The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Book I: “The Sword in the Stone,” Chapters 5–9

Summary Book I: “The Sword in the Stone,” Chapters 5–9

During the Wart’s time in the Mews, he sees the murderous insanity of a military society. The birds all place a high premium on the importance of lineage and ancestry, and they refer to each other with military titles. Cully, who has been driven to the point of psychotic behavior, is referred to as Colonel, but even his military discipline cannot prevent him from acting on his murderous tendencies. The Wart demonstrates his courage in the Mews, but his success at the task that the birds force him to complete seems to be a hollow victory, and even being triumphantly hailed as “the King of Merlins” is undermined by the ridiculous trial he is forced to endure.

White renders the battle between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore Grummursum ridiculous, using it to poke fun at traditional notions of knighthood. The fight is relatively pointless, since the knights turn a cordial conversation into a joust simply to satisfy the requirements of their social station. There is also humor in the way the fight unfolds, since each man is so heavily padded that he is barely able to hurt the other or even see well enough to avoid running into a tree. The fact that both Pellinore and Sir Grummore address each other in the most formal medieval English is also humorous and allows White to mock the formal address that is traditionally found in Arthurian tales. Knighthood and battling play an important part in The Once and Future King, both for the good and the bad, but in this first chapter they are cast as little more than good-natured buffoonery.

These chapters also foreshadow both a bright future for the Wart and a great evil to come. When the Wart gloomily predicts his life as a squire, Merlyn turns away with a knowing smile. The fact that Merlyn teaches only the Wart tells us that the Wart is somehow special. Clearly, the Wart is bound for something greater than squirehood, but the novel gives no way of knowing that the Wart will become the legendary King Arthur. We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Wart is a nickname for Art, which in turn is short for a longer name, most likely Arthur. No other allusions are given to the Wart’s true identity, and these moments of foreshadowing are our only signs that something important is on its way. The crow’s catching of the Wart’s arrow, however, indicates that the Wart’s future may also contain dark elements. Kay’s somber statement that the crow is a witch suggests that black magic may soon arrive to counter Merlyn’s spells; the bird’s capture of the Wart’s arrow suggests that the omen foretells of malice for the Wart.