The Once and Future King By T.H. White Summary and Analysis: The Sword and the Stone Chapter 13

Summary

Since his return from his adventure three days earlier, the Wart has been confined to his bed to rest to regain his strength. Naturally, he is bored; his only amusement is the set of ant-nests that he took from Merlyn's cottage. Looking at the ants gives the Wart the idea to ask Merlyn transform him into one, and the wizard reluctantly agrees.

As an ant, the Wart does not fit in with the collective spirit of the colony; however, he does his best to perform his "antly" duties. He learns about the two basic utterances in the ants' language ("done" and "not done") and tries to complete his job as a member of the mash squad: A group of ants who fill their crops with the scrapings of seeds and then allow other ants to feed directly from their mouths. Eventually, an ant from a rival nest approaches the Wart's colony and is murdered — a war ensues. Merlyn rescues the Wart and transforms him back into a boy before the two ant armies engage in battle.

Analysis

As Mr. P. taught the Wart about tyranny and the hawks taught him about military honor, the ants introduce the Wart to a world of intense collectivism or communism, which reveals to him the horrors of this political philosophy. In a world where everyone (except the leader) is equal, life becomes incredibly monotonous and static; examples of these qualities in the ants' lives abound in this chapter. For example, the "wireless broadcast" received by the Wart's antennae begins to "make him feel sick" after an hour of its repetitions. None of the ants have names (which might suggest personalities), but numbers (the Wart's is 42436/WD). All ants speak in the same "dead" and "impersonal" voice and the narrator states, very bluntly, that "Novelties did not happen to them." Their conversations, like their lives, are the same day after day.

One way in which the ants are controlled by their leader without their ever considering their own situation is through their language, which reduces most words and phrases into either "done" or "not done." As in George Orwell's 1984, during which the totalitarian government employs a language called Newspeak that prohibits comparative phrases (and thus, the populace's comparing its own government to that of other nations), the ants' inability to speak of such things as "happiness," "freedom," "liking," or any of their opposites prevents them from ever realizing that these things do, in fact exist. Put more simply, if a word does not exist for a thing, the thing cannot be pondered — and, if it cannot be pondered, it will never arise as a consideration in anyone's life. (This is why tyrants, throughout history, have burned books that articulated ideas contrary to their own political agendas.) Because "done" and "not done" apply to "all questions of value," the ants' thinking lacks the sophistication needed to consider complicated political questions. In fact, the very idea of asking questions is alien to the ants — "life was not questionable: it was dictated." If an act (or ant) serves the colony, it is "done" because life here is a matter of "duty," not free will.

When the Wart attempts to make sense of how any thinking creatures could live under such conditions, he (like a dissident in a communist country) is attacked for his temerity. Upon being asked what he is doing by a roving worker, the Wart replies, "I am not doing anything." Here, White is toying with the ambiguities of language and how these ambiguities vanish when the speakers strip the language of its subtleties. The Wart's reply is meant as a defense: He feels accused of wrongdoing, and uses the phrase "not doing anything" to mean "doing nothing wrong." To the inquiring ant, however, "not doing anything" is wrong in the literal sense of communism: A worker must, at all times, serve the community. This is why the ant reports that "There is an insane ant on square five"; decoding the ambiguities of language (even simple ones like this) requires a level of thinking that the ants do not possess. For the same reasons, the ant is unable to detect the Wart's sarcasm when he tells him, "I have fallen on my head and can't remember anything"; he reports that the "Not-Done ant has a black-out from falling of the nest." In a world where "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY," language must not allow any room for free thought, which could, if encouraged, destroy the entire colony. The ants exist, like the Wart when he acts as a "dumbwaiter," only to serve.

The ants' reaction to death and war are equally static and unemotional. When the Wart sees two dead ants, they are described (from the Wart's point-of-view) as "curled up" and "did not seem to be either glad or sorry to be dead. They were there, like a couple of chairs." The ants are not affected by seeing the "cadavers" of their own kind, as seen when the new ant arrives to clear away (in a bumbling fashion) the corpses. The Wart, himself, would have also been a corpse, had Merlyn not given him the proper smell for the nest — like "done" and "not done" as words, the ants only smell "nest" and "not nest," and will kill any ant that proves to be an outsider. The logic they employ to justify their war is as unsophisticated as their language:

A. We are so numerous that we are starving.

B. Therefore we must encourage still larger families so as to become yet more numerous and starving.

C. When we are so numerous and starving as all that, obviously we shall have a right to take other people's stores of seed. Besides, we shall by then have a numerous and starving army.

White is parodying here the kind of thinking employed in the name of "just cause" for war. The cold and syllogistic "logic" attempted by the ants only serves to belie their selfishness and belligerence. They even resort to religious appeals (speaking of "Ant the Father") in order to justify their aggression. However, while this may seem shocking to the Wart (and the reader), the ants are never excited by the prospects of war: "They accepted them as matters of course" and as "Done." The Wart's depression resulting from "the dreary blank which replaced feeling," "the dearth of all but two values," and "the total monotony" teach him about the "wickedness" of a collective community, where a seemingly noble idea (work for the good of others) is employed to keep everyone working like robots and satisfy a leader's lust for war.

Glossary

Miss Edith Cavell (1865-1915); an English nurse executed by the Germans in World War I.

emmets ants.

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