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The Once and Future King: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will learn about ''The Once and Future King'', a series of novels about King Arthur written by T. H. White. After a summary of each of the novels, we will examine the main characters. We'll wrap up with a quiz.

Introduction

The Once and Future King was a tetralogy (a set of four novels) written by T. H. White. The first three novels in the set were originally published as separate volumes, but when the fourth novel was published, all four were repackaged into a single volume. The novels were revised once before T. H. White's death, and after his death, a fifth novel was released. The series focuses on King Arthur and follows his life from boyhood onward.

The Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)

In the first novel, Wart, aka Arthur, is a young boy. He is being raised by his foster father, Sir Ector, and trained by Merlyn, a wizard. Merlyn's favorite way to teach Arthur is to turn him into different animals to help him empathize with other points of views and positions in life. For example, in the revised version of the book, Merlyn turns Arthur into a goose and from his aerial perspective, Arthur realizes that there are no actual boundaries between countries, except those that humans have artificially created. Merlyn encourages Arthur to be just, instead of a bully.

As he grows up, Arthur becomes the squire for his foster brother, Kay, who has just become a knight. When the current king of England dies, he leaves no heir, but instead leaves behind a sword driven into a stone and the following promise: the rightful king of England will be whoever can pull the sword out of the stone. A competition is held, but no one succeeds at removing the sword until Arthur tries it on a whim and succeeds.

A Painting of King Arthur
Painting of King Arthur

The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939)

Now king, Arthur has ditched his childhood nickname of Wart. It turns out that being king is kind of overwhelming when there are so many power thirsty people around, including King Lot, a nearby ruler. King Lot's wife, Morgause, is also Arthur's (secret!) half-sister.

Merlyn helps Arthur come up with the idea of the Round Table to bring together a group of powerful knights to help prevent rebellion and to fight for those who cannot defend themselves.

After Arthur defeats King Lot, Morgause and her children visit King Arthur. She seduces Arthur with magic. A child results from this seduction, and this incestual transgression will ultimately prove to be King Arthur's downfall.

The Ill-Made Knight (1940)

The third novel is the longest in the series. It focuses on Sir Lancelot, one of the knights of the Round Table, who has an affair with Queen Guinevere. Sir Lancelot is a religious man, so he struggles with his attraction to the queen. In the novel, he goes on adventures in an attempt to distract himself from his feelings. He has a relationship with another woman, with whom he eventually has one son, Galahad. Galahad is sent on a quest to look for the Holy Grail.

The Candle in the Wind (1958)

Everything comes to a climax in the fourth book, when Mordred (Arthur's son with Morgause) causes the downfall of both King Arthur and all of Camelot. Angry at Arthur, Mordred and his brother, Agravaine, force Arthur to admit that he knows about Lancelot and Guinevere's affair. Guinevere is sentenced to death, but Lancelot intervenes and saves her. Lancelot kills two of Mordred's brothers, which results in Arthur turning on Lancelot. Arthur journeys to Lancelot's to confront him. Mordred, meanwhile, uses Arthur's absence to seize the throne. Arthur goes back to his kingdom where he confronts the knowledge that when he meets Mordred in battle the following day, he will most likely die.

The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Although originally worked on in 1941 by T. H. White, the fifth novel in the series was not published until long after the other books. The Book of Merlyn begins with King Arthur's final battle. Merlyn attempts to instill some last-minute lessons in Arthur about the nature of war. Arthur understands the lessons and instead of wanting to fight with Mordred, he offers Mordred half his kingdom. They are about to work out a truce when a snake interrupts the deal. One of Mordred's soldiers draws a weapon to kill the snake. Arthur's men react, and a fight breaks out that kills both Arthur and Mordred. Guinevere, bereaved, joins a convent. Lancelot similarly becomes a hermit. Both of them die alone.

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