The Once and Future King

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The Once and Future King
First edition cover
AuthorT. H. White
CountryUnited Kingdom
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
823/.912 21
LC ClassPR6045.H2 O5 1996

The Once and Future King is a work by T. H. White based upon the 1485 book Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. It was first published in 1958. It collects and revises shorter novels published from 1938 to 1940, with much new material.


Most of the book takes place in "Gramarye", the name White gives to Britain, and chronicles the youth and education of King Arthur, his rule as a king, and the romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. Though Arthur, if he existed at all, would have ruled some time around the 6th century, the book is set around the 14th century (and Arthur is portrayed as an Anglo-Norman rather than a Briton), and the actual monarchs of that period are referred to as "mythical". The book ends immediately before Arthur's final battle against his illegitimate son Mordred. Though White admits his book's source material is loosely derived from Le Morte d'Arthur, he reinterprets the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world recovering from World War II.

The book is divided into four parts:

A final part, called The Book of Merlyn (written 1941, published 1977), was published separately following White's death. It chronicles Arthur's final lessons from Merlyn before his death, although some parts of it were incorporated into the final editions of the previous books. Much of the contents of this book appears in the first part of The Once and Future King.[1]


The story starts in the final years of the rule of King Uther Pendragon. The first part, "The Sword in the Stone", chronicles Arthur's upbringing by his foster father Sir Ector, his rivalry and friendship with his foster brother Kay, and his initial training by Merlyn, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlyn, knowing the boy's destiny, teaches Arthur (known as "Wart") what it means to be a good king by turning him into various kinds of animals: fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger. Each of the transformations is meant to teach Wart a lesson, which will prepare him for his future life.

Merlyn instills in Arthur the concept that the only justifiable reason for war is to prevent another from going to war and that contemporary human governments and powerful people exemplify the worst aspects of the rule of Might.

Neither the ant nor goose episodes were in the original Sword in the Stone when it was published as a stand-alone book. The original novel also contains a battle between Merlyn and sorceress Madam Mim that was not included in The Once and Future King but was included in the Disney film.

In part two, "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 their mother, his half-sister Queen Morgause. While the young king suppresses initial rebellions, Merlyn leads him to envision a means of harnessing potentially destructive Might for the cause of Right: the chivalric order of the Round Table.

The third part, "The Ill-Made Knight", shifts focus from King Arthur to the story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere's forbidden love, the means they go through to hide their affair from the King (although he already knows of it from Merlyn), and its effect on Elaine, Lancelot's sometime lover and the mother of his son Galahad.

"The Candle in the Wind" unites these narrative threads by telling how Mordred's hatred of his father and Sir Agravaine's hatred of Lancelot caused the eventual downfall of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the entire ideal kingdom of Camelot.

The book begins as a quite light-hearted account of the young Arthur's adventures, and King Pellinore's interminable search for the Questing Beast. Parts of "The Sword in the Stone" read almost as a parody of the traditional Arthurian legend by virtue of White's prose style, which relies heavily on anachronisms. However, the tale gradually changes tone until "Ill-Made Knight" becomes more meditative and "The Candle in the Wind" finds Arthur brooding over death and his legacy.

Characterization in the work[edit]

White's reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex than or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:

  • Arthur evolves from a fallible but inquisitive and enthusiastic youth ("the Wart") to an individualised and psychologically complex man.[2]
  • Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of Arthur's knights. He is also intensely introspective and obsessively insecure, traits which lead to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight.
  • Merlyn lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger. His magic is used in the book as a method to help young Arthur gain firsthand observations of various parts of the natural world.
  • Sir Galahad is not well liked by many of the knights as he is truly perfect – to the point of being 'inhuman'.
  • Similarly, Sir Bors (whom White explicitly labels "Sir Bors the misogynist") is depicted as so devoted to his religious dogma that he is willing to do harm unto others and the world around him rather than risk sacrificing his purity. His holy goodness is juxtaposed with Sir Lancelot's worldly goodness, with many of the characters and arguably the narration itself favouring the latter.

White allows Sir Thomas Malory, in the form of a young page named Tom, to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Due to his living backwards, Merlyn makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times; of note are references to World War II, telegraphs, tanks, and "an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos" (i.e. Adolf Hitler).[3] A veiled reference to Nazism also occurs when Sir Agravaine suggests setting up an organisation of "National Communists" who use Jews as a scapegoat and have the fylfot as their badge.


Floyd C. Gale praised The Sword in the Stone as "blithely comic and entirely delightful", stating that it was "in utter contrast to the mounting tragedy" of the other three volumes of the series.[4] Fantasy historian Lin Carter wrote, "... the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, 'ever' written, is, must be, by any conceivable standard, T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I can hardly imagine that any mature, literate person who has read the book would disagree with this estimate. White is a great writer."[5]

Film, television, and theatrical adaptations[edit]

Although Walt Disney initially purchased the film rights to The Ill-Made Knight in 1944,[6] he eventually produced an adaptation of The Sword in the Stone (released in 1963). This movie reflects more the sense of humour of Disney's team of animators than White's. The movie adds a more comical side to the original story, including song and dance, as in most Walt Disney films.

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical Camelot (which was made into a movie in 1967) is based mostly on the last two books of The Once and Future King and features White's idea of having Thomas Malory make a cameo appearance at the end, again as "Tom of Warwick".

BBC Radio produced a dramatised version of "The Sword in the Stone" for Children's Hour shortly after its publication in 1938. Incidental music for the serial was specially composed by Benjamin Britten.

A two-hour version of The Sword in the Stone, dramatised by Neville Teller, was first broadcast as a Saturday Night Theatre on Boxing Day, 1981. Michael Hordern played Merlyn and Toby Robertson was the Wart. The cast included Pauline Letts, David Davis, Jeffrey Segal and Lewis Stringer. Benjamin Britten's incidental music, played by the English Sinfonia, was used in the production, which was by Graham Gauld.

BBC Radio 4 serialised the book in six one-hour episodes dramatised by Brian Sibley, beginning on Sunday 9 November 2014 with Paul Ready as Arthur and David Warner as Merlyn.[7]

Other references[edit]


  • George A. Romero's film Knightriders (1981) references The Once and Future King as the inspiration for a travelling Camelot of motorcycle-riding knights aspiring to the code of chivalry.
  • The film X2: X-Men United (2003) begins one scene with Magneto reading the first edition of The Once and Future King in his prison cell. At the end of the film, Xavier is using the book as a teaching tool.
  • In the film Bobby (2006) Edward Robinson (Laurence Fishburne) relates the novel's depiction of King Arthur to the selfless and chivalrous qualities of Jose Rojas (Freddy Rodriguez).
  • In the film The World's End (2013) Gary King refers to himself early on as "the once and future King".
  • The film X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) shows Charles Xavier reading lines from The Once and Future King with his students.


  • In Rodman Philbrick's Freak the Mighty (1993) Max Kane and Kevin Dillon bond through the book; and, inspired by Dillon's fits of fancy, the two embark on a quest to embody the heroic qualities of King Arthur.
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman includes a long sequence where magicians-in-training are transformed into geese, a "direct and loving homage" to Wart's transformation in The Sword in the Stone.[8]
  • Cassandra Clare uses the title Queen of Air and Darkness (2018) for the naming of her third book in The Dark Artifices series as a reference to White's second story.


  • In the Marvel Universe, the X-Men comics mention The Once and Future King several times, notably in the first issue of the "X-Tinction Agenda" story arc, which mentions that the book is Professor X's favourite, and that Xavier always saw himself as Merlyn, the teacher guiding the hero(es), rather than as a hero himself.
  • In the "Ultimate X-Men" comics, the book is a metaphor for Magneto, an extremely powerful mutant terrorist.


  • The animated series Gargoyles references The Once and Future King when King Arthur is awakened in Avalon.
  • The TV series Merlin talks about "The Once and Future King" throughout the series, the first time said by the Great Dragon to Merlin about his destiny.
  • The Starz series Blunt Talk references The Once and Future King several times as it is Walter Blunt's favourite story.
  • The Flash episode 19 of Season 3 is titled "The Once and Future Flash".


  1. ^ White, T.H. (1977). The Book of Merlyn. ISBN 0-292-70769-X.
  2. ^ Spivack, Charlotte and Roberta Lynne Staples. The Company of Camelot: Arthurian Characters in Romance and Fantasy. Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 130.
  3. ^ (White 266–267)
  4. ^ Gale, Floyd C. (August 1959). "Galaxy's 5 Star Star Shelf". Galaxy. pp. 138–142. Retrieved 14 June 2014.
  5. ^ Carter, Lin (1973). Imaginary Worlds. Ballantine Books. p. 125. ISBN 0-345-03309-4.
  6. ^ "FUTURIAN WAR DIGEST No. 37 (Oct. 1944)".
  7. ^ Brian Sibley. "BBC Blogs – The Radio 4 Blog – The Once and Future King – New Drama". The Radio 4 Blog.
  8. ^ "Strange Horizons Reviews: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, reviewed by John Clute". Archived from the original on 14 November 2009.

External links[edit]