The Once and Future King

by: T. H. White

Book I: “The Sword in the Stone,” Chapters 10–13

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.