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The Wart and Kay walk toward the Forest Sauvage alongside
the strip of barley in Sir Ector’s fields. Eventually, they encounter
a seven-foot-tall giant named Little John. Little John leads them
to the camp of a man he calls Robin Wood, known to the villagers
as Robin Hood. At the camp they meet Robin and his love, Maid Marian.
Robin tells them that one of his men, Friar Tuck, has been kidnapped
by Morgan le Fay, a woman of uncertain origin who is believed to
be the queen of fairies. Le Fay has also captured one of Sir Ector’s
servants, Dog Boy, and a local idiot named Wat. The Wart and Kay
agree to help rescue the three men.
Robin tells the Wart and Kay that although his men will
help them get to Morgan le Fay’s castle, only innocent children
may enter, so the Wart and Kay will have to go on alone. Robin gives
the boys a small knife, which he explains will protect them because
fairies are afraid of iron. Robin warns them not to eat anything
while they are in the castle, since they will be trapped there forever
if they do so. As he gives them his instructions, his men drift
in silently for their meal.
That night, the company regroups near the castle,
and Marian, Kay, and the Wart successfully sneak past a fierce griffin,
a creature with the head of a falcon, the body of a lion, and the
tail of a snake. The fairies, hoping to lure in children, have made
their castle out of butter, cheese, and meat, but the Wart and Kay
find it nauseating. Inside the castle, the Wart and Kay find Morgan
le Fay resting on a bed of lard, and Dog Boy, Friar Tuck, and Wat
tied to pillars of pork. The boys rescue the prisoners by threatening
Morgan le Fay with their knives.
Although the castle disappears when Morgan le Fay is defeated,
the griffin remains and attacks Kay and the Wart as they escape.
Robin’s men try unsuccessfully to fight the griffin off with their
bows. As the griffin leaps toward the Wart, Kay shoots an arrow
into its eye, and it dies. The griffin falls on the Wart, breaking
his collarbone. Robin’s men present Kay with the griffin’s
head. As his reward for the adventure, the Wart asks only to be
able to bring Wat back to Merlyn to see if the magician can cure
Wat, who is mad. Back at Sir Ector’s castle, the boys are congratulated
for their adventure, and Kay is very proud.
The Wart becomes bored with recuperating from a broken
collarbone and asks Merlyn to change him into an ant in one of the
colonies Merlyn keeps in a glass tank. Merlyn agrees and tells the
Wart to place a reed between the two nests. He then changes the
Wart into an ant, and the Wart finds himself at the outskirts of
one of the two nests. A sign above the entrance to the colony reads, EVERYTHING
NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY. In his head, the Wart can
hear repetitive broadcasts that alternate between giving orders
and directions and playing repetitive, soothing gibberish. The Wart
comes across an ant who is busy arranging the corpses of two dead
ants. Because the Wart is doing nothing, the ant thinks he is insane
and reports him to the central command. Sarcastically, the Wart
says he has merely hit his head and forgotten his identity, and the
ant finds work for him. As the Wart works, he hears more and more
broadcasts that prepare the nest for war with illogical arguments
and religious sermons that advocate violence. Just as the two ant
colonies are about to go to war, Merlyn returns the Wart to human
“The Sword in the Stone” is often considered to be more
directed toward children than the other three books of The
Once and Future King, and Kay’s quest supports this claim.
Kay’s and the Wart’s adventures in the Forest Sauvage are comical,
enjoyable, and filled with the typical traits of a fairy tale or
a children’s story: castles, griffins, fairies, and, of course,
the character of Robin Hood. White’s principle inspiration for The
Once and Future King was Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur,
a fifteenth-century prose rendition of the Arthurian legend that
has become one of its most definitive interpretations. In his novel,
however, White drastically departs from the characters of Malory’s
creation. The episode feels like it is a lighthearted jaunt
outside of the novel’s regular world that tries to delight a younger
audience by combining famous characters like Robin Hood with fairy-tale
elements like Morgan le Fay and the griffin.
As Kay develops as a character, he remains overly proud
and arrogant, but also becomes more likable. We feel more sympathy
for the Wart, but once Kay is given his chance to shine, he shows
some admirable traits. For example, Kay proves to be very brave,
and he has an unerring skill at archery that allows him to shoot
the griffin and save his companions. Kay is bound to emerge as the
quest’s hero, since it is his adventure, but he behaves with courage
and good grace nonetheless. The Wart is not a hero in this episode
in the same sense as Kay, since he does not win fights or kill beasts.
The Wart does, however, have an unusually strong sense of kindness
and compassion, and he is consistently selfless. After he and Kay
rescue Robin Hood’s friends from the fairy, the Wart seeks only
to have Wat cured. He is not interested in the superficial
trappings of glory; rather, he cares about his fellow human beings
and wants what is in their best interests.
The Wart’s trip to the ant colony makes a powerful statement
on how societies run the risk of becoming overly rigid and uniform. The
ant society is clearly communal, but not because each member chooses
to work for the common good. Rather, each ant blindly does whatever
task it has been assigned. Chillingly, the ants depend on this conformity,
and while the Wart is horrified by this cold and faceless society,
the other ants find the monotony comforting. Whereas the king pike
of the moat demonstrates to the Wart the cruelty of individual tyranny,
the ants are an example of the tyranny of the masses, under which
freedom is willfully surrendered. This is a society so practical
that, as the sign on the tunnels that lead to the gates says, everything
not forbidden is compulsory. The emphasis on labor and
the contradictory messages that are continuously broadcast have
a contemporary ring. The ant society seems to represent communist
societies, which often revolved around the idea that each member
would labor for the common good. This episode aims not only to teach
the Wart how dangerous these supposed utopias can be, but also to
alert us to the fallacies of socialist society.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!