In medieval England, Sir Ector raises two young boys—his son, Kay, and an adopted orphan named Art, who has come to be known as the Wart. The boys are taught chivalry and mathematics, and although Kay makes mistakes in his lessons, he is rarely disciplined, since he will one day inherit his father’s lands and title. Drinking port one day, Sir Ector and his friend Sir Grummore Grummursum decide that they should go on a quest to find a new tutor for the boys, since their previous tutor has gone insane. It is July, however, and Sir Ector is busy supervising his tenants while they put the year’s hay out to dry. One day after working in the fields, Kay and the Wart go hawking. They take the hawk Cully from the Mews—the room where the hawks are kept—and head into the fields. Even though the Wart is better at handling Cully, Kay insists on carrying the hawk, and he releases him prematurely in the hopes that the hawk will catch a nearby rabbit. Cully, who is in a temperamental mood, flies into a nearby tree instead and perches there, glaring evilly at the two boys.
Cully flies deeper and deeper into the forest. The Wart worries that Cully’s caretaker, Hob, will be disappointed to see so much of his hard work gone to waste, but Kay says that Hob is just a servant, and he storms off. The Wart, however, decides to stay behind and recapture the bird. As darkness falls, the Wart settles down under the tree where Cully has perched. A man shoots an arrow at the Wart, and the Wart runs farther into the forest, losing his way. In the forest, he runs into a knight named King Pellinore. King Pellinore is a kindly, bespectacled man who is on a hunt for a magical creature known as the Questing Beast. The Wart invites Pellinore back to Sir Ector’s castle, hoping that Pellinore knows the way or will at least protect him. Pellinore seems tempted, but he suddenly hears the Questing Beast and runs off in hot pursuit, leaving the Wart behind.
The Wart eventually falls asleep in the dark forest. In the morning, he discovers a cottage and an old man drawing water from a well. The old man introduces himself as Merlyn. He has a long white beard and is dressed in a pointed cap and a gown with embroidered stars and strange signs. He invites the Wart, whose name he already knows, into the cottage, which is full of magical items, strange artifacts, and a talking owl named Archimedes. Merlyn tells the Wart that he is a magician who lives backward in time and that he will be the Wart’s new tutor. They leave for Sir Ector’s castle, and the Wart marvels that he must have just been on a quest.
The Wart and Merlyn make their way to the castle, stopping only to catch Cully. When they arrive, Merlyn demonstrates his magical powers to Sir Ector, who dismisses them as sleights of hand, but hires Merlyn nonetheless. Kay belittles the Wart’s adventure. Merlyn, who has become suddenly terrifying, chastises him in the formal English of the time. This reprimand makes everybody feel uncomfortable, and Merlyn feels bad for his hot temper. He apologizes to Kay and gives him a silver hunting knife.
To fully understand The Once and Future King, it is necessary to immerse ourselves in the story’s fairy-tale world; White enables us to do so by having his narrator drop in helpful background details and history. We can deduce the personalities of the Wart, Merlyn, Sir Ector, Kay, and King Pellinore from their actions and conversations, but we need to be told everything else explicitly. Bits of history and small details, such as what wine Sir Ector and Sir Grummore are drinking when they converse, are given. The narrative remains seamless, and the novel never feels more like a history book than a work of fiction. White takes great liberties, nonetheless, in telling us all he thinks we need to know. He does not want us to stumble or to only partially understand the story’s time period.
To some readers, the story that White is telling is very familiar, since it is a retelling of the traditional tales of medieval England with a modern touch. White’s novel is part of the Arthurian tradition, a canon of stories and myths about a legendary Briton king that date back at least to early twelfth-century Britain and France. Although the legend of King Arthur has numerous contemporary interpreters, White is one of the few to give it modern touches, and he does so to great effect. His story is full of castles, knights, magicians, and serfs, but these characters have desires and speech that are familiar to us. Nowhere is this aspect of the novel better illustrated than in the drunken conversation between Sir Ector and Sir Grummore. While both men are medieval knights, they speak the dialogue of the post-World War I British aristocracy. Fundamentally good-natured, Sir Ector and Sir Grummore are also a pompous pair, and seeing them hem and haw while they drink port makes them more familiar and accessible. By making the two medieval knights sound and act like modern British aristocrats, White makes them more understandable than they would be if they spoke in the language of the time. The characters’ uncomfortable reaction to Merlyn’s use of formal and outdated language when chastising Kay further demonstrates their modern character.
The early interactions between Kay and the Wart set the stage for our understanding of the boys as they grow, and White makes sure we can empathize with them. The first few chapters are peppered with incidents that help us get an understanding of these two complicated characters. Kay, after losing Cully, angrily states that Hob is only a servant whose feelings are irrelevant, and then he storms off. Wart, on the other hand, spends the night in the forest to find Hob’s bird. The Wart seems very much like the good-natured, marginalized stepchild so common in English literature, always decent and eager to please. It is interesting that the Wart is not particularly courageous or full of bravado; rather, he simply does what needs to be done to set things right no matter how frightened he is. Kay, on the other hand, is less pleasant. His actions reveal that he is a spoiled and angry child, so used to having his own superiority asserted for him that he cannot stand to have it challenged. However, he also seems to be a victim of circumstance, since he constantly veers between the haughtiness that his title requires and his own kind heart. He belittles the Wart only when the Wart earns too much praise. Kay’s selfish delight in the hunting knife that Merlyn gives him is a touching reminder that Kay’s behavior is typical among children his age.