Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy novel written by T.H. White. It was first published in 1958, mostly as a composite of earlier works. ISBN 0441627404

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Plot Summary
3 Interpretations
4 Adaptations


The book, taking place on the isle of Gramarye, chronicles the raising and education of King Arthur and ends prior to his final battle against Mordred. Though its source material is admitted by the author as being derived from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), White creates his personal reinterpretation of the epic events and fills them with renewed meaning for a world enduring the Second World War.

The book is divided into four parts:

A final part called The Book of Merlyn was published seperately (ISBN 029270769X) following White's death. It chronicles Arthur's final lessons before his death.

Despite the subject matter of the original story, White infuses his book with anti-nationalism and pacifist sentiment. There is a light smattering of symbolism throughout the book (e.g., Mordred's Thrashers are easily Nazis; King Uther Pendragon, as derived from his birth and death dates, symbolizes the monarchy before the Magna Carta) but there is more of comedy.

The most often quoted passage from the book is the badger's dissertation. It tells the story of the Creation, as told in Genesis.

Plot Summary

The Sword in the Stone chronicles Arthur's (called Wart) raising by his foster father Sir Ector, his foster brother Kay and his initial training by a wizard who lives through time backwards - Merlyn. Merlyn, knowing the boy's destiny, teaches Wart what it means to be a good king by turning him into various animals: fish, ant, birds. Most particularly, before he takes the throne Wart learns to challenge the concept of Might is Right.

In The Queen of Air and Darkness, White sets the stage for Arthur's demise by introducing the Orkney clan and detailing Arthur's seduction by his half-sister while the young king suppresses initial rebellions. Meanwhile, Merlyn leads Arthur to conceptualize the means of harnessing potentially destructive Might for the cause of Right: the Round Table.

The Ill-Made Knight switches to the story of forbidden love between Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever and its effect on Elaine and King Arthur.

The Candle in the Wind tells the upshot of all of the preparation for Arthur's downfall and the downfall of the idealistic kingdom of Camelot.

The stories begin decidedly humorous mainly through Arthur's adventures, White's prose, and King Pellinore's interminable search for the Questing Beast. The tale gradually becomes darker until Ill-Made Knight loses much of the original humor and The Candle in the Wind is mirthless.


Perhaps what sticks out the most in White's work is his characterizations and how they differ from traditional views of these Arthurian characters, particularly in their motivations. For example: Arthur is a well-intentioned king as trained by Merlyn, but it seems that his greatest flaw is his inability to adapt once Merlyn leaves him. As such, he comes off as something of a well-meaning bumbler.

Launcelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of that lot and, in addition, cruel. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight.

Merlyn lives time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger.

It is also interesting to note that White allows Thomas Malory to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Also of note is White's treatment of historical characters and kings as mythological within this world that he creates. In addition, due to his living backwards, Merlyn makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times (of note are references to the Boer War and to "an Austrian who...plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos").


Walt Disney made a very loose adaptation of The Sword in the Stone in 1961. This movie reflects more the sense of humour of Disney's team of animators than White. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical Camelot (which was made into a movie in 1967) is also based on Once and Future King, and features White's idea of having Thomas Malory make a cameo appearance at the end.