The Once and Future King | Study Guide

T. H. White

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The Once and Future King | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Sword in the Stone

In medieval England two boys named Wart and Kay are raised by Kay's father, Sir Ector, at his castle near the Forest Sauvage. Wart does not know the identity of his parents. In the forest Wart befriends a wizard named Merlyn, whom Sir Ector hires to tutor Wart and Kay. Merlyn mentors Wart, often teaching him by transforming him into an animal—such as a fish, an ant, or a goose—so Wart can learn how to see the world from different perspectives. When Kay becomes a knight, Wart serves as his squire. Wart is upset by the fact that he, as an orphan, cannot be a knight. Then the King of England, Uther Pendragon, dies, leaving no heir. Kay, Wart, and Sir Ector go to a jousting tournament along with most of the knights in England after Kay is knighted. The person who succeeds in pulling out a sword lodged in a stone will be the new King of England. Many knights have tried, but all have failed. Unaware of the significance of the sword, Wart pulls the weapon out of the stone and gives it to Kay, who has forgotten his sword. Kay and Sir Ector pay homage to him as the new King of England, and Merlyn is the first to call Wart by his royal title, King Arthur.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

In a castle, the Gaelic witch Queen Morgause, wife of King Lot, raises her four sons, Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. Although Morgause often mistreats them, her children are devoted to her. Meanwhile King Arthur has just won a battle against the Gaels. He, Merlyn, and Sir Kay debate the circumstances under which waging war is justifiable. Before another battle with the Gaels takes place, Arthur comes to the conclusion that the idea of might-is-right is unjust. Instead, might should be used to defend what is right. He hopes to set up a system of Knights of the Round Table who will fight for justice. Back at Morgause's castle, her sons capture and kill a unicorn their mother has been trying to capture. They give the unicorn's head to Morgause in hopes of earning her favor, but she whips them for showing her up. Arthur defeats King Lot and his Gaelic army, which angers Morgause. She attends the wedding of Arthur's friend King Pellinore. Arthur is unaware Morgause is his half-sister (they have the same mother); she puts a spell on him, forcing him have sex with her. Their union results in a son, Mordred. Arthur, incensed at Morgause's trickery, tries to kill baby Mordred by setting him adrift on the sea, but he does not succeed.

The Ill-Made Knight

In France a boy named Lancelot, inspired by Arthur's idea of the Knights of the Round Table, trains hard to be a great knight and to achieve spiritual perfection. His dream comes true when he becomes Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table at Camelot, and is befriended by Arthur. However, he falls in love with Arthur's wife, Queen Guenever, and she returns the affection. Lancelot tries to avoid betraying his king by going off to war and pursuing various quests, but the more time he spends away from Guenever, the stronger his love becomes. For her part Guenever likes and respects her husband, but doesn't feel sexually attracted to him as she does to Lancelot. When Lancelot returns from his quests, he and Guenever begin a secret love affair.

Lancelot frees a young woman named Elaine from a wicked spell. She tricks him into sleeping with her and gives birth to a son she names Galahad. Elaine and her son visit Camelot to seek out Lancelot. Guenever's jealousy of Elaine increases when the latter again tricks Lancelot into sleeping with her. Guenever's accusations drive Lancelot mad, and he departs Camelot, roaming for years around the countryside as a wild man. Elaine eventually finds him and brings him back to his senses, but after a time Lancelot leaves her to return to Guenever, who has been worried about him during his absence.

Fifteen years later Arthur is concerned about having to continue to use might to defend what is right. His knights have helped establish a peaceful kingdom, but in competing with one other they have begun to use physical force. To keep the peace, Arthur sends them on a quest for the Holy Grail (a legendary cup purported to have held Christ's blood when he was crucified). The Grail can only be found by knights who are physically and spiritually perfect. The quest proves difficult for most knights because they aren't willing to make the personal sacrifices required for perfection. Eventually, Galahad and two other knights find the Grail, but Lancelot is refused this honor because of his imperfection. Dejected, Lancelot vows to stop his affair with Guenever and leaves Camelot. However, when Guenever is kidnapped by Sir Meliagrance, Lancelot rescues her and kills Meliagrance in a duel. Their love is rekindled, and Lancelot and Guenever resume their affair. Arthur establishes Civil Law, thereby using might to defend right.

The Candle in the Wind

Fifteen more years pass. At Camelot, Arthur's son, Mordred, wants revenge on the king because Arthur tried to kill him when he was a baby. Mordred and Sir Agravaine hatch a plan to catch Lancelot and Guenever and expose their treachery to the king. Because Arthur loves both Guenever and Lancelot, he has so far turned a blind eye to their affair. However, Agravaine and Mordred confront the king with Guenever's and Lancelot's infidelity. As king, Arthur feels he must support his legal system and so gives the accusers a chance to prove their case. Trapped with Guenever in her room, Lancelot kills Agravaine but lets Mordred live. Guenever is convicted of treason and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

As Arthur watches his wife being led to the stake, Lancelot rescues her. In the process Lancelot accidentally kills two of Gawaine's brothers, Gareth and Gaheris. Mortified, Gawaine promises to avenge the death of his brothers. Arthur and Gawaine lay siege to Lancelot's castle, where Lancelot and Guenever are staying. The pope pardons the adulterous couple because they are repentant, and Guenever goes back to her husband. Arthur banishes Lancelot, but Gawaine persuades a reluctant Arthur to again fight Lancelot in France. Back in England Mordred spreads the lie that Arthur and Gawaine are dead, and he claims the English throne. He also wants to marry Guenever, but she manages to trick him and escape to the Tower of London. Arthur and Gawaine hurry back to England from France, and Lancelot soon follows. Arthur defeats Mordred in a battle in which Gawaine dies. Mordred regroups for another battle. Before this next conflict Arthur reflects on his failed attempt to eliminate the use of might and tells a young page, Tom of Newbold Revell, to abstain from the coming battle and carry the ideals of the Knights of the Round Table into the future.

The Once and Future King Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Merlyn becomes Arthur's tutor.

Rising Action

2 Geese teach Arthur about having no political boundaries.

3 Arthur pulls out sword from stone, becoming King of England.

4 Arthur forms the Knights of the Round Table.

5 Arthur makes Lancelot a Knight of the Round Table.

6 Lancelot and Queen Guenever begin their love affair.

7 The Holy Grail quest disperses Arthur's knights.

8 Mordred exposes Lancelot and Guenever's love affair.


9 Lancelot rescues Guenever from execution.

Falling Action

10 Arthur wages war on Lancelot, destroying the Round Table.

11 Arthur wages war on Mordred.


12 Arthur tells the page, Tom, to carry on the idea of the Round Table.

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