The Once and Future King
T.H. White's masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations.
THE knighting took place in a whirl of preparations. Kay’s sumptuous bath had to be set up in the boxroom, between two towelhorses and an old box of selected games which contained a wornout straw dartboardit was called flechette in those daysbecause all the other rooms were full of packing. The nurse spent the whole time constructing new warm pants for everybody, on the principle that the climate ofany place outside the Forest Sauvage must be treacherous to the extreme, and, as for the sergeant, he polished all the armour till it was quite brittle and sharpened the swords till they were almost worn away. At last it was time to set out. Perhaps, if you happen not to have lived in the Old England of the twelfth century, or whenever it was, and in a remote castle on the borders of the Marches at that, you wi1l find it difficult to imagine the wonders of their journey. The road, or track, ran most of the time along the high ridges of the hills or downs, and they could look down on either side of them upon the desolate marshes where the snowy reeds sighed, and the ice crackled, and the duck in the red sunsets quacked loud on the winter air. The whole country was like that. Per¬haps there would be a moory marsh on one side of the ridge, and a forest ofa hundred thousand acres on the other, with all the great branches weighted in white. They could sometimes see a wisp ofsmoke among the trees, or a huddle of buildings far out among the impassable reeds, and twice they came to quite respectable towns which had several inns to boast of, but on the whole it was an England without civilization. The better roads were cleared of cover for a bowshot on either side of them, lest the traveller should be slain by hidden thieves. They slept where they could, sometimes in the hut of some cottager who was prepared to welcome them, sometimes in the castle of a brother knight who invited them to refresh themselves, sometimes in the firelight and fleas of a dirty little hovel with a bush tied to a pole outside itthis was the signboard used at that time by innsand once or twice on the open ground, all huddled together for warmth between their grazing chargers. Wherever they went and wherever they slept, the east wind whistled in the reeds, and the geese went over high in the starlight, honking at the stars.
London was full to the brim. IfSir Ector had not been lucky enough to own a little land in Pie Street, on which there stood a respectable inn, they would have been hard put to it to find a lodging. But he did own it, and as a matter offact drew most of his dividends from that source, so they were able to get three beds between the five of them. They thought themselves fortunate.
On the first day of the tournament, Sir Kay managed to get them on the way to the lists at least an hour before the jousts could possibly begin. He had lain awake all night, imagining how he was going to beat the best barons in England, and he had not been able to eat his breakfast. Now he rode at the front ofthe cavalcade, with pale cheeks, and Wart wished there was something he could do to calm him down.
For country people, who only knew the dismantled tilting ground of Sir Ector’s castle, the scene which met their eyes was ravishing. It was a huge green pit in the earth, about as big as the arena at a football match. It lay ten feet lower than the surrounding country, with sloping banks, and the snow had been swept off it. It had been kept warm with straw, which had been cleared off that morning, and now the closeworn grass sparkled green in the white landscape. Round the arena there was a world of colour so dazzling and moving and twinkling as to make one blink one’s eyes. The wooden grandstands were painted in scarlet and white. The silk pavilions of famous people, pitched on every side, were azure and green and saffron and chequered. The pennons and pennoncells which floated everywhere in the sharp wind were flapping with every colour of the rainbow, as they strained and slapped at their flagpoles, and the barrier down the middle of the arena itself was done in chessboard squares of black and white. Most of the combatants and their friends had not yet arrived, but one could see from those few who had come how the very people would turn the scene into a bank of flowers, and how the armour would flash, and the scalloped sleeves ofthe heralds jig in the wind, as they raised their brazen trumpets to their lips to shake the fleecy clouds of winter with joyances and fanfares. “Good heavens!” cried Sir Kay. “I have left my sword at home.” “Can’t joust without a sword,” said Sir Grummore. “Quite irregular.”
“Better go and fetch it,” said Sir Ector. “You have time.”
“My squire will do,” said Sir Kay. “What a damned mistake to make! Here, squire, ride hard back to the inn and fetch my sword. You shall have a shilling ifyou fetch it in time.”
The Wart went as pale as Sir Kay was, and looked as ifhe were going to strike him. Then he said, “It shall be done, master,” and turned his ambling palfrey against the stream of newcomers. He began to push his way toward their hostelry as best he might.
“To offer me money!” cried the Wart to himself. “To look down at this beastly little donkeyaffair off his great charger and to call me Squire! Oh, Merlyn, give me patience with the brute, and stop me from throwing his filthy shilling in his face.”
When he got to the inn itwas closed. Everybody had thronged to see the famous tournament, and the entire household had followed after the mob. Those were lawless days and it was not safe to leave your houseor even to go to sleep in itunless you were certain that it was impregnable. The wooden shutters bolted over the downstairs windows were two inches thick, and the doors were doublebarred.
“Now what do I do,” asked the Wart, “to earn my shilling?”
He looked ruefully at the blind little inn, and began to laugh.
“Poor Kay,” he said. “All that shilling stuff was only because he was scared and miserable, and now he has good cause to be. Well, he shall have a sword ofsome sort if! have to break into the Tower of London.
”How does one get hold of a sword?“ he continued. “Where can I steal one? Could I waylay some knight, even if 1 am mounted on an ambling pad, and take his weapons by force? There must be some swordsmith or armourer in a great town like this, whose shop would be still open.”
He turned his mount and cantered off along the street. There was a quiet churchyard at the end of it, with a kind of square in front of the church door. In the middle ofthe square there was a heavy stone with an anvil on it, and a fine new sword was stuck through the anvil.
“Well,” said theWart, “I suppose itis some sort ofwar memorial, but it will have to do. I am sure nobody would grudge Kay a war memorial, if they knew his desperate straits.”
He tied his reins round a post of the lychgate, strode up the gravel path, and took hold of the sword. “Come, sword,” he said. “I must cry your mercy and take you for a better cause.
“This is extraordinary,” said the Wart. “I feel strange when I have hold of this sword, and I notice everything much more clearly. Look at the beautiful gargoyles of the church, and of the monastery which it belongs to. See how splendidly all the famous banners in the aisle are waving. How nobly that yew holds up the red flakes ofits timbers to worship God. How clean the snow is. I can smell something like fetherfew and sweet briarand is it music that I hear?”
It was music, whether ofpanpipes or of recorders, and the light in the churchyard was so clear, without being dazzling, that one could have picked a pin out twenty yards away.
“There is something in this place,” said the Wart. “There are people. Oh, people, what do you want?” Nobody answered him, but the music was loud and the light beautiful. “People,” cried the Wart, “I must take this sword. It is not for me, but for Kay. I will bring it back.”
There was still no answer, and Wart turned back to the anvil. He saw the golden letters, which he did not read, and the jewels on the pommel, flashing in the lovely light.
“Come, sword,” said the Wart.
He took hold of the handles with both hands, and strained against the stone. There was a melodious consort on the re¬corders, but nothing moved.
The Wart let go of the handles, when they were beginning to bite into the palms of his hands, and stepped back, seeing stars.
“It is well fixed,” he said.
He took hold of it again and pulled with all his might. The music played more strongly, and the light all about the churchyard glowed like amethysts; but the sword still stuck. “Oh, Merlyn,” cried the Wart, “help me to get this weapon.”
There was a kind of rushing noise, and a long chord played along with it. All round the churchyard there were hundreds of old friends. They rose over the church wall all together, like the Punch and Judy ghosts of remembered days, and there were badgers and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares and wild geese and falcons and fishes and dogs and dainty unicorns and solitary wasps and corkindrills and hedgehogs and griffins and the thousand other animals he had met. They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers ofthe Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn. Some of them had come from the banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields aboutbut all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account oflove. Wart felt his power grow.
“Put your back into it,” said a Luce (or pike) off one of the heraldic banners, “as you once did when I was going to snap you up. Remember that power springs from the nape of the neck.”
“What about those forearms,” asked a Badger gravely, “that are held together by a chest? Come along, my dear embryo, and find your tool.”
A Merlin sitting at the top ofthe yew tree cried out, “Now then, Captain Wart, what is the first law of the foot? I thought I once heard something about never letting go ?”
“Don’t work like a stalling woodpecker,” urged a Tawny Owl affectionately. “Keep up a steady effort, my duck, and you will have it yet.”
A whitefront said, “Now, Wart, if you were once able to fly the great North Sea, surely you can coordinate a few little wing¬muscles here and there? Fold your powers together, with the spirit ofyour mind, and it will come out like butter. Come along, Homo sapiens, for all we humble friends of yours are waiting here to cheer.”
The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.
There was a lot of cheering, a noise like a hurdygurdy which went on and on. In the middle of this noise, after a long time, he saw Kay and gave him the sword. The people at the tourna¬ment were making a frightful row.
“But this is not my sword:’ said Sir Kay.
“It was the only one I could get,” said the Wart. “The inn was locked.” “It is a nicelooking sword. Where did you get it?” “I found it stuck in a stone, outside a church.” Sir Kay had been watching the tilting nervously, waiting for his turn. He had not paid much attention to his squire.
“That is a funny place to find one,” he said.
“Yes, it was stuck through an anvil.”
“What?” cried Sir Kay, suddenly rounding upon him. “Did you just say this sword was stuck in a stone?” “It was,” said the Wart. “It was a sort of war memorial.” Sir Kay stared at him for several seconds in amazement, opened
his mouth, shut it again, licked his lips, then turned his back and plunged through the crowd. He was looking for Sir Ector, and the Wart followed after him.
“Father,” cried Sir Kay, “come here a moment.”
“Yes, my boy,” said Sir Ector. “Splendid falls these professional chaps do manage. Why, what’s the matter, Kay? You look as white as a sheet.”
“Do you remember that sword which the King ofEngland would pull out?”
“Well, here it is. I have it. It is in my hand. I pulled it out.”
Sir Ector did not say anything silly. He looked at Kay and he looked at the Wart. Then he stared at Kay again, long and lovingly, and said, “We will go back to the church.”
“Now then, Kay,” he said, when they were at the church door. He looked at his firstborn kindly, but straight between the eyes. “Here is the stone, and you have the sword. It will make you the King ofEngland. You are my son that I am proud of, and always will be, whatever you do. Will you promise me that you took it out by your own might?”
Kay looked at his father. He also looked at the Wart and at the sword.
Then he handed the sword to the Wart quite quietly.
He said, “I am a liar. Wart pulled it out.”
As far as the Wart was concerned, there was a time after this in which Sir Ector kept telling him to put the sword back into the stonewhich he didand in which Sir Ector and Kay then vainly tried to take it out. The Wart took it out for them, and stuck it back again once or twice. Mter this, there was another time which was more painful.
He saw that his dear guardian was looking quite old and power¬less, and that he was kneeling down with difficulty on a gouty knee.
“Sir,” said Sir Ector, without looking up, although he was speaking to his own boy.
“Please do not do this, father,” said the Wart, kneeling down also. “Let me help you up, Sir Ector, because you are making me unhappy.”
“Nay, nay, my lord,” said Sir Ector, with some very feeble old tears. “I was never your father nor of your blood, but I wote well ye are of an higher blood than I wend ye were.”
“Plenty ofpeople have told me you are not my father,” said the Wart, “but it does not matter a bit.” “Sir,” said Sir Ector humbly, “will ye be my good and gracious lord when ye are King?”
“Don’t!” said the ’Vart.
“Sir,” said Sir Ector, “I will ask no more of you but that you will make my son, your fosterbrother, Sir Kay, seneschal of all your lands ?” Kay was kneeling down too, and it was more than the Wart could bear.
“Oh, do stop,” he cried. “Of course he can be seneschal, if I have got to be this King, and, oh, father, don’t kneel down like that, because it breaks my heart. Please get up, Sir Ector, and don’t make everything so horrible. Oh, dear, oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that fi1~y sword at all.”
And the Wart also burst into tears.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: