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The Sword in the Stone: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:01 Background
  • 0:27 Important Characters
  • 1:27 The Orphan Wart
  • 2:35 Wart Studies with Merlyn
  • 4:10 The Sword in the Stone
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The Sword in the Stone is an enchanted retelling of the childhood of King Arthur of England. The book's magical adventures, talking animals, and questing knights actually provide serious life lessons that foreshadow the rule of the most legendary king of all time.

Background on The Sword in the Stone

'The Sword in the Stone' makes up the first twenty-four chapters of T.H. White's most famous book, The Once and Future King, published in 1958, which chronicles the adventures of King Arthur of England. Even today, millions are familiar with the legend of King Arthur. These chapters retell the beginning of that legend, populating Arthur's boyhood with talking animals, questing beasts, jousting knights and helpful wizards.

Important Characters

Wart is an unloved orphan, grudgingly fostered by the knight Sir Ector. It is assumed by all that Wart will one day be squire to his foster brother, Kay. Wart is not a spectacularly talented child, but he is honest, kind, and helpful (basically the complete opposite of his foster brother). Wart's work with his tutor Merlyn helps him learn about the world as he becomes the legendary King Arthur.

Kay is Sir Ector's son. He's a selfish boy who is born to wealth and privilege and doesn't mind stepping on people to get what he needs. Even though he has so much more than Wart, Kay is jealous of his foster brother and wants the attention of Merlyn for himself.

Merlyn, who grows younger each year and can perform all sorts of magic, is the wizard who helps guide Wart to the sword in the stone. Through lessons that seem like nothing more than fun adventures, Merlyn teaches Wart about the government, war, and humanity of the world around him.

Now that we know who the important characters are, let's look at the plot.

The Orphan Wart

Sir Ector is raising two boys in medieval England. The elder is his natural son, Kay, who is spoiled and rather stupid but rarely chastised for it. After all, he's the heir and will one day be the ruler of the land. The other boy is the orphan Art, nicknamed Wart. He spends his time fixing Kay's mistakes. On the day the action in our story starts, Kay has taken a hawk he cannot control out to fly and the hawk has escaped. Kay storms off in a huff and Wart decides to try to recapture the bird.

Wart follows the bird into the forest that surrounds Sir Ector's castle and gets lost. He runs into a knight, King Pellinore, who's searching for the Questing Beast. Wart asks Pellinore the way back to Ector's keep, but Pellinore hears the Beast and rushes off, leaving the boy alone in the forest.

Wart meets another stranger, an old man wearing a robe and hat embroidered with strange symbols. But the man, Merlyn, knows Wart's name and invites him into his home, which is full of strange things, including a talking owl named Archimedes. Wart is mystified but immediately impressed. Merlyn explains that he will be Wart's new tutor, and leads Wart back to Ector's castle.

Wart Studies with Merlyn

Both Sir Ector and Kay make little of Merlyn's powers. Wart's first lesson changes the way he views his tutor and his world, and proves that Merlyn is very much magical. As Merlyn and his pupil stand on the edge of the castle's moat, Wart wonders aloud what it would be like to be a fish.

So Merlyn turns him into a fish.

Merlyn transforms into a fish too, and they venture into the moat together. Merlyn takes Wart to meet the King of the Moat, an old Pike who represents monarchs everywhere. The old Pike tries to eat Wart, but he changes back into a human just in time.

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