jews has led to persecutions and killings. Political groups, such as communists, can also be hated. However, this animosity of one group for another is used by people in power for their own ends. Agravaine and Mordred don't particularly seem to hate communists, but they would willingly use a hatred of communists to start a war and thereby achieve their goals.

In Part 4, Chapter 3, White creates a duality by describing the medieval world as it existed before Arthur and then as it was during Arthur's reign. A duality is a contrast between two ideas that often seem to be opposites, such as good and evil. The author describes the world before Arthur as consumed by constant warfare and the persecution of the weak by the powerful. This world is based on the idea of might-is-right. However, using his ability to understand perspectives, Arthur strives for a more just world where might-is-right has been replaced with right-is-right. This chapter shows that Arthur apparently has succeeded in his goal. White describes Arthur's domain in glowing terms. It is a world filled with art, learning, and the ability to improve one's station in life. Indeed the author almost seems to be comparing hell (the era before Arthur) with heaven (Arthur's reign). In reality neither extreme is entirely correct. During the Middle Ages, oppressive conditions coexisted with cultural achievement. However, White's criticism of the use of the term Dark Ages is a valid one. Modern scholars have come to appreciate many of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages; they now refrain from using the term Dark Ages, which casts a negative connotation on an entire historical period.

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