Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.
Sir Ector’s castle is located in the middle of a wild English forest called the Forest Sauvage. On a hot summer day in August, the Wart meets his new tutor, Merlyn, for his first lesson. They stand on a bridge above the castle’s moat, and the Wart wishes aloud that he were a fish. Merlyn transforms the Wart into a fish and accompanies him in the moat in the form of a large, wise-looking tench. At the behest of a roach—another, weaker kind of fish—they visit a family of fish whose matriarch is ill, and although Merlyn thinks she is making up her illness, he cures her all the same. Merlyn, who wants the Wart to learn about the dangers of absolute monarchy, brings him to visit the king of the moat, an enormous pike. The pike, who looks a little like Uncle Sam, lazily answers some of the Wart’s questions, affirming that power and might are the only two things worth living by. The pike then tries to eat the Wart, but the Wart swims away in the nick of time and is promptly changed back into a boy by Merlyn.
Kay and the Wart go hunting for rabbits. After Kay kills one rabbit, the Wart fires an arrow into the air. A gore-crow catches the arrow in the air and flies off with it. Kay solemnly pronounces to his angry companion that the bird must have been a witch.
One day while a sergeant at arms teaches Kay to joust, the Wart mentions to Merlyn that he would also like to be a knight, though he sadly remembers that he is destined to be Kay’s squire, an unknighted assistant charged with escorting and aiding knights on their quests. Although Merlyn seems to know that the Wart’s gloomy prediction is inaccurate, he keeps this knowledge to himself and says he will allow the Wart to see some real knights. The Wart eagerly picks King Pellinore, to whom he has become attached, and he is magically transported to a clearing in the Forest Sauvage, where he sees Sir Grummore Grummursum challenging Pellinore to a joust. The two knights engage in a cordial moment and then decide to joust, calling out insults to each other in the more formal high tongue. The battle is a silly one. Each knight is so weighed down by his armor that neither can hurt the other. The two knights charge at each other twice on horses and then a few more times on foot before missing each other entirely and crashing into trees. Merlyn tells the Wart that when the knights wake up, they will be friends. Merlyn then transports the Wart back to the practice ground at Sir Ector’s castle.
Growing bored, the Wart wanders around the castle. Merlyn turns the Wart into a merlin, a kind of hunting bird, and puts the Wart in the Mews with the other birds for the night. There, the peregrine falcon, the bird in charge, asks the Wart about his ancestry and challenges the Wart to prove himself. As a new member of the group, he must show himself worthy by perching within reach of Cully, the goshawk, until the other hawks have rung their bells three times. Cully, who is so used to killing, attacks the Wart, who barely escapes as the bells ring for a third time. In song, the birds hail him as “the King of Merlins.”
The next morning, the Wart wakes up in his own bed, and Kay accuses him of violating curfew the night before. The Wart refuses to tell Kay about the previous night, and the two begin to fight. The Wart receives a black eye, and Kay’s nose begins to bleed. As Kay waits for the blood to stop, he begins to cry because Merlyn has not given him any of the adventures he has given the Wart. When the Wart asks Merlyn why he ignores Kay, Merlyn replies with a parable. In Merlyn’s story, the Rabbi Jachanan and the prophet Elijah are given shelter by two men, one kind and one cruel. The kind man’s cow dies, and Elijah helps the cruel man fix a wall in his house. When the rabbi asks Elijah why neither man has gotten what he deserved, Elijah replies that if the one man had not been kind, he would have suffered much worse, and that if the other man had not been cruel, he would have fared much better. The Wart continues to demand an adventure for Kay. Merlyn finally relents and tells the Wart that Kay will have an adventure.
Each of the magical adventures that Merlyn gives the Wart seems designed to impart a carefully calculated lesson or set of lessons. The Wart learns two important lessons from his transformation into a perch and his adventure in the moat. First, Merlyn’s compassion toward the roach shows the Wart that even the meekest creatures deserve help, no matter how silly their ailments seem. Even more important, however, is the Wart’s encounter with the old pike who runs the moat. The old pike is the epitome of absolute might, and this portrait of power is unflattering. When the old and evil king pike lunges for the Wart, his many rows of teeth represent the sharp and cruel nature that necessarily accompanies absolute power. It is relevant that White likens the fish, with its lean, smooth jaws, to Uncle Sam, the iconic image of the government in the United States. Written in the late 1930s, while new superpower nations were emerging, The Once and Future King explores parallels between the Arthurian world and the modern one and frequently tries to link its morals to contemporary events.