The Once and Future King
Book I: “The Sword in the Stone,” Chapters 14–19
Summary: Chapter 14
In November, Sir Ector receives a letter from Uther Pendragon, the king of England, telling him that the royal huntsman, William Twyti, will be coming to hunt near Sir Ector’s castle that winter. Sir Ector is expected to house Twyti, his dogs, and his men.
Summary: Chapter 15
On Christmas night, the whole village comes to the great hall of the castle to feast. William Twyti is there with his men. The castle and its fields are beautiful under the snow, and everyone is in a good mood.
Summary: Chapter 16
Early the next morning, Twyti gathers his men and his dogs for the hunt. With the help of Robin Wood, they find a boar. The boar eventually rushes at Twyti, but Robin kills it with a sword before it can harm Twyti. After the hunt, Pellinore finds the Questing Beast lying sick on the ground and deduces that the beast’s decline is his fault. Pellinore is guilt-ridden by the thought that he has been resting in Sir Grummore’s castle for months while the beast has pined away in his absence. He gathers men to bring the Questing Beast back to Sir Ector’s castle, where he plans to nurse it back to health so the quest can begin again.
Summary: Chapter 17
One day in spring, Merlyn, the Wart, and Merlyn’s talking owl, Archimedes, have a conversation. The Wart claims that the rook is his favorite bird because it flies as though it has a sense of humor. Archimedes says his favorite bird is the pigeon. Merlyn speculates that the calls of birds and animals are imitations of sounds in nature.
Summary: Chapter 18
That night, Merlyn transforms the Wart into an owl. Archimedes teaches him to fly gracefully. Once the Wart knows how to fly, Merlyn turns him into a goose and transports him to a vast, wet plain. The Wart flies with other geese, looks for food, stands guard as they eat, and meets a female goose named Lyo-lyok. She makes fun of his strange behavior, and the Wart tells her that he is really a human. He shocks her by wondering out loud whether they are guarding against an attack by other geese. Lyo-lyok tells him that the idea of two groups of the same species killing each other is unthinkable, since there are already predators outside of their species and since there are no boundaries or territories in the air that can be fought over.
Summary: Chapter 19
The Wart learns about the geese’s society from Lyo-lyok. The geese have no private property or laws, and their leaders are selected on the basis of their ability to navigate. Soon the time for migration comes, and on their first day of flight, they travel to Norway. The Wart wakes up in his human form to hear Kay, with whom the Wart shares a bed, telling him he snores like a goose.
Analysis: Chapters 14–19
King Pellinore’s discovery of the sick Questing Beast in this section satirizes the futility of the knightly quest and makes such quests seem endearing. Hunting the Questing Beast is not only Pellinore’s mission in life, but also the mission of his entire family. His discovery of the sick beast, however, demonstrates that he does not really desire to accomplish this goal. Rather than kill the beast and bring the Pellinore dynasty to its final triumph, Pellinore nurses the beast back to health so the chase can continue. In doing so, Pellinore seems to be a somewhat ridiculous figure, more interested in the sense of purpose that the quest brings to his life than in actually accomplishing this purpose. It is hard, however, to fault him for his tenderness toward the creature. As silly as it is for him to keep on hunting when he could finally end his mission, it would be heartless for him to slay the ailing, heartbroken beast. It is interesting too that the bumbling Pellinore, usually so shy and maladjusted, seizes control of the situation here and becomes an assertive, almost admirable figure. This episode suggests that Pellinore’s quest is foolish but that he is somehow noble in pursuing it.
The boar hunt is significant because the narrative returns to Kay’s quest, during which the novel’s morals and philosophy are set aside in favor of a more traditional adventure tale. The boar hunt is an opportunity for White to portray genuine medieval life and has none of the fantastic elements that populate the rest of the story. The animals do not talk, there are no fairies, and neither griffins nor crows threaten Kay or the Wart. This hunt is described in realistic terms and inspires strong emotions. Twyti cries over the death of one of his hunting dogs, and his sadness is believable. This death has more emotional impact than the violence during the Wart’s fantastic and surreal adventures. Much like White himself, Twyti lives for his dogs, whose company he clearly values above that of humans; the death of his beloved hound is as heart-wrenching for him as the death of any of his hunters. By taking us outside of the novel’s fantasy world, the boar hunt reminds us that there is life outside of Sir Ector’s lands and that the land is ruled by a real king.
The Wart’s adventure with the geese presents him with a model of society that is nearly the opposite of the one he experiences during his visit to the ant colony. Like the ants, the geese are communal, since they share all property and work, but they elect their leaders, and their communal life does not threaten individual expression. When the Wart mentions the idea of a war among geese, the idea is so foreign to them that it takes a while for Lyo-lyok even to understand what he means. Whereas we can interpret the ant colony as White’s attack on the repression of communist societies, the geese espouse a sort of democratic socialism, in which a group of individuals all act in one another’s best interests. The novel does not draw any explicit conclusions from these examples but simply presents how they function and what results. Like the Wart, we are expected to draw our own conclusions about which society seems the best and most practical.
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