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