The Once and Future King Summary
by T. H. White

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The Once and Future King Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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In educating the Wart, as Arthur is called, to understand the world and its moral and ethical values, Merlyn allows the boy to assume the forms of various animals so that he can view life in different social orders. When he becomes a fish and swims in the castle moat, the great pike tells him that “Might is Right,” demonstrating how the most powerful fish can rule the moat. From falcons, he learns about the rigors of military life; from ants, about societies that demand total conformity; from wild geese, about heroism; and from the badger, about the potential greatness of humans. Arthur’s childhood is filled with the wonders of the universe as revealed by Merlyn and with adventures of the sort all boys dream about.

Arthur receives his education with no knowledge that he is being prepared for a throne. Rather, as the mere ward of Sir Ector, he expects to see Ector’s son Kay reap whatever success is to be attained. When word comes that Uther Pendragon, ruler of Gramarye, has died and that his successor is to be the person who can pull a sword out of an anvil, it is as much a surprise to Arthur as it is to Sir Ector and Sir Kay when it is he, the Wart, who accomplishes that feat and becomes king. The tone of Arthur’s rule is foreshadowed by the fact that he performs the deed that puts him on the throne without knowing about how the new king is to be chosen; the boy is merely trying to find a sword for Sir Kay to use in a tournament. Arthur’s subsequent reign represents the establishment of a new order. In defending his right to the throne, Arthur first has to abandon the polite forms of chivalric warfare for other tactics. Then, announcing that he will use might only to accomplish right, he establishes the Round Table.

The first test to Arthur’s reign as a just king is the enmity of Queen Morgause, wife of King Lot and sister of Morgan le Fay. Morgause hates anyone who sits on the throne of Uther Pendragon because Uther murdered her father and raped her mother, but she does not realize that Arthur is the child of Uther and her mother. When she seduces Arthur in an attempt to gain power over him, she unknowingly commits incest with her half brother. She teaches the child that results from this union, Mordred, along with her other sons—Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine—to hate Arthur. Mordred becomes the embodiment of the ultimate destruction of the Round Table.

The second test of Arthur’s reign comes from the love that Lancelot, despite his worship of Arthur, bears for Arthur’s queen, Guenever. Lancelot fights his attraction to Guenever by spending most of his time on quests, but eventually he succumbs to temptation and is seduced by Elaine, whom he has rescued from Morgan le Fay, when she pretends to be Guenever. After this union, which produces Galahad, Lancelot gives up his resistance and begins an adulterous relationship with Guenever. Plagued by the loss of his virginity and purity, he breaks off with Guenever and is even insane for a time. His unsuccessful fight against temptation becomes a kind of microcosmic representation of Arthur’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish a kingdom of justice.

Arthur attempts to find ways to control and use wisely the might at his command, but his troubles increase. The “Orkney faction,” the sons of Morgause, stir up discontent. Arthur initiates the quest for the Holy Grail to provide a healthy outlet for the energies of the knights of the Round Table; although Galahad eventually finds the Grail, the best knights are lost in the search, and the other knights become quarrelsome and decadent. Lancelot and Guenever are twice accused of adultery, and Lancelot has to face two trials by combat, in the second of which he murders Sir Meliagrance to keep him from revealing the truth.

Faced with the spiritual and physical disintegration of his kingdom, Arthur turns to the idea of justice under law as a last resort. As he does, he sets the stage for the final blow...

(The entire section is 1,716 words.)