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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

This novel depicts the reign of King Arthur from his early education until his death. The novel is divided into four books.

The first book, The Sword in the Stone, shows Arthur (nicknamed Wart) from ages twelve to eighteen at his adopted father’s manor in England. Sir Ector runs the Forest Sauvage with his son Kay and his good friend Grummore. Wart meets a knight named Pellinore who is searching for a beast named the Questing beast; he and wart become good friends.

One day while chasing a lost falcon in the woods, Wart encounters a wizard named Merlyn who becomes his tutor. Merlyn can see into the future and knows that Wart will become King of England and designs his education appropriately. The wizard turns Wart into various animals throughout the first book in order to teach him various lessons.

When Wart is turned into a fish, he learns the tyranny of power and the fear that the helpless and meek feel before the mighty hand of the king. He is then transformed into a hawk and by spending the night in the falconry mews he learns the hypocrisy of a military dictatorship and the advantage of bravery. As ant ant, he experiences and internalizes the horrific and demoralizing nature of totalitarianism. To contrast, Merlyn turns him into a goose, where he experiences a peaceful society free of nations and borders. As a goose, he befriends Lyo-Lyok, who teaches him that there is an alternative to war. Finally, Wart is turned into an owl and a badger. An old badger shares with him that human are the most capable species because of their ability to use many tools to persevere and succeed.

Six yeas pass, and Wart’s “brother” Kay is to be knighted. The members of the castle learn that the old king, Uther Pendragon has died and there is to be a contest to find the new king. The rightful king of England must be able to pull a sword out of a stone (the stone is labeled as such), and the characters of Book One travel to London to let Kay have a shot at becoming king.

Kay loses his sword, and Wart unwittingly pulls the sword out of the stone to give to Kay, and becomes the king of England.

In Book Two, The Queen of Air and Darkness, White introduces the evil Queen Morgause and her four sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. The witch is the daughter of the Earl of Cornwall and his wife Igraine; the latter was kidnapped by Uther Pendragon and became mother to King Arthur. Morgause’s sons, therefore, and Arthur are nephews and uncle. Morgause and Arthur are half-siblings. Morgause and her sons are bent on revenge against Arthur for Igraine’s rape, and Morgause seduces the young king at the end of the book and becomes pregnant with Mordred.


Also in this book, Arthur wages the war to end all wars against Morgause’s husband Lot. Arthur wishes to end the rebellions that have plagued the British throne, and he fights, and wins, a last battle to suppress these uprisings. During this battle, he formulates a theory on which his reign is predicated on “Right makes Might,” that is, that good can be just as powerful a tool as tyranny. Arthur begins to reform the knighthood so that his knights will be fighting for good causes - this elite cadre of knights will be called “the Knights of the Round Table.”

In a tangential and comic plotline, Pellinore and two other knights have several misadventures in the area of Britain where Morgause and her family live. This plot ends with Pellinore relinquishing the search for the Questing Beast and marrying a woman named Piggy.

The third book is titled The Ill-made Knight, and its title character, the ugly, religious, and serious Lancelot, is introduced as a young man in France who is training to become one of Arthur’s knights. He eventually travels to England at Arthur’s behest, and promptly falls in love with Arthur’s young wife Guenever. In order to escape his longing for the Queen, Lancelot leaves on a quest and through a number a victories establishes himself as the best knight in the world. During these adventures he saves Morgause’s sons from certain death, earning their eternal wrath because of their supposed humiliation. Lancelot also performs a miracle by saving a young woman named Elaine from a curse; she in turn seduces him, bearing a son, Galahad. The sexual act makes him impure and causes him great shame. Lancelot compounds the problem by returning to Guenever and making love to her.

Elaine tracks Lancelot down to show him his son, and the combination of his shame and Guenever’s anger causes the knight to lose his mind and go missing as a “Wild Man’ for a few years. Elaine eventually finds him and aids in his recovery. Evntually Lancelot returns to Arthur and Guenever.

Arthur is dismayed at the failure of his “Round Table” to rehabilitate the wild ways of the young knights in England, and Lancelot and Arthur concoct a religious quest for the young men that will engage them physically and spiritually. This quest is to find the Holy Grail, and all of the knights in England embark on this adventure. It is soon apparent that only the pure can reach the Grail; a number of knights’ stories, their failures and successes are told in this section. Lancelot, because of his pride and sin, cannot reach the grail, but is allowed to see the three who are pure find the grail: Percivale (Pellinore’s son), Bors (Lancelot’s cousin) and Galahad (Lancelot’s son).

Lancelot returns again to Camelot filled with religious vigor. He saves Guenever from a number of foes who accuse her (rightly) of treason and infidelity. Mordred, Arthur’s son, now a young man, joins Arthur at court with revenge in his heart for Arthur’s sins many years ago.

In Book Four, The Candle in the Wind, Mordred and Morgause’s sons exact their revenge on Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever. Arthur has begun establishing a system of justice throughout England. Mordred uses this against the old king by catching Lancelot and Guenever in the act of love and establishing without doubt Guenever’s treason. The Queen is to be burned at the stake, but is saved at the last minute by Lancelot. Arthur is then forced to wage war on his favorite knight and wife; Mordred then betrays the king by kidnapping Guenever to marry himself. The book closes with Arthur at war against his son and in despair; he asks a young page, Tom, to tell the world of his ideas about Right and Might.

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