By T. H. White

(1958) The Once and Future King is the collective volume of works, loosley based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (c.1469), which includes The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness (formerly The Witch in the Wood), The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. It is probably the most famous and popular of T. H. White's books.


A brief synopsis

by Tia Nevitt

The Sword in the Stone, is about Arthur's childhood. He is not called Arthur at this point, but The Wart, a name bestowed on him by his foster brother, Kay. The Wart lives in Sir Ector's castle in the Forest Savauge. Of the five books, this one is the one most suitable for children. An early adventure in the book is about how the Wart found Merlyn. Merlyn becomes the boys' tutor, and the Wart is sent on many strange adventures when he is turned into various animals. The book ends just after the Wart pulls the sword from the stone, and becomes Arthur, King of England.

Right away, he must go to war to defend his claim. Among his aggressors is Lot, King of the Orkney Isles. The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is primarily concerned with the lives of Lot's young sons, and his wife Morgause. The sons love their mother, even though they know she is evil, and this causes many problems later in the book.

The third book, The Ill-Made Knight is about Lancelot. Of all the different renditions of the Arthurian legends, I like White's rendering of Lancelot the best. Although he is the greatest knight in the world, he is cursed with a freakishly ugly face. White makes it clear that he looks like an ape. I wish the producers of the movie version of the musical Camelot, which is based on this book, had the courage to present Lancelot as he is presented in this book.

Lancelot has a lot of problems which he attempts, not very successfully, to resolve. His biggest problem is Guenever, Arthur's young wife. They fall in love, and they try very hard not to admit it to themselves at first. He also must deal with his fragile psyche, and he goes mad two or three times. However, before the end of the book, his greatest wish comes true.

The focus of the story switches back to Arthur for The Candle in the Wind. His past comes back to haunt him as his bastard son, Mordred, comes to Camelot and stirs up all kinds of trouble. He plots Arthur's downfall, and does so by using the still-unresolved love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenever. There is a war that no one wants except Mordred. The end of this book is at the eve of the war, and here is where the volume, The Once and Future King, comes to an end.

A fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, is sold as a separate volume. In this book, Arthur is revisited by Merlyn and the Badger, one of the animals that the Wart had met during his childhood, the geese, and other animals.

Tia Nevitt, 1996 (

T. H. White’s Twist on a Timeless Tale

T. H. White's The Once and Future King is one of the most complete and unique portrayals of the immortal legend of King Arthur. Though it has been in print for less than half a century, it has already been declared a classic by many, and is often referred to as the "bible" of Arthurian legend. White recreates the epic saga of King Arthur, from his childhood education and experiences until his very death, in a truly insightful and new way. This is not, however, the first complete novel of Arthur's life. In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Morte d'Arthur, the first complete tale of Arthur's life. Since then, a countless number of books have been written on the subject, yet none can compare to The Once and Future King. It has easily become the most popular of all the Arthurian novels as it is loved by both children and adults. Though similar in many ways to other works of the same subject, such as Malory's, White gives new details, meanings, and insightful modernization to the story, giving it an earthy quality which the reader can identify with. White's rendering of the Arthurian legend differs from the traditional versions in that he includes contemporary knowledge and concepts, adds new stories and characters to the legend, and provides new perspectives by probing deeper into the existing tales.

It is the contemporary tone in The Once and Future King, which gives the novel its present-day feeling. This helps the reader to relate to the story, rather than placing it in strictly within the context of the Arthurian period. For example, early in the novel Eton College is referred to, which White then points out "was not founded until 1440," but the place was nevertheless "of the same sort"(4). Another example of anachronism can be found during a discussion between Merlyn and Wart, when Merlyn exclaims "Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!" (86). During the days of Arthur, Bermuda was an unknown place, and would not be discovered until the fifteenth century. Though these references have no true significance to the plot of the story, White uses anachronism as a device to aid the reader in association with the context. And, as in other of White's novels, "the author's presence is apparent" (Fries 260), giving the feeling of an oral storytelling. These "almost too frequent historical tangents are designed to underline the anachronism of the teller" (Fries 260).

White also uses anachronism to convey a more penetrating idea; relating the life of Arthur to modern society. White's novel constitutes his search for answers to the problems of the modern world. When Merlyn and Wart are discussing knighthood, Wart expresses his desire to "encounter all the evil in the world... so that if I conquered there would be none left." Merlyn then insightfully replies that "that would be extremely presumptuous", and he "would be conquered for it" (184). In this, White is conveying the notion that society cannot be governed by might alone. Stephen Dunn exposes the concept that "White's world... is still the world as we, unfortunately, know it" (367). This is made evident by Merlyn's relations of contemporary British fox hunting to medieval war. Merlyn educates Wart to expose him to faults present in society so that he may correct them when he becomes king. These faults are still present in today's society, which is precisely the point White is making.

T. H. White also conquers the task of avoiding a monotonous recreation of the Arthurian legend by adding new and unique characters and stories in his novel. The addition of King Pellinore for example is unique to The Once and Future King. When White first introduces Pellinore, he is fumbling with his glasses, falls "off his horse to search for them... visor shutting in the process, and exclaimed 'Oh, dear!'" (16). Pellinore appears throughout the novel at the traditional medieval events and plays a key role in Wart's education. Sirol Hugh-Jones credits White with saying that he has "developed a love affair with King Pellinore—the only addition to Malory" (ix). White creates the character of King Pellinore to exhibit the farce of medieval custom, much as Miguel de Cervantes does with Don Quixote, as well as creating comic relief. White tries to eliminate the problem of strict reverence by adding characters such as Pellinore.

In addition to new characters, White adds new adventures as well. In Arthurian novels of the past, Wart's education was not a prominent event. However, as C. M. Adderly writes that "education is the theme which most clearly gives The Once and Future King its structure" (55). Wart's education gives White's novel an overlay in theme of the advancement of the human nature. Merlyn tells Wart that "the best thing for being sad is to learn something" (185).

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."

White puts a great deal of emphasis on the education of Wart because it is through this that the character of Arthur, along with his personality, morals, and virtue are defined. This stress of education in The Once and Future King is unique, and sets it apart from the traditional Arthurian legend.

The Once and Future King also varies from the traditional tale by probing deeper into the story, beyond the tradition, adding new perspectives and outlooks. Before, the legend of King Arthur was told more as a fairy tale. J. R. Cameron writes that "White has not adopted the stereotypical Middle Ages of most fiction" (447). White uses the Arthurian legend to illustrate a historical pride of England, as well as a view of the progression of Aristotelian society. Also, White uses this view to expose faults in contemporary society. The past stories of Arthur had glorified him almost to the point of making him immortal. But White, when telling of the death of Arthur, writes that the "fate of this man... was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea" (677). White sees that the Arthurian legend is not so much the glorification of one man, but the basis and backbone of an entire country.

White also redevelops and expands the characters of the Arthurian legend, giving the novel more consistency and allowing his readers to relate to these characters. White exposes the emotions and personalities of his characters, rather than just telling of their actions. White displays the characters' emotions and feelings in order for them "to be acceptable to the twentieth century reader" (Cameron 447). After Wart pulls the sword from the anvil in the churchyard, making him the king of England, he is regarded with much reverence by his companions and even his family. Observing this, he declares "Oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all." After this "the Wart also burst into tears" (210). White shows the emotions and feelings of Wart and gives a sense of reality to this character. J. R. Cameron writes that "Malory made no attempt to analyze the characters; Tennyson robbed his characters of most of their reality" (447). White, however, gave much depth and realness to his characters, setting The Once and Future King apart from other versions of the Arthurian legend.

Another important addition by White to the legend of Arthur is that of humor. The Arthurian legend has been told with so much reverence and importance for many centuries. White, however, adds humor to the story, giving his novel versatility. Stephen Dunn writes that "White said... that humor was put in to make the moral and philosophical pill—which, in all conscience, is a fairly bitter one—slide down more easily" (365). White writes of the confrontation between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore Grummersom in an extremely humorous manner. During the course of their duel, the two constantly argue and bicker like children, "[They stood] opposite each other for about half an hour, and walloped each other on the helm" (63). Through this, White exposes the humor in chivalric life and gives the story a comedic quality.

White also utilizes humor in the characterization of Merlyn. Merlyn, who is regarded in the novel as a very wise and intelligent person, is introduced as a disorganized, short-tempered old man. When Wart first encounters Merlyn, the great magician tries to conjure up a pencil and piece of paper, and humorously fails repeatedly. As a result of his frustration, he flies "into a passion in which he said ‘by-our-lady’ quite often" (28). This depiction of Merlyn shows his amusing and funny personality, which White exposes throughout the novel. The frequent use of comedy gives White's novel a unique twist which cannot be found in the traditional versions of the story.

When T. H. White decided to write The Once and Future King, he realized that his task would be an ambitious one. He faced the challenge of telling a tale which has been present for centuries, in a new way which would make it of interest to readers. His recreation of the Arthurian legend more than lives up to that challenge. The addition of new themes, anachronism, characters such as King Pellinore, and new adventures gives the novel a unique flair without straying too far from the traditional legend. The deeper interpretations of the characters and events in the story provide for a truth and authenticity not to be found in similar works, and the sense of humor gives White's novel an individual touch. T. H. White's The Once and Future King is one of the best retellings of the Arthurian legend, and his additions to the tale create an invigorating and entertaining combination, ranking it among the most popular and best read of all.

Nathan Latil, 1997 (

A Note on the Thesis of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King

To answer the question of the thesis of The Once and Future King is indeed complicated. I feel that "The Matter of Britian" (which is indeed the central legend of the western world) encompasses the human condition. The Arthur Legend deals with love, loyalty, idealism, war, peace, prosperity, perfection, and the ultimate in good vs. evil. White deals with all of the above. I can, of course, speak more authoritatively on The Sword in the Stone as that is the book I've spent so much time studying of the tetrology.

There is no question that White feels an academic education is far superior to an athletic education. Time and again he makes the point that "education is experience and the essence of education is self-reliance." Wart's experience with the animals/birds/fish teach him that knowledge is power. I [agree with] the comment that schools have been forced to lower their standards in order to accomodate athletics. White also commented that schools promote the lazy and idle along with the industrious. He definitely feels education is extremely important. Education is one of the themes of the book.

Being the pacifist that he was and writing during WWII, White makes the point repeatedly that violence/agression is not the answer to life's trials. Wart's whole education by Merlyn (White) is directed towards a sensitivity to life and a respect for it. White illustrates this through the various governments Wart experiences — totalitarianism/Fascism (the ants), feudalism (Sir Ector), and total freedom/almost anarchy (the geese). Again, White states that it doesn't matter what government is in place, what truly matters is the kind of leader. As long as those in control are good and moral then the people will prosper. In The Queen of Air and Darkness he makes the point again that agression is not the answer when he compares Hitler (the Austrian who imposed his will on the world) to Jesus Christ (the philosopher who made his ideas available).

Another point White makes that I love is when he has Merlyn tell Arthur the parable of Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan. Life is not fair. What may be good for one person certainly could be disastrous for another. Kay is a great foil for Wart. By showing Kay's weaknesses, Wart's strengths are emphasized.

White even states that the Arthur legend is an Aristotelian tragedy. Arthur is a tragic hero. He does bring his own destruction upon himself because he transgresses — Mordred is born. Morality and immorality is part and parcel of the human condition dealt with in the legend. I love White's ending of the book when he sends "Tom" (of course, a reference to Thomas Malory) running from the final battle field so people would know of the short time when people lived free from fear and mayhem — "the golden days of Camelot." To quote the song, "for one brief moment" there was a Camelot.

Ruth Barker, 23 January 1997

A further note on the time-period and anachronisms in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King

The action in TOAFK takes place between the beginning of the thirteenth century and the end of the fifteenth: from about 1200 until possibly 1485. While the young Arthur is at the Castle Sauvage, Sir Ector receives a letter from Uther Pendragon dated "12 Uther."

At this time, Arthur and Kay are probably about twelve years old: they have been on an adventure with Robin Hood, are old enough to resent the attentions of the Old Nurse, and still delight in throwing snowballs; the possibility is that Arthur's birthdate is about the same year as Uther's ascension to the throne. When Uther's death is announced, King Pellinore comments, "Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216." This would seem to be about four years later than the time when Sir Ector receives Uther's letter, and would make Arthur's age around sixteen, roughly in coincidence with the traditional age of fifteen. White's forward limit of the fifteenth century is reached in memorable fashion when the Bishop of Rochester expresses horror at the thought of Mordred using cannon against his father, and King Arthur speaks to his page "Tom of Newbold Revell." Set against the actual events of these centuries, Uther (who is portrayed as a Norman) by virtue of his appellation "the Conqueror" and the date of 1066 for his birth is made to be a kind of William the Conqueror (Norman, 1066-1087). The remaining years of Uther's reign seem to cover the actual reigns of William II (William Rufus, Norman, 1087-1100), Henry I (Norman, 1100-1135), Stephen (Norman, 1135-1154), Henry II (Plantagenet, 1154-1189), Richard I (Plantagenet, 1189-1199), and John (Plantagenet, 1199-1216).

The condition of England when Arthur ascends to the throne is pretty much in keeping with the way it was when John the Bad died: "Look at the barns burnt," Merlyn tells the Wart, and dead men's legs sticking out of ponds, and horses with swelled bellies by the roadside, and mills falling down, and money buried, and nobody daring to walk abroad with gold or ornaments on their clothes. That is chivalry nowadays. That is the Uther Pendragon touch.

This picture of England in chaos before Arthur is recalled later in terrifying detail: "When the old King came to the throne it had been an England of armoured barons, and of famine, and of war. It had been the country of trial by red-hot irons . . ."

For practical purposes, however, White's idealized time is given the name of the twelfth century: " . . . If you happen to live in the twelfth century, or whenever it was," he writes in one place, and in another, "The Battle of Bedegraine was the . . . twelfth century equivalent of total war." Further, some of the events which he depicts as taking place in Arthur's reign occurred during the years 1066-1216: the evolution of legal writs and an elementary form of trial by jury came about under the vigorous rule of Henry II; Mordred's ambition to massacre the Jews was systematically practiced under Richard I, with the Jewish quarter of London being destroyed in 1215 under John. On the other hand, the extravagance of dress which White describes when Arthur's court "goes modern" fits in well with the sumptuous costumes evolved under Edward III and Richard II.

The Gramarye of this idealized century was inhabited by Normans (Galls), who had come over with Uther, by Saxons, and by Old Ones (Gaels). The Normans, of whom Arthur is one, comprise the chivalric aristocracy who with their Games-Mania and ritualized forms of warfare act like fox-hunting squires of the nineteenth century.

By their unthinking brutality under Uther, the Norman/Galls have oppressed the Saxons,who actually have preceded them in England, and have kept them as serfs in the posture of a subject race ("‘Baron’ had been the equivalent of the modern word ‘Sahib!’"). The Old Ones—"Gaels" or Celts—who were in England centuries before either the Normans or the Saxons, have been harried to Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany. Merlyn gives Arthur a history lesson: "About three thousand years ago," he said,

"the country you are riding through belonged to a Gaelic race who fought with copper hatchets. Two thousand years ago they were hunted west by another Gaelic race with bronze swords. A thousand years ago there was a Teuton invasion by people who had iron weapons, but it didn't reach the whole of the Pictish Isles because the Romans arrived in the middle and got mixed up with it. The Romans went away about eight hundred years ago, and then another Teuton invasion — of people mainly called Saxons — drove the whole rag-bag west as usual. Tlle Saxons were just beginning to settle down when your father the Conqueror arrived with his pack of Normans, and that is where we are today. Robin Wood was a Saxon partizan."

The general viewpoint of an idealized twelfth century imagined in the fifteenth is greatly accentuated by White's many references to actual kings as "legendary." It is Arthur's destiny, with a nudge from Merlyn, to try to right the hideous legacy left by his father Uther by quelling Force Majeure, or Fort Mayne, by replacing the philosophy of Might as Right by a rudimentary justice which will take its most tragic significance when Arthur explains to Guenever and Lancelot that if Mordred accuses them of treachery he, the king, under his new code, will be unable to intercede in their behalf.

Into Arthur's lifetime-from his idyllic childhood in the Castle Sauvage, his union with Morgause, his marriage to Guenever, his mounting of the Grail Quest, and all the events leading up to the final tragedy-White has compressed much of the actual history of almost three hundred years, the centuries of the High Middle Ages. White's technique is beautifully visualized by Shakespeare in Henry V (a play which White himself said he detested):

For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carrying them here and there, jumping o'er times, Turning th' accomplishment of many years Into an hourglass . . . (Henry V, Pro. Q1.28-31.)

The figure of Merlyn stands independent of White's time-scheme. He has been born in the future ("the only way to get second sight") and is living backwards. His recollection goes "back" to at least the mid nineteen-thirties, for he criticizes Arthur's enthusiasm for war with reference to Hitler. Through the brilliant device of Merlyn, White is able to make use of ironic and humorous historical insights from the fifteenth through the mid-twentieth century.

TOAFK is full of anachronisms, allusions, and personal recollection. By envisioning for Arthur's story an idealized century imagined from Malory's fifteenth century, White was opening the door wide for all kinds of anachronisms. However, if one thinks of the time scheme of TOAFK—Arthur's story—as a kind of portmanteau into which is packed the trappings of nearly three centuries of history between 1216 and 1485, then the concept is easier to deal with. By a sort of accordion process the low points are dropped from consideration, and the high points are made to seem closer together:

In the smoky vaults, where once the grubby barons had gnawed their bones with bloody fingers, now there were people eating with clean fingers, which they had washed with herb-scented toilet soap out of wooden bowls.

This sort of advance in table manners took much longer indeed than the few years of Arthur's reign — and yet by compressing those years into "an hourglass" White succeeds in his effort to picture Arthur as civilization's champion. Besides, washing hands before meals is pretty frequently mentioned in the High Middle Ages; with Arthur living 1216-1485, there's plenty of time for the custom to take root! A glance at White's Malory essay in his journals reveals immediately the sensitivity which White showed to both what he believed Malory to be doing and what he himself was planning to do to Malory. In the event, of course, White did indeed follow his careful plan about anachronisms in many places: in the descriptive passages about castles (Sir Ector's, pp. 36-38; Morgause's, pp. 280-81; Lancelot's, pp. 621-22), each of which is built in the architectural style of a different century, and in the splendid panoramas of medieval life (pp. 442-47; 539-49; 559-569) which comprehends centuries of history. White usually stays within the 1216-1485 limits, but he occasionally drops back to take advantage of the years 1066-1216, or even earlier: the description of the Out Isles is one exception of this kind.

But in retrospect it is not the glory of these scenes which captures the imagination. Rather it is the riotous mishmash of Merlyn's backward thinking, and his beagling trousers, his walking mustard-pot, Sir Ector's gruff nineteenth-century colloquialisms and Palomides's Babu English that hold one's heart in thrall.

Kurth Sprague, 26 December 1996


The broadway musical "Camelot" (1960) was inspired by The Once and Future King, as was the Walt Disney cartoon feature "The Sword in the Stone" (1963).

See also:

The Sword in the Stone
The Witch in the Wood
The Ill-Made Knight
The Candle in the Wind
The Book of Merlyn

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
[Home] [Books] [FAQ] [E-Mail] [Links]
Unless otherwise noted, entire contents 1996, J. Moulder and M. Schaefer. All rights reserved.
Revised Saturday, 28-Sep-2002 22:12:37 CDT.