The Sword in the Stone, 1938 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arthur, the son of the warrior chieftain Uther Pendragon. He is known simply as Wart, the son of the warrior chieftain Uther Pendragon. He is known simply as Wart, the boy who will become King Arthur. A typical boy—mischievous, curious, kindly, brave, and innocent—he spends the story being trained by Merlyn to understand the lesson that justice and fairness are better than the warrior’s “might makes right” philosophy of the warring tribes.
Merlyn, the magician whose job it is to educate Wart. Merlyn initiates a plan to civilize the assortment of savage Celtic tribes by gradually unifying them under a common cause and a single king. He is a kindly, absentminded, and somewhat comic figure who plays no significant role in the remaining three novels. His influence on the plot of the story is so profound, however, that he is, after Arthur, the major figure in the story.
Sir Ector, Arthur’s foster father, a comic figure.
Kay, Arthur’s foster brother, an inept but faithful friend.
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The Queen of Air and Darkness, 1939 (originally titled The Witch in the Wood) (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Queen Morgause (MAHR-goh), an evil necromancer, the wife of King Lot of Orkney. She hates her half brother, Arthur. She seduces him (he is unaware of their kinship at the time) and gives birth to their son, Mordred, who is both the product of their incest and the character destined to destroy Camelot. Morgause, one of the story’s most interesting char-acters, also is the mother of several other sons, including Gawain, who will be among Arthur’s strongest supporters.
Arthur, who is now king. He begins his effort to turn England from war to peace by subduing the anarchic knights who still rule by might.
Merlyn, whose role is almost finished. He teaches Arthur the history of the Celts, his theory of war and peace, and how to proceed in his kingship.
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The Ill-Made Knight, 1940 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Lancelot, the French knight who is Arthur’s closest friend. He calls himself the Chevalier Mal Fet—the Ill-Made Knight—because of his tremendous physical ugliness. The most significant knight of the Round Table, Lancelot is fated to fall in love with Arthur’s wife, Queen Guenever, and thus to be one of the causes of Camelot’s fall. His love for both Arthur and Guenever is the cause of an anguish so great that he engages in many quests and battles to escape it; no physical escape works for long, however, and he undergoes a fit of madness.
Guenever, known as Jenny, the beautiful and innocent young woman who is both Arthur’s renowned queen and Lancelot’s tormented lover. She struggles unsuccessfully to deny the love she feels for Lancelot while trying honorably to fulfill her obligations to Arthur and to her role as queen.
Elaine, Lancelot’s unloved wife, a good and simple woman and the mother of their son, Galahad.
Arthur, who, having defeated the old order, now has to find some outlet for the energies of his Round Table knights. He invents the idea of the Quest for the Holy Grail as a way to sublimate the new form of might represented now, ironically, by Arthur himself. The quest is disastrous, resulting in the loss of most of his best knights.
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The Candle in the Wind, 1958 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Mordred, who is now grown. He is able finally to put Morgause’s plan for revenge into effect. He accuses Guenever of adultery, divides Camelot into warring camps, plots to overthrow Arthur and to marry Guenever, and begins the long war against Arthur. The novel’s center of moral and intellectual evil, Mordred is nevertheless a strangely sympathetic figure.
Lancelot, who is accused of adultery with Guenever. He escapes to his castle in France, where he is besieged by Arthur’s troops under the command of Gawain, whom he eventually kills. He then rushes to England to rescue Guenever from her imprisonment by Mordred.
Guenever, who is now Mordred’s prisoner and is used as a pawn to draw Arthur into a decisive battle to take place on Salisbury plain.
Arthur, who reviews his life while in his tent on the field of Salisbury on the night before the final battle with Mordred. He mourns the failure of Camelot and sees the future—the deaths of Mordred and himself, and Lancelot’s and Guenever’s exile to monastery and nunnery. He realizes that they all have been the innocent pawns of a fate that has cast them in predetermined roles in a drama that none ever quite understood or controlled.
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn together constitute T. H. White’s retelling of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). White began writing The Sword in the Stone in 1936; The Witch in the Wood and The Ill-Made Knight soon followed. The Book of Merlyn was completed in 1941 and was intended, along with The Candle in the Wind (which was later adapted for the 1961 musical Camelot, which was filmed in 1967), for simultaneous publication with the three previously published novels. When The Once and Future King finally appeared, it incorporated a number of the author’s revisions but not the concluding volume. The Book of Merlyn was not published until 1977. Although it rounds out the series, briefly describing the death of Arthur and the religious retirement of Lancelot and Guenever, it is chiefly a philosophical forum in which Arthur, Merlyn, and a number of animals debate the nature of humankind.
Merlyn guides the events of The Sword in the Stone. The magician tutors the young orphan Arthur (derisively nicknamed “the Wart” by his foster brother, Kay), at times magically turning him into a goose, an ant, a fish, and a hedgehog. Merlyn uses the natural world to demonstrate the various forms of government and impresses upon the future king the cruelty of aimless military strength. Under Merlyn’s influence, Arthur’s maturing...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*England. The England of the legendary King Arthur, often called Gramarye, is a totally imaginary realm. T. H. White’s narrator refers to the historical kings of England as mythical, and other real and imaginary characters such as John Ball and Robin Hood (here called Robin Wood) are anachronistically jumbled into Arthur’s time period.
White’s mythical kingdom can be divided into two periods: before and after Arthur’s succession. Before Arthur, England is a savage realm, “without civilization,” in which might makes right. The narrator is careful to point out that the feudal system was not inherently bad; under good lords, such as Sir Ector, the peasants are well treated. Indeed, at times the narrator’s descriptions of lower-class life resemble the romantic imaginings of the Merrie England school of English history, represented by writers such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Even England’s weather is tame. According to the narrator, the greatest modern fault in imagining life in the Middle Ages is to base one’s views on the pale and bare ruins of the era that remain in modern times. Arthur’s England was, according to the narrator, an almost inconceivable riot of colors.
During Arthur’s reign, England becomes a much safer place after the abolition of Fort Mayne, the force of might. Lawyers and legalisms take over, and the realm begins to resemble the one described by Thomas Carlyle in...
(The entire section is 736 words.)
The Once and Future King is set during the Dark Ages, about 1200, in England, which Arthur calls Gramarye. Most historians think the actual Arthur—if there was one—lived much earlier, probably during the fifth century. Even though White presents a great many details about life in medieval England, he intentionally mentions modern things that could not possibly have existed at the time of the story, such as cannons and top hats. He uses anachronism partially for humorous effect, but also to demonstrate that the human problems of the Dark Ages were similar to the problems of the twentieth century.
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White's most distinctive technique in The Once and Future King is his modulation of comic and tragic tone. The work as a whole moves from comedy through tragedy to an ending that suggests rebirth and renewal. The first book, dealing with Wart's joyful childhood, is primarily comic and satiric. Under the light tone of the surface narrative, however, there is a persistent dark message. Even one of the most famous scenes, the hilarious fight between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore, not only satirizes the medieval mode of fighting but also reveals the disturbing fact that both men feel the need to fight. Wart's various animal transformations also suggest a serious challenge to human belief and behavior within their amusing narratives. The Might vs. Right conflict becomes the subject of a somber debate in the second book. Intimations of the ultimate tragedy are indicated throughout the middle books. In the final book, White transcends the tragic conclusion even as the tragic mode replaces the comic. Although Arthur's ideal Camelot has failed and he is about to be killed by Mordred, he feels hope for the future, and the book ends with the words, "The Beginning."
Another of White's techniques is his skillful use of anachronism, both for comic and thematic purposes. Merlyn and Morgan le Fay demonstrate the comic uses, particularly in their homes. The wizard's cottage is a remarkable collection of items, including mythic animals and the Encyclopedia...
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In his retelling of the Arthurian myth, White places greater emphasis than did Malory on the tragic elements of the story. White's tragic theme—the sins of the past that return to destroy the hero—gives shape to the story, and recalls the themes of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (c.429 B.C.) and other Greek tragedies.
Because readers are already familiar with the characters and the outcome of the story, White has the freedom to break off on narrative and philosophical tangents, such as Wart's transformations, King Pellinore's pursuit of the Questing Beast, or a discussion on the nature of civilization. The narrative depth is complemented by a richness of style—the prose of White's descriptive passages, even those only peripheral to the action, has been widely praised.
One of White's surest strengths is his characterization. He makes these mythical characters come alive, and he makes them understandable human beings. The human scale of his characterizations allows him to refer irreverently to the Queen as "Jenny" or to the mighty Arthur as "Wart." He uses psychology for some of his insights into character and action, but refrains from falling into psychological jargon or letting his observations intrude on the story.
White's absolutely unique achievement, however, is his evocative descriptions of what it is like to be an animal, such as a fish or a bird. The scenes in which Merlyn turns Wart into various creatures are, for many...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Arthur's first important realization is that people in his time think that "might is right." Is this a belief confined to the Dark Ages, or do many people still think this way? Can you give any examples?
2. At one point, Arthur believes that might can be used in the cause of justice. Sir Kay objects that this is no different from "might is right." Do you agree with Sir Kay? Or are there times when people are justified in using might to enforce their ideas?
3. Merlyn says it is wrong to start a war, but it is all right to fight if the other side starts. He also says it is almost always possible to tell which side is starting a war. Do you agree that it is only legitimate to fight if someone else starts the conflict? Do you agree that it is always easy to tell who has started a war?
4. White suggests that Arthur's tragedy, in part, is that he has to pay for the sins of his father. Does this seem fair to you?
5. White also suggests that Arthur has to pay for his own sins, including the sin of incest. Was sleeping with Morgause a sin even if Arthur did not know she was his sister? Is ignorance ever a valid excuse? At what point is it a person's responsibility to know?
6. Whether or not Arthur knew he was committing incest, he was guilty of adultery when he slept with another man's wife. Is he a hypocrite to punish Guenever and Lancelot for adultery?
7. Is Arthur right or wrong to overlook the...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The early education that Wart receives from Merlyn is intended to make him self-reliant and more aware of nature. Some of the terms that White uses seem to come from the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Read Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) and compare the ideas found in that essay with White's ideas of education.
2. White relies heavily on the Greek concept of tragedy, in which a great person is destroyed by a character flaw or a mistake made in the past. One of the most important such tragedies is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Read this tragedy and compare it with White's Once and Future King. Note the similarities and differences in the characters of Oedipus and Arthur.
3. The Hindu concept of karma states that whatever you do—good or bad— sets events in motion that will determine what will happen to you in the future. Look up a definition of karma and decide whether Arthur's sleeping with Morgause creates a series of causes and effects that leads to the destruction of the Round Table.
4. White uses some basic concepts of Freudian psychology to explain the behavior of Morgause's sons. Does their behavior seem understandable to you? Given their mother's character, could they have come out differently?
5. At the end of the novel, Arthur thinks for a moment that all wars would end if people lived like geese, without political boundaries or belongings. Do you agree or disagree?
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In a large sense, White's only predecessor is Sir Thomas Malory, who in the fifteenth century pulled together for the first time the entire body of Arthurian material in his Le Morte D'arthur (1485). Although there have been several major retellings of the legend in the twentieth century, none precedes White's work. His only predecessor in the comic-ironic vision of Arthurian romance was Mark Twain, whose negative attitude toward the Middle Ages was the opposite of White's profound admiration for the medieval world.
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White originally intended his Arthurian stories to be published as a collection of five books. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, was completed in 1941, immediately after the completion of the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind. White's publishers refused to publish the collection because of a wartime paper shortage. Although the paper shortage was a real problem, many critics think that the publishers did not want to publish The Book of Merlyn because they considered it too philosophical, too political, and too bitter about humankind's failure to achieve peace. In any event, White insisted on including The Book of Merlyn, and nothing was published until 1958. At that time, the fourth book was included in The Once and Future King, but The Book of Merlyn was omitted. Two important scenes, however—one in which Arthur is turned into an ant, and another in which he is turned into a wild goose—were lifted directly from The Book of Merlyn and inserted into The Sword in the Stone.
The Book of Merlyn was finally published separately in 1977. Although it is generally considered weaker than the rest of The Once and Future King, there can be no doubt that White intended it to be the saga's conclusion. It begins where The Candle in the Wind ends, the night before Arthur's last battle. Merlyn comes to give his pupil a few last words and to allow Arthur to take leave of some of his animal...
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For Further Reference
Crane, John K. T. H. White. New York: Twayne, 1974. The first and still one of the most concise overviews of White's life and works. Includes a fift-page discussion of The Once and Future King and consideration of White's other works.
Gallix, Francois, ed. T. H. White: Letters to a Friend. Gloucester, England: Alan Sutton, 1984. A collection of letters from White to his friends L. J. and Mary Potts. L. J. Potts was White's teacher at Cambridge, and he and his wife became White's friends. The letters are important because White sought his old teacher's literary advice.
Garnett, David. The White/Garnett Letters. London: Jonathan Cape and Chatto and Windus, 1968. Garnett was perhaps White's closest friend and one of his staunchest supporters.
Warner, Sylvia T. T. H. White: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1967. The standard biography of T. H. White.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Lacey, Norris J., and Geofrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1988. A critical survey of Arthurian legend from the fifth century to the late twentieth century.
Logario, Valerie M., and Mildred Leake Day, eds. King Arthur Through the Ages. Vol 2. New York: Garland, 1990. A study of contributions to Arthurian literature from the Victorian period into the twentieth century. The Once and Future King is acknowledged as the “most influential and enduringly popular of modern Arthurian fiction.”
Owen, D. D. R., ed. Arthurian Romance: Seven Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1971. Collection of essays reflecting late twentieth century interest in Arthurian romance that range from close textual scrutiny to overviews of artistic purposes.
Sandler, Florence Field. “Family Romance in The Once and Future King.” Quondom et Futuris: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations 2, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 73-80. An examination of the medieval concept of family and romance as applied to White’s novel.
Tanner, William E. “Tangled Web of Time in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.” Arthurian Myth of Quest and Magic: A Festschrift in Honor of Lavon Fulwiler. Dallas: Caxton Moern Arts, 1993. Considers White’s treatment of...
(The entire section is 200 words.)