The Once and Future King By T.H. White Summary and Analysis: The Sword and the Stone Chapters 20-21

Summary

Six years pass. Although the Wart's education has continued and he has been transformed into countless different animals, he has grown melancholy and jealous of Kay's impending knighthood. Kay, of course, has no concern for the Wart's feelings and remains a stubborn and sarcastic young man. Merlyn consoles the Wart by telling him that "only fools want to be great," but the Wart pays him no heed, instead telling Merlyn how he would behave, given the chance to be knighted.

The week before Kay's knighting ceremony, Merlyn delivers him one last lecture on the value of education and begins the Wart's last lesson by transforming him into a badger. On his way to the badger hole, the Wart meets a frightened hedgehog, who describes the terrors that the badgers inflict upon him and his kind, as well as the kindness shown to him by Merlyn. When the Wart meets the badger, he is asked to listen to the badger's treatise on why Man has become master of the animals. After he hears the badger's argument, the Wart reveals that he has not, in fact, wholly understood the point.

Analysis

Although the Wart has grown into a teenager and has had the benefit of Merlyn's tutoring for six years, he is still, in many ways, a boy. His jealousy of Kay's future honors is understandable, but his blind devotion to Kay (who mocks the Wart's parentage and rank as a squire) suggests a mind less sophisticated than one may expect. Even White himself describes the Wart as "stupid," which, in this context, also means "naïve" and "boyish." Clearly, the Wart's education is not yet complete, which is why White has him approach Merlyn to receive his final lesson. Merlyn attempts to dispel the Wart's worship of Kay by describing the knighting ritual in a sardonic and dismissive tone: He calls it "only a lot of fuss" and says that Kay will hear "a long lecture about the ideas of chivalry such as they are." The Wart, however, recognizes none of Merlyn's sarcasm and speaks so prophetically to his teacher that the irony is unmistakable: "If I were to be made a knight . . . I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it."

The Wart's idealism here is, indeed, admirable, but unlike the reader and Merlyn, he cannot recognize his folly in asking for such a fate. As King Arthur, the Wart will encounter "all the evil in the world" and will "be the one to suffer" when he is defeated; Merlyn knows this and also knows of the pain which will eventually come to his pupil. However, the reader does see a tender side of Merlyn in this scene that is not found elsewhere in the novel: Because he cannot reveal the Wart's fate to him, Merlyn must ultimately say nothing and sit silently, with his beard in his mouth, staring "tragically" into the fire. His concern over the eventual destruction of his pupil's lofty ideals disturbs the usually pragmatic wizard.

Merlyn does, however, rouse himself from his concerns to give the Wart his final lesson. .In the wizard's final lecture, the reader can detect the voice of White himself, articulating his most important theme: The glory of knighthood may burn bright, but the fires of education burn longer. This idea (of the inherent good in learning) is — more than any of the Wart's individual transformations into animals — Merlyn's greatest lesson and the one he most wants the Wart to digest

Of all the animals into which the Wart comes in contact, the badger is the most obviously depicted as an embodiment of learning: He takes the Wart to a room resembling an Oxford or Cambridge study hall, complete with gowns, portraits of departed alumni badgers "famous in their day for scholarship," and "a portrait of the Founder over the fireplace." This is the first literal classroom into which the Wart has stumbled and it is here that he will receive his most offbeat lesson, because it is one about Man himself.

Again the Wart hears a parable: According to the badger, God summoned all of the embryos of all the animals before Him and offered them all the opportunity, before He "finished" them, to alter any of their features. All of the animals asked for changes in their hands, teeth, or hides in order to better survive in the wild. Man, however, preferred not to offend God and be "rude" by implying (through the request for an alteration) that there was some kind of flaw in His design. Delighted, God proclaimed that man "is the only one who has guessed Our riddle," and conferred upon him "the Order of Dominion" over all of the earth's creatures.

The issues raised in the parable resonate throughout The Sword in the Stone, and it is important to first identify these issues as White suggests them here. Because Man remains in an "embryonic" state, he is, in a figurative sense, childlike — untouched yet naive. More importantly, Man will remain "eternally undeveloped" and exist as "potential." In other words, Man will never be "finished" in any biological (or moral) sense of the word. He will always need to strive to improve himself, which causes God to feel "partly sorry" for him — yet this constant striving for perfection also causes God to feel "partly hopeful." The parable explores the duality of Man: an animal of near-divine potential and capacity for greatness, yet also one who squanders his "Order of Dominion" by engaging in acts of violence that threaten the very world he rules.

All through The Sword in the Stone, the reader finds examples of the parable's ideas. The entire institution of chivalry is a conscious attempt on the part of men to better themselves through the enacting of noble deeds; but men being what they are, the aims of chivalry are often thwarted by greed, ambition, and idleness. Thus, Man strives for perfection but is often undercut by his own failings — even a scene as silly as the joust between Grummore and Pellinore in Chapter 7 illustrates this point. Similarly, Kay's impending knighthood should make him a better person; instead, he becomes more stubborn and nasty than ever before.

At this point in his development, the Wart is all potential and exists as a figurative "embryo" in the world of chivalry, politics, and leadership. The final conversation between the Wart and the badger suggests just how embryonic the Wart remains, even at this late date in his education. When the badger points out the fact that Man possesses "a quantity of vices," the worst of which is his tendency to engage in warfare, the Wart fervently (and without any thought) defends his own species. Even when the badger points out that only five (of the four thousand) species of ant, one termite, and Man kill their own kind, the Wart states that he "would have liked to go to war" so that he could revel in "the banners, the trumpets, the flashing armour and the glorious charges." Like Lyo-lyok before him, the badger earnestly tries to impress upon the Wart the horror of war, but the boy is still (as Lyo-lyok called him) "a baby" or, in this context, an embryo. The badger's last question to the Wart — "Which did you like best, the ants or the wild geese?" — seems like a change of subject, but can also be read as an interrogation of the Wart's values: "Would you" (the question asks) "rather live in a world revolving around war or one in which war does not exist?" White does not have the Wart answer the question because, at this stage, he cannot answer it: He lacks the sophistication necessary to infer the badger's point. He is, like Adam in the parable, still a creature of "potential."

Glossary

sciatica any painful condition in the region of the hip and thigh.

ewers pitchers with wide mouths.

frumenty a English dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk, sweetened, and flavored with spice.

canary a fortified wine similar to Madeira, made in the Canary Islands.

milliard a billion.

the Little Bear a constellation, also known as the Little Dipper.

tumulus an artificial mound.

crofter one who rents and works on a small farm.

midden a dunghill or refuse heap.

the drouthy antipodes a group of cold, drafty ("drouthy") islands belonging to New Zealand.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How does the Wart, now King Arthur, describe war that infuriates Merlyn?




Quiz