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In Book I, “The
Sword and the Stone,” we are introduced to the
Wart, a young boy who eventually becomes King Arthur. The Wart grows
up in the castle of Sir Ector, his foster father. The Wart spends
his days in the company of Kay, Sir Ector’s son and the heir to
his title, amusing himself as best he can while Kay is instructed
in the proper ways of knighthood. One night while lost in the forest,
the Wart encounters the magician Merlyn, a befuddled but powerful
old man who announces that he will be the Wart’s tutor. During the
next six years, Merlyn tries to instill some of his wisdom in the
Wart, teaching him about virtue and the world by turning the Wart
into various animals. Finally, Kay is knighted, and the Wart becomes
his squire, a kind of servant who assists and attends to his master
as the knight travels in search of adventure. When the king of England,
Uther Pendragon, dies, he leaves no heir, and it is proclaimed that
the next rightful king will be whoever can pull out a mysterious sword
that has been driven into a rock. The Wart and Kay travel to London,
where a tournament is being held so that the finest knights will
have the opportunity to try to remove the sword. While running an
errand for Kay, the Wart removes the sword from the stone, and he
is declared the next king of England.
Book II, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,”
finds the young King Arthur, as the Wart is now called, trying to
hold on to his power. Of the men rebelling against Arthur, his most
notable enemy is King Lot of Orkney. As the war rages on in England, Lot’s
sons, Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine, compete for the affections
of their mother, the beautiful but cruel Morgause. By a twist of
fate, Morgause is also Arthur’s half-sister, though he does not
know it. Three knights from Arthur’s court arrive at Orkney, and
unaware that their king is at war with Lot, they proceed to bumble
around the countryside. Although Gawaine, Gaheris, and Gareth are
all decent at heart, they and their brother, Agravaine, are happiest
when they are listening to stories about their proud
heritage and dreaming about wars and bloody revenge.
In England, Arthur begins to plan how he will
rule when the battles are finally over. With Merlyn’s guidance,
he decides to use his own power and that of his fellow knights to
fight for people who cannot defend themselves. Arthur creates an
order of knights to fight for good, called the Knights of the Round
Table. Then, with the help of two French kings, Bors and Ban, Arthur defeats
Lot’s army at the battle of Bedegraine. With her four children,
Morgause travels to Arthur’s court, supposedly to reconcile Arthur
with Lot. While at the court, she uses magic to seduce Arthur. Arthur
is not aware that Morgause is his half-sister, but the incest is
still a great sin, and by sleeping with her, Arthur ultimately brings
about his own destruction.
Book III, “The Ill-Made Knight,” focuses on the great
knight Lancelot and his moral conflicts. Lancelot is just a boy
when King Arthur takes the throne, but he eventually becomes Arthur’s
greatest knight and best friend. Trying to escape his growing feelings
for Queen Guenever, Lancelot embarks on a series of quests that
establish his reputation. In the last of these, he is tricked into
sleeping with a young girl named Elaine. Guenever grows increasingly
jealous of Elaine, and her jealousy eventually drives Lancelot insane.
He roams England for several years as a wild man, unrecognized and
ill-treated by everyone he meets. Finally, Elaine discovers Lancelot
and nurses him back to health. Although Lancelot does not want to
feel obligated to Elaine, he does, and on two occasions he leaves
Camelot to spend time with her and their son, Galahad. Meanwhile, Arthur’s
kingdom begins to unravel, and he tries to keep his knights occupied
by sending them to find the Holy Grail. Only three knights, Sir
Bors, Sir Percival, and Sir Galahad, are pure enough to find the
holy vessel. Lancelot returns a humbled and deeply religious
man. For a while, his love for God makes him stay away from Guenever,
but after he rescues her from a kidnapper, they begin their affair
In Book IV, “The Candle in the Wind,” the destruction
of Camelot becomes inevitable. Mordred, Arthur’s son by his incestuous union
with Morgause, plots revenge against his father. Mordred and Agravaine
trap Arthur into acknowledging the affair between Lancelot and Guenever,
which forces Arthur to prosecute his queen and his best friend.
Lancelot rescues Guenever from being burned at the stake, but in
doing so, he kills two of Gawaine’s brothers, Gareth and Gaheris.
Arthur and his armies lay siege to Lancelot’s castle. The pope sends
an emissary to broker a truce, and Guenever returns to Arthur’s
castle at Camelot. Arthur and Gawaine, however, still want to avenge
the deaths of Gareth and Gaheris, and they continue to besiege Lancelot.
While they are away, Mordred usurps the throne. Arthur rushes back
to reclaim his kingdom. The night before his final stand against
Mordred, Arthur reflects on all he has learned since his youth and
wakes up confident that although this day will be his last, his
legacy will live on.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Once and Future King!