The Once and Future King
Book I: “The Sword in the Stone,” Chapters 20–24
Summary: Chapter 20
Six years pass. Kay becomes more temperamental, insisting on using weapons he cannot handle and challenging everybody to fights in which he is invariably defeated. He begins to spend less time with the Wart, since the Wart will soon be beneath Kay’s social station, though it seems Kay is behaving in this way against his will. The Wart is resigned to his fate as Kay’s squire.
Summary: Chapter 21
Merlyn tells the sulking Wart that the best thing for sadness is to learn something new. Merlyn tells the Wart that this is the last time he will be able to turn him into an animal, since they will soon part ways. Merlyn then turns the Wart into a badger and sends him to visit a wise badger. The Wart, however, in his foul mood, wanders away from the badger’s lair and comes across a hedgehog, whom he threatens to eat.
The Wart eventually returns to the badger’s lair and talks to the badger, who tells the Wart a story about how man got dominion over the animals. In the beginning, all animals looked like shapeless embryos. God offered to alter each of them in three different ways. The animals chose things like claws for digging and large teeth for cutting. Man was the last embryo to choose, and he chose to stay just as God made him. God therefore gave him dominion over the animals and the ability to use any tool he wanted. The badger wonders, however, whether man has turned his dominion into a kind of tyranny.
Summary: Chapter 22
When King Pellinore arrives for Kay’s knighting, he brings important news: King Uther Pendragon has died without an heir. A sword, which has been stuck all the way through an iron anvil and into a stone underneath it, has appeared in front of a church in London. On the sword are inscribed the words, “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.” A tournament has been proclaimed for New Year’s Day so that men from all over England can come to try to pull out the sword. Kay convinces Sir Ector, Sir Grummore, and Sir Pellinore that they should go to the tournament. While they are talking, the Wart and Merlyn enter and Merlyn announces that he is leaving.
Summary: Chapter 23
On the day of the tournament, Kay is so excited that he makes the group get up early and go to the jousting area an hour before the jousts begin. When he arrives, Kay realizes that he has left his sword at the inn, so he haughtily sends the Wart to go back and get it. The inn is closed, however, when the Wart gets there. In front of a nearby church, he sees a sword stuck in a stone. He makes two unsuccessful attempts to pull out the sword. There is a sudden stirring in the churchyard, and the Wart sees a congregation of his old animal friends. With their encouragement, the Wart pulls the sword from the stone with ease. The Wart brings the sword back to Kay. Kay recognizes it as the sword that will determine the next king of England and falsely claims that he was the one who pulled it out of the stone. When Sir Ector presses Kay, however, Kay admits that the Wart pulled it out. To the Wart’s horror, his beloved foster father and brother both kneel before him, and he tearfully wishes he had never found the sword.
Summary: Chapter 24
The Wart is accepted as king after repeatedly putting the sword into the anvil and drawing it back out again. He receives gifts from all over England. One day, Merlyn appears magically before him. He tells the Wart that the Wart’s father was Uther Pendragon and that Merlyn was the one who first brought the Wart to Sir Ector’s castle as an infant. Merlyn tells the Wart that from now on he will be known as King Arthur.
Analysis: Chapters 20–24
The Wart’s encounter with the hedgehog is the first time that the Wart, in any form, is stronger or more powerful than anybody else, and he has his first experience of tyranny in this episode. Until now, it has always been in the Wart’s best interests to disagree with the concept of absolute power, since he is always one of the weakest beings in his world, whether he is a hawk, fish, goose, or human. Now that the Wart is finally in a position to bully somebody, he seems to be on the verge of indulging the same habits against which Merlyn has tried to warn him. When he first encounters the little hedgehog, the Wart is not at all hungry, but his general chagrin at Kay’s attitude and Merlyn’s departure causes him to threaten the little hedgehog with immediate death. Eventually, however, the Wart’s innate sense of decency takes over, and he agrees not to eat the hedgehog. The episode is played for laughs—the hedgehog’s pathetic whines are quite ridiculous—and White does not try to draw too much of a moral out of this precursor to the chapter’s main encounter. Nonetheless, this encounter reveals the corrupting effect that absolute power can have on even the most well-meaning individuals. The fact that Arthur is able to resist the lure of power bodes well for the many people Arthur soon comes to rule.
The Wart learns a few more valuable lessons during his conversations with the badger. As the badger relates his parable about how man came to dominate the animal kingdom, he also relates the importance of being content with what one has instead of coveting the abilities or position of others. This is an important lesson for the Wart, who is terribly dejected by the thought that Kay will become a knight while he will have to remain a squire. The badger also notes, however, that humanity has not handled its responsibilities well, and he hints that even unexpected gifts should be handled with caution. The freedom to do anything—the kind of freedom that a king of England has—must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility to do the right thing. The Wart learns that to be a good leader he must make ethical, rational decisions that benefit the greater good of his people. Like the other lessons Wart learns from his adventures, these lessons do not seem to have anything to do with his life right now, but they become important when the Wart unexpectedly becomes king.
The events in the narrative of the final chapters occur quickly. The story jumps ahead six years; Kay is knighted, King Uther dies, Merlyn leaves, and the Wart pulls the sword out of the stone and becomes the next king. The previous chapters move at an almost methodical pace, paying attention to many seemingly trivial conversations and events. It is surprising, therefore, that the plot moves at such speed in the final chapters, as these chapters include such important events as Kay’s knighting and Arthur’s coronation. The rapid pace, however, reflects how sudden and unexpected the Wart’s coming to the throne is. The fact that so much changes so quickly also seems to indicate that Arthur’s becoming king of England will mean huge changes not just for Arthur, but for the country as well.
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