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In an uncomfortable castle in Orkney, a medieval kingdom
in Ireland, four brothers, Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine, whisper
to one another. Gawaine tells the story of their grandmother, Igraine,
the countess of Cornwall, whose husband was killed by Uther Pendragon
so Pendragon could have Igraine as his wife. In the room below,
Morgause is trying to turn herself invisible. She boils a live cat, separates
the bones from the flesh, and then puts each bone into her mouth
while watching herself in a mirror. Before she finds the right bone,
however, she grows bored and throws the whole mess out the window.
Above her, the boys promise that they will avenge the death of their
grandfather by fighting Uther’s son, Arthur.
Back in England, Arthur stands on the battlements of a
castle with Merlyn. They discuss a recent battle with one of the
Gaelic kings, King Lot of Orkney, who is Morgause’s husband. Arthur
is proud of his victories, but Merlyn scolds him for not knowing
how many kerns, or foot soldiers, were killed in the battle. Merlyn
also tells Arthur that he will have to start thinking for himself,
because Merlyn knows that he will soon fall in love with a girl
named Nimue, who will use Merlyn’s own spells to trap him in
a cave for several centuries. As Arthur holds a rock in his hands,
he is awestruck by the fact that he could drop it on somebody’s
head down below and nobody could punish him. Merlyn watches Arthur
intently while Arthur thinks about this power aloud, but Arthur
breaks out of his bloodthirsty reverie and uses the stone to knock
off Merlyn’s hat.
One day, Kay, Merlyn, and Arthur go hunting for grouse.
Merlyn explains that there are many reasons why the Gaelic kings
are rebelling against Arthur. One of these is the long-running ethnic
feud between the Gaels, an older race who once ruled England, and
the Normans, who drove them out. Another is the fact that Arthur’s father
killed the count of Cornwall, who was the father of Queen Morgause,
Morgan le Fay, and a woman named Elaine. Arthur says he understands
why the Gaelic kings are fighting him. Merlyn retorts, however,
that two wrongs do not make a right. Even though Merlyn is a Gael
himself, he says the Gaels destroyed another race before they themselves
were driven out, and that this conflict occurred so long ago that
it is time to forget it.
Later, Merlyn argues that fighting is generally wrong,
except in cases of self-defense. Kay is skeptical that the aggressor
is always so easy to identify, but Merlyn stubbornly disagrees.
He tells Arthur that his enemy, King Lot, the aggressor in this
case, starts wars as casually as if he were fox hunting and has
no regard for the common soldier.
In Orkney, Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine are
visiting the house of Mother Morlan, a local woman. St. Toirdealbhach,
a “relapsed saint,” is also in the house. After a drink of whiskey,
the fierce and battle-scarred old saint tells them the story of
King Conor, who was shot in battle by a magic bullet. The ball lodged
in his temple, and his surgeons told him to avoid all excitement.
One day during a thunderstorm, a servant told King Conor that Jesus
was being crucified that day, and as the king rushed to defend his
savior, he fell down dead. St. Toirdealbhach thinks sadly that war
isn’t what it used to be and that battles have gotten so big that
it is hard to remember what is being fought over. The boys protest
that one needs many men in a battle or there would be no one to
The boys ride a couple of donkeys to the beach, beating
the donkeys furiously as they go. A magic barge lands, and three
knights—King Pellinore, Sir Grummore, and Sir Palomides—descend
with a dog. A crowd of local townspeople gathers around them.
In this section, White introduces the character of Morgause
and, in doing so, shows the sharp contrast between the upbringing
of the Orkney children and that of Arthur. We first meet Morgause
when she is boiling a live cat to make herself invisible—not because
she needs to become invisible, but because she is bored and wants
to entertain herself. When the project is no longer amusing, Morgause gives
it up, even though it seems as if she is only a few tries away from
succeeding. Morgause is a markedly different parent than the kindly
Sir Ector or Merlyn, and her children’s values, even this early on,
are likewise warped. St. Toirdealbhach, who is hardly a role model,
yearns for the days when wars were more personal, but the Orkney
boys are shocked at how smaller-scale warfare would reduce their
chances of killing people. As they ride the donkeys, their goal
is as much to hurt the beasts as it is to get to the beach. Disturbing
as their comments and behavior are, we feel sorry for the boys.
The first image of them—in which they whisper because they are never
sure when they are doing something wrong—is so pathetic that we
have to pity rather than dislike them.
We first find Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine
telling each other the story about the murder of their grandfather
and the seduction of their grandmother. Merlyn mentions this incident
in his later discussions with Arthur, which demonstrates the importance of
Pendragon’s crime to the story and Arthur’s destiny. In these first few
chapters of the novel’s second book, for example, the seduction of
Igraine and the death of her husband are the only events that seem to
connect Arthur with Orkney. If it weren’t for these events, which neither
Arthur nor the Orkneys actually witnessed, neither party would mention
The relationship between Merlyn and Arthur has clearly changed,
but Arthur continues to learn and develop throughout these chapters.
Arthur is starting to be shaped by his role as a powerful king who
wields power over others, and he initially wants to make war and
seek glory. Merlyn makes Arthur see, however, that such goals are
costly, most often for those who have the least say in them. He
reminds Arthur of the lessons he learned during his childhood adventures.
Accordingly, Arthur has a breakthrough when he understands for the
first time that having a lot of power does not mean that you can
determine morality or justice—that it is possible to have power
and still be wrong. Merlyn acknowledges that war is not always wrong—that
it is sometimes necessary—but Arthur slowly comes to the conclusion
that aggression is always bad. From a contemporary perspective,
some of this philosophy seems obvious. Some might also argue that
White overstates the violence of medieval England, but it was certainly
a society in which strength prevailed. The political philosophies
of the Enlightenment were centuries away, and the land was largely
lawless, much closer to the Wild West of nineteenth-century America
than to the English monarchy as we envision it. Arthur’s eventual
grasp of the idea that power does not equal freedom from moral obligation
is therefore quite revolutionary, an unusually gentle way of viewing
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!