The Once & Future King Study Guide

The Once & Future King By T.H. White

This four-part story re-weaves the tale of King Arthur in a unique way, starting in the last years of Uther Pendragon's rule in Camelot. The first part of the tale, 'The Sword in the Stone', details Arthur's childhood, including his foster father Sir Ector, his rivalry with his foster brother Kay, and his introduction to Merlin, the legendary wizard who lives through time backwards, and thus begins the story knowing all about Arthur's later life, but nothing of what came before. Merlin teaches Arthur (nicknamed 'Wart') by transforming him into a variety of animals, each meant to teach him a lesson that will prepare him to be the king of Camelot. The most important lesson he teaches is that the only acceptable reason to go to war is to prevent another person from going to war, and that the current political setup exemplifies the worst aspects of the Rule of Might.

In the second part, 'The Queen of Air and Darkness', the Orkney clan (the eventual source of Arthur's demise) is introduced, and Arthur is seduced by the clan's mother (and his half-sister) Morgause. Meanwhile, Merlin leads him to understand that the Rule of Might could potentially be used for the cause of Right through the use of the Round Table concept.

In part III, 'The Ill-Made Knight', Queen Guenever is introduced as is her affair with Sir Lancelot. The pains they go through to hide their affair from Arthur have a profound effect on Elaine, the mother of Lancelot's son Galahad. The mood, which has been somewhat light in the first parts, turns meditative in this section of the story.

Finally, bringing the mood down to outright brooding, 'The Candle in the Wind' tells the story of Mordred's hatred for his father and Agravaine's hatred of Lancelot, and how the two caused the downfall of Arthur, Guenever, Lancelot, and the entire kingdom of Camelot.

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