The Once and Future King By T.H. White Summary and Analysis: The Sword and the Stone Chapters 1-5

Summary

The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of The Once and Future King begins in the Merry England of the Middle Ages, although England is also known throughout the novel as "Gramarye." In Sir Ector's Castle of the Forest Sauvage, Sir Ector and his friend, Sir Grummore, discuss the need for a tutor to "eddicate" Sir Ector's son (Kay) and ward (Art, nicknamed "the Wart"). Sir Ector decides to advertise for a tutor. After their chore of hay-making has been postponed due to rain, the two boys decide to go hawking in the Forest Sauvage, an immense wooded area that surrounds Sir Ector's castle. Cully, a prize hawk, escapes from Kay's grasp and Kay leaves the forest; the Wart stays and considers how to get Cully down from his high perch.

As darkness falls on the Forest Sauvage, the Wart is terrified when an arrow flies at him from an unseen assailant. However, Wart learns that the arrow was not intended for him; instead, it was shot by King Pellinore, who prowls the Forest Sauvage in search of the Beast Glatisant (or "Questing Beast"). Before his clumsy and comical departure, King Pellinore explains the details of his quest to the Wart, who listens attentively.

The Wart spends the night in the Forest Sauvage; the next day, he wanders until he stumbles upon Merlyn's cottage. The old magician introduces himself to the Wart, offers him breakfast, and tells the Wart that he will serve as his tutor. He and the Wart return to Sir Ector's castle, where Merlyn offers a display of his magical powers. After a month passes, Merlyn begins tutoring the Wart: His first lesson consists of turning him into a perch.

Analysis

The novel's epigraph serves as an invitation to the reader from T. H. White ("you and I") to enter a world of magic. "Gramarye" is an archaic word meaning "magic," and "Merlyn's Isle of Gramarye" refers not to the England of history, but of legend. Although the novel's style is often humorous and anachronistic, the characters are part of an old narrative and mythological tradition. The epigraph suggests to the reader that the novel's setting "is not any common earth" (one bound by the laws of physics as found in "realistic" fiction), but instead a place where uncommon occurrences and random moments of magic are the norm. Thus, the world of The Sword in the Stone is one where characters react in believable and understandable ways to unbelievable and fantastic events. For example, when the Wart is transformed into different animals, he feels all the emotions a reader would expect a person to feel upon becoming a fish, hawk, or badger — but the very impossibility of such transformations occurring is never questioned by any of the characters. Magic is as much of an accepted part of the characters' lives as gravity is of our own.

The novel begins with a description of the Wart and Kay's schedule of lessons, the sound of which reinforces its dryness and sterility: "On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition, and Astrology." White begins the novel with this sentence to hint at the book's most important theme: the qualities of a good education and the means by which it is acquired. Throughout the novel, the Wart will learn lessons about humanity, although not from books, astrolabes, or the "Summulae Logicales." Destined to rule all of England, the Wart must learn about people, politics, and power before the title of "Once and Future King" can be conferred upon him. Because the reader knows that the Wart will eventually become King Arthur, White offers an array of characters and situations that allow the reader to see the different ways the boy acquires the qualities he needs to act as a loyal and responsible king. In short, much of White's novel is concerned with leadership and how a naive boy who knows little of the practical, political world becomes more knowledgeable about it, all without his even realizing that such an education is taking place.

Sir Ector's earnest but misguided desire for the boys to become "eddicated" is gently mocked by the narrator. For example, Sir Ector feels that true education resides in learning "Latin and stuff" as well as practical techniques for governing a household. However, Sir Ector is not a very good teacher, since he "shouts commands" at the servants making hay until he is "purple in the face." He also impedes the assistants' progress in doing so, while "stamping and perspiring" out of anger. Clearly, he is not destined to be the Wart's teacher, as one may expect a father figure to be. Sir Ector's past attempt at hiring a tutor resulted in a governess who physically punished the boys and who, the boys learn, had spent some time in a "lunatic hospital." The Wart will require an education — not a rustic's "eddication" — if he is to become King. Of course, the Wart has no idea of his future greatness and, like many children, would rather play than be tutored.

While introducing this theme, White simultaneously establishes the rivalry between the Wart and Kay. The Wart's name suggests his diminutive size and status in Sir Ector's household, as well as the way he is treated and viewed by Kay, who is two years older. Kay is "too dignified to have a nickname" and prides himself on knowing everything about horsemanship, jousting, and chivalry. Kay reminds the Wart that he (Kay) is Sir Ector's "proper son" and that this affords him the right to bark orders at his younger brother. Kay is conscious of what he sees as his status and place in society, disregarding Hob's advice on hawking because he is "only a villein" and hating the making of hay (a servant's duty). Kay is not, however, skilled at hawking (he loses Cully in a tree) or haying (he stands on the edges of the bundles he attempts to lift). Note that White illustrates Kay's pride while also demonstrating the effects of not accepting the advice of others.

While Kay is childish, the Wart is childlike in his naiveté and tendency to be easily impressed; according to the narrator, the Wart is "a born follower [and] hero-worshipper." Throughout the first five chapters, White emphasizes this aspect of the Wart's personality. For example, when the Wart first meets King Pellinore (on the trail of the Questing Beast), he thinks that Pellinore is the epitome of chivalry and heroism. The narrator describes Pellinore this way: "He was mounted on an enormous white horse that stood rapt as its master, and he carried in his right hand, with its butt resting on the stirrup, a high, smooth, jousting lance, which stood up among the tree stumps, higher and higher, till it was outlined against the velvet sky. All was moonlight, all silver, too beautiful to describe."

Even in his doubts over whether or not King Pellinore is a ghost (another boyish concern), the Wart decides that "even if it were a ghost, it would be the ghost of a knight, and knights were bound by their vows to help people in distress." The Wart's ideas about perfect practitioners of chivalry are straight out of folklore and legend — which he sees as fact. He is so rapt by King Pellinore's heroic status that he becomes more concerned with consoling the dejected man than finding his way back to Sir Ector.

The reader, however, views King Pellinore in a slightly different way: The King is likable and interesting, but he is also a bumbling parody of true knighthood. He struggles with his visor, calls his search for the Beast Glatisant "boring," and is more interested in the prospect of his own feather bed at Sir Ector's castle than fulfilling the demands of his quest. When he becomes entangled in his hound's leash and disappears into the forest yelling "Yoicks," the reader views him as an example of "education in reverse." Because the Wart is to become the greatest practitioner of questing and chivalry, White has him first see an example of what chivalry is not.

The Wart then meets his true tutor and mentor in Merlyn, whose cottage he discovers in a clearing. Although Merlyn, like King Pellinore, is introduced as a comic figure struggling with a water bucket and covered with bird droppings, he possesses a wisdom not found anywhere else in the novel. His physical description marks him as a traditional wizard of legend, complete with conical cap, zodiac-embroidered gown, long white beard, and magic wand. White also endows him, however, with the unusual malady of having to live backward through time; like the author of a novel or a supreme deity, Merlyn possesses a wisdom in the present that could otherwise only be acquired by seeing into the future. In other words, while humans progress forward in time, Merlyn was "born at the wrong end of time" and therefore regresses through time, carrying into the present all of his knowledge of the future. Merlyn compares his predicament to trying to write in a mirror, and therefore has the Wart try to write a "W" while looking into one. The fact that the Wart's "W" comes out as an "M" suggests the strange relationship between the boy and the wizard: The Wart is a young and inexperienced squire while Merlyn, an old, wise scholar, is his opposite (as a "W" is, visually, the opposite of "M"). With his "enormous meerschaum pipe," an allusion by White to another great literary genius, Sherlock Holmes, Merlyn will prove to be the source of all the Wart's future knowledge and wisdom.

The decor of Merlyn's cottage also suggests his upcoming role in the Wart's life. Crammed with books, examples of taxidermy, animated cutlery, and a talking owl named Archimedes, this setting resembles a university in miniature and reinforces Merlyn's importance to the Wart's education. Before they return to Sir Ector's, Merlyn teaches the Wart how to properly address Archimedes — the first of his many lessons. (The Wart's blunder of addressing Archimedes as "Archie" reveals, to the owl, his "ignorance.") When the Wart states, "Would you mind if I ask you a question," Merlyn replies, "It is what I am for," demonstrating his idea of what a good teacher should be: One who attempts to provide answers for the willing student, although such answers are, throughout the novel, often given indirectly. In future chapters, Merlyn refrains from direct instruction and instead has the Wart experience the lessons that will make him ready to rule. The Wart's excitement at the prospect of Merlyn becoming his tutor is revealed in his exclamation, "I must have been on a Quest!" What the Wart does not realize, however, is that his "quest" is only beginning and will be more difficult and important than the comic one attempted by King Pellinore.

Unlike the Wart (and the reader), Sir Ector initially doubts Merlyn's ability to educate the Wart. When he requests some "testimonials" to Merlyn's abilities, he is given some tablets signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and "some typewritten duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity." All three figures are ones associated with education: Aristotle was a Greek philosopher noted for his Poetics and books on reasoning, Hecate was (in Greek mythology) the Queen of witchcraft, and the Master of Trinity is the president of Trinity College, Oxford. Again, White stresses (in a humorous fashion) the importance of Merlyn's role. When Sir Ector further questions the magician's powers as a tutor, Merlyn changes the landscape and weather, removing any skepticism about his ability to "eddicate" the Wart from Sir Ector's mind. Here, Merlyn also demonstrates his personable side: When Kay is reproached by Merlyn for insulting the Wart — and feels guilty for doing so — Merlyn creates a little silver hunting-knife for him to suggest that he has "learned his lesson."

The Wart's first "formal" lesson from Merlyn occurs in Chapter 5, although the Wart does not realize that he is being taught — marking Merlyn as an excellent teacher who can, like the magician he certainly is, literally and figuratively "trick" a student into enjoying his education. The Wart still identifies learning with "stuffy classrooms" and is pleasantly surprised when Merlyn allows him to be transformed into a perch. His transformation into a fish is the first of many such transformations in the novel and it is important for a reader to understand why Merlyn adopts this particular teaching technique for the boy who, as Merlyn knows, will eventually become King. Because a King is supposed to represent all of his subjects in battle, diplomacy, and politics, Merlyn has the Wart meet many different kinds of people — all of which, however, are found in the different types of animals into which he is transformed. Only after being exposed to a variety of personalities, leaders, and followers will the Wart be ready.

When he first becomes a fish, the Wart has difficulty manipulating his fins and swimming in a straight line, and like the frightened boy that he is, he asks Merlyn to accompany him. Merlyn agrees, but not before explaining to the Wart why he will only accompany him on this one adventure: "Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance." With this remark, White suggests to the reader Merlyn's methods and goals as a teacher. Although a teacher should be able to answer any of his student's questions (as Merlyn suggests with his remark about "what he is for"), he should ultimately guide his student's education, rather than "spoon feed" him easy solutions to difficult problems. After Merlyn transforms himself into a tench (or carp) and shows the Wart how to stay level and live in "two planes, not one," the Wart must realign his perceptions and see the world from a different point-of-view to accommodate his new situation — something that any leader must be able to do when faced with a crisis. White's description of the Wart seeing the water's spectrum being separated into seven parts accentuates this idea: To truly become educated, one must be able to apprehend the world in a way to which he was previously unaccustomed. When the Merlyn attempts to correct the Wart's zigzagging by telling him, "You swim like a boy," he, too, is suggesting this same idea. A passing swan, who informs the Wart that it is not "deformed" as the Wart assumed it was, also causes the Wart to reconsider his past assumptions about life in the moat and people very different from himself.

The Wart's final lesson as a fish occurs when he meets Mr. P., the King of the Moat. Like King Pellinore, who suggests to the Wart what chivalry is by illustrating its obverse, Mr. P. indirectly teaches the Wart about good leadership tactics by showing him the effects of despotic rule on an individual long accustomed to enforcing it. White describes Mr. P.'s face as "ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch — by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains." His "vast ironic mouth" is fixed in a permanent frown, and he offers the Wart a philosophy as pitiless and ruthless as his physical appearance suggests: "There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind's power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right." Although he does not know it, the Wart is meeting this tyrant so that he can learn about a style of governing that he will do better to avoid. Because Mr. P. lives only for brute, physical power, he has become an uncaring, cold, and "inhuman" ruler. Indeed, he is so committed to power that he warns the Wart to leave before he attacks andeats him. If the boyish Wart is to become the chivalric King Arthur, he must understand what absolute power can do to a leader. His education, at the hands of Merlyn, has begun.

Glossary

Summulae Logicales a treatise on logic by Pope John XXI, written in the thirteenth century.

Organon the title of Aristotle's (384-322 BC) writings on logic and thought.

tilting the sport of jousting, whereby two riders attempted to unhorse each other by charging at each other and hitting their opponents with lances.

the mort the note sounded on a hunting horn when the quarry is killed.

the undoing in hunting, the removal of one's arrows from the prey.

port a strong, sweet wine from Portugal.

Metheglyn a spiced or medicated kind of mead (a liquor made from fermented honey and water).

Hic, Haec, Hoc a joke by Sir Ector, who is pretending to offer the declension (or breakup of verb tenses) for his drunken hiccup.

pike a type of freshwater bony fish.

wattle and daub interlaced twigs and rods, plastered with mud or clay to make walls or roofs.

the cows were on their gad The cows were wandering aimlessly.

rick a stack of hay.

jerkins a short, closefitting jacket, often sleeveless, or a vest.

goshawk a large, swift, powerful hawk with short wings and a long, rounded tail.

mews cages for hawks.

tack gear; equipment.

cardamom a spice from the seeds of various East Indian plants.

jesses straps for fastening around a falcon's leg, with a ring at one end for attaching a leash.

merlins small European or North American falcons with a striped, brownish-red breast.

tiercels male hawks.

just been taken up from hacking If a hawk is "in hacking," he is not yet allowed to hunt food for itself.

peregrine a kind of falcon often used for hawking.

kestrel a small, reddish-gray falcon, noted for its ability to hover in the air with its head to the wind.

mutes here, feces.

austringers people who train and fly hawks.

deep in the moult a hawk at a stage of advanced moulting, or shedding its feathers.

conies rabbits.

villein any of a class of feudal serfs who by the thirteenth century had become freemen in their legal relations to all except their lord, to whom they remained subject as slaves.

yarak a state of prime fitness in a hawk.

fewmets the droppings of the prey, used by the hunter to track it.

libbard a mispronunciation of "leopard."

brachet a hunting dog.

tippet a scarf-like garment of fur, wool, etc. for the neck and shoulders, hanging down in front; historically worn by judges or religious officials.

cabalistic pertaining to signs and symbols of secret societies or factions.

lignum vitae Latin for "wood of life;" a type of tree used to make various medicines.

corkindrill a mythological beast.

phoenix a mythological bird that bursts into flame and then rises from its own ashes.

oleander a poisonous evergreen shrub.

astrolabe an instrument used to find the altitudes of stars.

satsuma a variety of Japanese pottery.

cloisonne pottery and china in which colored enamels are kept separate by thin metal strips.

pismires ants.

cigarette cards trading cards that used to be given out in cigarette packs.

truncheon a short, thick club used by policemen.

greaves pieces of armor that cover the shins.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher and pupil of Plato, noted for works on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and so on.

Hecate a goddess of the moon, earth, and underground realm of the dead, later regarded as the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft.

Master of Trinity Dean of Trinity College, Oxford.

Cromwell Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), British Puritan general and Lord Protector of England from 1653-58.

stoat a kind of ermine, or weasel, whose fur is often used for coats and robes.

vespers the sixth of the seven canonical hours, or the service for it occurring in the late afternoon or early evening.

barbican a defensive tower or similar fortification at a gate or bridge leading into a town or castle.

bartizans a small, overhanging turret on a tower or a castle.

portcullis a heavy iron grating suspended by chains and lowered between grooves to bar the gateway of a castle or fortified town.

tracery stone ornamental open-work found in castle windows.

bosses ornamental projecting pieces, as at the intersection of the ribs of an arched roof.

the Marches the borderlands of England and Scotland.

byres cow barns.

M.F.H. Master of Foxhounds.

Agincourt a village in Northern France where King Henry V defeated the French in 1415.

alaunts, gaze-hounds, lymers and braches different kinds of hounds.

purlieus regions.

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