The Once and Future King

by T. H. White

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The Once and Future King

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White’s version of the Arthurian legend consists of four stories. “The Sword and the Stone,” the best known of the four, is the account of the young Arthur’s education for kingship. The magician Merlin changes him into various animals so that he may better come to understand human emotions. The middle stories, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “The Ill-Made Knight,” detail the rise of the King’s fortunes. The King creates his Round Table so that might may serve right, and, for a time, his ideals are realized. At the same time, the seeds of Arthur’s downfall are sown: Morgause and her son Mordred plot against him; and Lancelot, his best knight, suffers from an incurable love for Arthur’s queen. Boredom, too, infects the knights and Arthur creates the quest of the Holy Grail to give his knights a cause worthy of their attention. In the final tale, “The Candle in the Wind,” the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere is discovered, and Arthur is obliged to enforce laws that are technically correct but seem morally unfair to him. Civil war breaks out, and Arthur goes off to die, entrusting the legacy of his kingdom to a young boy whom he charges to keep alive the spirit that had been created at Camelot.

White’s Arthurian story has been adapted for the stage (CAMELOT) and for the screen (Disney’s SWORD AND THE STONE), attesting its appeal as a love story and a child’s fantasy. Nevertheless, the novel is filled with political allusions and is, in fact, a scathing commentary on modern man’s inability to achieve perfectibility. The animal characters all serve to illustrate human qualities, good or evil. Similarly, the traditional events of the Arthurian legend are given contemporary significance, and the purposes of knighthood are redefined in modern terms. White’s philosophy borders on the pacifistic; he is clearly against war, especially war designed to subjugate peoples or to attain advantages for a minority. His portraits of politicians and military men are particularly unflattering.


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 historical time in relation to his concern for war.

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Critical Evaluation