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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!