The Sword in the Stone, 1938

(Great Characters in Literature)


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

Sir Ector, Arthur’s foster father, a comic figure.


Kay, Arthur’s foster brother, an inept but faithful friend.

The Queen of Air and Darkness, 1939 (originally titled The Witch in the Wood)

(Great Characters in Literature)

Queen Morgause

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.

The Ill-Made Knight, 1940

(Great Characters in Literature)


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.

The Candle in the Wind, 1958

(Great Characters in Literature)


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.

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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 philosophy reverses the common notion of the day and concludes that “right makes might.”

Upon the death of Uther Pendragon, a tournament is called to discover who might release the prophetic sword from the stone...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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,...

(The entire section is 736 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Once and Future King is set during the Dark Ages, about 1200, in England, which Arthur calls Gramarye. Most historians think the...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In his retelling of the Arthurian myth, White places greater emphasis than did Malory on the tragic elements of the story. White's tragic...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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,...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 82 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

White originally intended his Arthurian stories to be published as a collection of five books. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, was...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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....

(The entire section is 140 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 200 words.)