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Literature / The Once and Future King

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Rex quondam, rexque futurus
"I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the Once and Future King."
— Merlyn

The Once and Future King is a retelling by T. H. White of Arthurian Legend. It is considered one of the best of its kind, heavily inspired by Le Morte D Arthur. It was originally published as separate books from 1938 to 1941 and collected in one volume in 1958. The 1958 version contains:

  1. The Sword in the Stone, covering Arthur's childhood, the lessons he was taught by Merlyn (in which he transforms him into animals in order to give him a different perspective on the world), how he was discovered and crowned King of England.
  2. The Queen of Air and Darkness, covers the early part of Arthur's reign, the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, and introduces Morgause, the mother of Arthur's nemesis Mordred.
  3. The Ill-Made Knight, focuses on Sir Lancelot as he begins to fall in love with the Queen, while championing Arthur's vision of a better world.
  4. The Candle in the Wind, telling of the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom, concluding with a bit appearance by Thomas Malory, still a squire, whom Arthur sends off to remember their story.

The first three parts were published separately first, and revised to a greater or lesser extent for the collected edition. The biggest change was probably to the second part, which was substantially altered and given a new title, the original version had been entitled The Witch in the Wood. Another notable change was the omission of the witch, Madam Mim and her wizard duel with Merlyn from "The Sword in the Stone" (which can still be found in the original version still in print and the Disney film).

White also worked on a fifth part set before Arthur's final battle, in which he was taught more lessons by Merlyn. Parts of it were incorporated into the collected edition's version of The Sword in the Stone. In 1977, after White's death, it was published separately as The Book of Merlyn. Some recent editions include it in the main volume as Book 5, with an editorial note to explain the material White reused for the original publication of the one-volume edition.


  • The Sword in the Stone was loosely adapted into a Disney film of the same name.
  • "The Sword in the Stone" has also been dramatized for BBC Radio; once in 1939 and again in 1982 featuring Sir Michael Hordern as Merlyn, who also played Gandalf the year before for BBC Radio 4's production of "The Lord of the Rings". Both dramatizations featured a musical score by Benjamin Britten.
  • The musical Camelot is based on The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. The original Broadway cast boasted Richard Burton as Arthur and Julie Andrews as Guenever. The 1967 film adaptation boasted Richard Harris as Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guenever.
  • In 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a six-part adaptation including elements from The Book of Merlyn, adapted by Brian Sibley (who also dramatised The Lord of the Rings for BBC Radio in the 1980s) and featuring David Warner as Merlyn. It can be heard for free on Soundcloud here.

The Once and Future King provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Elaine of Corbin. After Sir Lancelot saves her, she becomes madly in love with him... despite Lancelot showing no interest in her. She goes so far as to rape him by posing as Queen Guenever. And then, later on in the book, she does it AGAIN.
  • Abusive Parents: Morgause is a horrible mother to her children: she abuses them both physically and emotionally, leaving all of her children very very screwed up.
  • The Ace: Deconstructed with the Grail Knights, the "purest" of the Table. Sir Galahad is so inhumanly perfect that he is disliked by most of his fellow knights because he's impossible to relate to on a human level. Sir Bors is so religiously dogmatic he is willing to let harm or death come to others through inaction rather than sacrifice his own purity, and his almost-total celibacy is explicitly because he despises women. Only Sir Percivale is liked by the others, because White's Percivale is an innocent like his father Pellinore - simple, kind-hearted and a Friend to All Living Things. When Guenever opines that he seemed to "bumble towards the Grail", Arthur notes his goodness was no less good for that.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Sir Bors is a misogynist and all-around grump.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: King Pellinore is much more affable than his counterpart in Malory. Notably the Dubious Consent of Sir Tor's conception is absent.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: Lancelot is generally depicted as handsome in Arthurian legends and almost all adaptations, including the author's source material, but in the book he's emphatically described as ugly to the point of deformity, having “twisted” and “ape-like” features and at one point explicitly compared to Quasimodo.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Sir Bedivere kills his own wife out of jealousy, thanks to being conflated with Sir Pedivere.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Downplayed. Pellinore in Malory's book defeated Arthur and broke his sword with Merlin having to intervene to save Arthur. This incident is adapted out and he's much more bumbling and absent minded, but is still a competent knight.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Widely considered one of the Great English Fantasy Novels, and the best modern retelling of Malory's Chivalric Romance Arthur.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Guenevere is stated to have jet-black hair, although the narrator admits that in most stories, including the author's source material, she is blond.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Justified as the narrator explains that it's actually a naming custom but the Orkney brothers all have the letter G: Gawaine, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth.
    • Their mother and her sister also follow this as Morgause and Morgan (le Fay).
  • Affectionate Nickname: Both Arthur and Lancelot fondly refer to Queen Guenever as "Jenny", as "Jennifer" is the modern English equivalent of "Guenever".
    • And in turn, both Arthur and Guenever affectionately call their favorite knight, "Lance".
  • The Alcoholic: Sir Agravaine likes his drink a little too much and by the time "Candle in the Wind" comes around, he's drinking daily.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: Crossed with Anachronism Stew below; the book doesn't explicitly take place in an alternate universe, but whenever the narrator makes reference to a real-life medieval English monarch, he'll refer to them as "legendary" or "imaginary."
  • Ambiguously Gay: Sir Gawain speculates that the inhumanely good and chaste Galahad might be a "catamite", a medieval word for a homosexual.
    • Lancelot is outright stated to be "in love with" King Arthur, and is initially deeply jealous of Guinevere because she got to marry him. Lancelot's narrative would likely have been a more straightforwardly bisexual one if not for the influence of homophobic Values Dissonance, both in T. H. White's time and in Lancelot's. (White's notes refer to Lancelot as "homosexual or ambisexual".)
  • Anachronism Stew: Deliberately set in no particular time period, with historical references being often vague and frequently contradictory; Uther is made to be the leader of the Norman Conquest instead of William the Conqueror, and is said to have lived from 1066 to 1216. In several cases, White justifies it by saying that some things referenced (such as the characters drinking Port or wanting to send their kids to Eton) weren't actually what was being said, but that more modern things were used to give readers a sense of what was being said. Of course, this version's Merlyn lives backwards through time, so he possesses objects and knowledge of the future (a certain madman who caused WWII, for instance, and he keeps guns in his house, as well as dressing in clothes that are unknown to those around him)
  • Animorphism: One of the most famous examples. Merlin turns Arthur into a wide variety of creatures in order to teach him lessons about life.
  • Ant War: One of the animal transformations Merlyn performs on Wart is to turn him into an ant, and he finds himself in the middle of an ant war. Luckily he gets out of it before things turn nasty. Of course, the Ant's Orwellian nightmare of a society even before the war is bad enough.
  • Apothecary Alligator: Merlyn has one in his cottage.
    There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed.
  • Argument of Contradictions: Sir Grummore and King Pellinore have a rather lengthy one following a battle, first about whether Pellinore said "Pax" or "Pax Non," then about whether or not he's a cad, then a bit later about him being a cheat. The whole thing continues on and off for about a page.
  • Asshole Victim: Sir Agravaine who stabbed Lamorak In the Back and plotted to expose Lancelot and Gwenever's affair out of petty spite, he gets killed by Lancelot in the ensuing brawl. It's telling that his own brother Gawain, who's violently overzealous about family honor, doesn't blame Lancelot at all. Gawain even points out to an indignant Mordred that Agravaine's death was his own fault for not heeding Gawain's warning.
  • Authority in Name Only: King Pellinore doesn't appear to have a kingdom to rule over, and instead acts like any other knight chasing the Questing Beast. (This may be White's nod to the fact that Pellinore's kingdom is inconsistent and contradictory anyway, varying between "the Isles" - either Anglesey or Mann & The Isles - or he is the same character as Pellam, the Fisher King and his kingdom is "Listenoise".)
  • Badass Creed: The song of the hawks in The Sword in the Stone.
  • Bastard Bastard: Sir Mordred. Boy, oh, boy. Sir Mordred.
  • Bawdy Song: One is mentioned in passing about a king and a fair maiden; in the first verse, which is given in the text, the king accidentally sees the maiden's ankle as she steps over a puddle, and in subsequent verses, which are left to the reader's imagination, he gets to see more.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted with Lancelot.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Round Table is no more. Arthur can never see Lance or Guenever ever again. All his attempts of forcing might to be used for right have failed, and he will die in his final battle to be killed by his own son, Mordred. However Arthur takes comfort in the fact that young Tom will keep the legend and ideals of King Arthur alive for centuries to come.
  • Book Ends: The 4th book ends with Arthur reminiscing about his lessons with Merlyn as Wart- specifically, the difference between the pacifist geese he flew with, and the militaristic ant colony.
  • Bring News Back: Why Thomas Malory can not fight and die in the last battle as he tells Arthur he wants to.
  • Broken Ace: Lancelot becomes so obsessed with becoming the greatest knight in the world that he gives his entire childhood in the pursuit of this dream. Throughout the book, he is shown to be extremely uncomfortable in his own mind, and is quite self-loathing.
  • The Brute: Agravaine is a resentful and impulsive bully who seems to have no ambitions beyond asserting his power over those weaker than him and bringing down those who are stronger. Even Mordred finds his open glee at trapping Arthur into burning his wife disgusting.
  • Call of the Wild Blue Yonder: In the first part Arthur expresses to Merlyn a wish to fly, so Merlyn turns him into a bird of prey (a merlin, naturally), and puts him in with the castle's hunting falcons.
  • Canon Foreigner: Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone. Though she was cut from the revised 1958 omnibus edition, she was restored for the Disney movie.
  • Category Traitor: Mordred accuses his half-brothers (except Agravaine, who supports him) of this for not being in favour of his efforts to destroy Arthur and the Table. In his mind (shaped by their mother) Arthur is a Pendragon, the Pendragons have wronged the Orkneys, therefore all Orkneys should do whatever they can to destroy Arthur. The fact that Arthur (and the people he would destroy as collateral damage) are good people is completely irrelevant to Mordred, but not to the others.
  • The Catfish: In The Sword in the Stone, the big old fish lurking in the moat of Sir Ector's castle.
  • Celibate Hero: Required if you want to reach the Holy Grail. Thus, Sir Galahad, Sir Percival and Sir Bors (though he has had sex once, it is forgiven for it was for the sole purpose of bearing a child).
  • Cerebus Syndrome/Darker and Edgier: The Sword and the Stone is pretty light-hearted, and not much different than the Disney film in terms of atmosphere. The story darkens from the second book onwards- we first get a description of how Morgause boils a cat alive just for the lulz. White also intended the books to be poetic, comedic, dramatic and tragic in order.
  • Chaste Hero: Lancelot... until he meets Guenever.
  • Composite Character:
    • Sir Bedivere is combined with the similarly named Sir Pedivere who kills his wife.
    • Elaine of Carbonek and Elaine of Astolat are also combined.
  • Continuity Nod: The narrator flat-out brings up Le Morte D Arthur in reference to several of the book's events but also expands on characterization and story.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Between the Orkney Clan and the Pendragons due to what Uther did to Igraine, and later between the Orkney clan and the Pellinores, with possibly even more tragic results, as the Pellinores did nothing to deserve it - King Pellinore accidentally killed King Lot in a joust.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Everything that happens to Lancelot and much of what happens to Guenever. In the concluding book Arthur, Guenever and the Orkney brothers (excepting Mordred) all go through hell.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: It's expressed more as a "Dude why are you giving respect to that guy?" with Mordred. After his attempt to catch Lancelot in the act with Guenever has led to the deaths of all fifteen of the (fully armed, armoured, and much younger) knights who accompanied him and his own broken arm, Mordred is tearful with fury at how his half-brothers still seem to be siding with Lancelot over him. He is certain that as Orkneys they should all be behind his plan to avenge their clan by destroying Arthur, and accuses them of treachery because they seem to place more emphasis on Lancelot's martial prowess than on his clan loyalty because he himself is not a good fighter. While there is some truth in that, it is clear that the primary reason they don't side with Mordred is because they recognise his pointless, self-destructive spite for what it is, and find it repulsive that he's so gleeful over destroying people who have been kind to him.
  • End of an Age: Its end is also the end of the Arthurian age.
  • Eternal Hero: In "The Queen of Air and Darkness", Merlyn tells King Arthur that will both come back.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Mordred is perfectly willing to have Guenever burned as a means of breaking Arthur and the Table, but he still considers her collateral damage and (semi-seriously) mentions that he feels sorry for her for being a necessary part of his plan. Consequently, when they confront Arthur to put Mordred's plan into action, and Agravaine is openly delighted at trapping Arthur into burning his wife and destroying his life's work with his own morals, Mordred is disgusted.
  • Excalibur: Unsurprisingly. Though it may surprise some to find that White skips the Lady of the Lake altogether.
  • The Fair Folk: The fairies in The Sword in the Stone were one of the earliest examples of these in modern fiction. Robin Wood said that they didn't have hearts, both literally and figuratively.
  • Famed in Story: Arthur wanted the story told, at the end, to keep the memory of the ideals alive.
  • Feuding Families: The Orkney Clan and the Pendragons, due to what happened between Uther and Igraine. Mainly one-sided as the only Pendragon left is Arthur and he wants nothing more than to make peace with the Orkney Clan and be friends.
  • Foil: Gawaine and Aglovale - when the accidental death of King Lot to King Pellinore leads Gawaine to start a Blood Feud with the Pellinores, Arthur asks, nearly begs, Aglovale to end it after both families have lost a father and a brother, because the Kingdom and the Law cannot stand if they're to be forever divided by feuding. Aglovale, after giving it much thought, does. Later on, he is one of those killed by Lancelot's knights in the rescue of Guenever from the stake, where the deaths of Gawaine's brothers trigger the feud that will eventually tear down the kingdom, because no matter how much Arthur begs, Gawaine cannot forgive. Until his deathbed.
  • Food Chains: Subverted in Arthur's and Kay's faerie sojourn, where they're not in the least tempted by any of the food they encounter. There's so much of it that, even if the foods were good individually or in moderation, it becomes awful.
    It was horrible beyond belief—sweet, sickly, and pungent—so that they did not feel the least wish to swallow a particle of it. The real temptation was to run away.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: In the fourth book, Lancelot kills Gawaine's brothers Gareth and Gaheris. Though Gareth's death is devastating to both Gawaine and Lancelot, neither of them seems to remember that Gaheris ever existed. (Or any of the brother's wives, who reportedly exist, but ever appear in the book.) Sir Kay's death goes pretty much unnoticed as well. (Unless White means a different Sir Kay.)
  • For the Evulz: The "motivation" of Morgause and many walk-on villains.
    • Maliagrance tries to be evil for its own sake, but he’s a little too tender-hearted for it deep down and it tends to endear people instead. He ends up dying from losing a trial by combat after making the entirely true accusation that Guenever and Lancelot are having an affair, and unfortunately for him, the fact that he's so well-liked means nobody helps him, as they just hope he'll be put out of his misery faster.
    • Mordred is superficially driven by this, but it’s made fairly clear that he’s a product of Morgause tormenting him to the same purpose, and this is essentially the only way he knows how to behave and it brings him no real pleasure.
  • Freudian Excuse: Agravaine and Mordred, much more literally than usual.
  • Funetik Aksent: Sir Gawaine intentionally keeps his very thick Scottish brogue, even though he, like his brothers, can speak perfect English.
  • Good is Not Nice: Sir Galahad is detested by most of the knights he comes into contact with, because he is far too good to be merely polite.
  • The Good King: Arthur, thanks in no small part to Merlyn's lessons.
  • Gorn: Queen Morgause boils a cat alive out of boredom. She doesn't even care about the practical purpose of granting invisibility, as she's intensely vain.
    • This is also a highly effective Kicking of the Dog, since the second book (and her first scene) opens with her doing this.
  • The Grotesque: Played with regarding Lancelot- he’s a disfigured, self-loathing Broken Ace who nevertheless makes intense efforts to be as kind and good as possible. For the most part, however, those efforts pay off in how others treat him, and he’s so well-liked he has to live incognito and out of sight for a while to avoid receiving favors and quests.
  • Happily Married: Igraine and Cornwall. Until Uther comes along and decides that he would like to have Igraine for his wife, instead.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Arthur is called Wart as a boy, which sounds like a mocking nickname (and probably helped inspire the Adaptational Jerkass characterizations of Hector and Kay in the Disney film), but it's actually a real (now archaic) nickname for Arthur. It rhymes with "art," not "fort."
  • Hidden Depths: Everyone hates Galahad for his Incorruptible Pure Pureness manifesting as insufferable arrogance and condescension, but Lancelot mentions that when he and Galahad were stuck on a boat together for some time with no quest to immediately ride off on, Galahad did show a more human side.
  • Hot Witch: Queen Morgause is described as a "black-haired, blue-eyed beauty". She ends up sleeping with Arthur and setting in motion his eventual downfall.
  • Idiot Ball: While he's in at war with France, King Arthur appoints Sir Mordred as Lord Protector of England even though he knows full well that Sir Mordred has in it for him and has already caused the exile of Lancelot. This promotion, of course, leaves Mordred in the perfect position to make a run at the throne. This is actually lampshaded by one of Guinevere's attendants.
  • Incest Subtext: All of the Orkney boys suffer from desperately wanting to please their mother, Morgause. But it's heavily implied that only Mordred and Aggravaine are sexually attracted to her. To the point where they end up murdering her. Yikes. In Mordred’s case, it’s also implied that Morgause might have forced herself on him physically at a young age.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: The ants Arthur meets in one of Merlyn's lessons. "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY." White flat-out states that the ants are Communists.
  • Jerkass: From what we hear, Uther is not a very nice person. He's a reliable king, but he follows the old "Might is Right" mentality. That and what he did to claim Igraine as his wife, even though she was already married to Cornwall.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sir Kay, even as a little boy. It's somewhat understandable, seeing as he grew up under a wealthy lord and was spoiled. However after getting over the initial shock of having his younger foster brother becoming King of England, he's very loyal and devoted to his brother.
  • "Just So" Story: The badger's dissertation in The Sword in the Stone is a just-so story about how the animals got their various wings, claws, fins, etc.
  • Kavorka Man: Sir Lancelot. He is known as Le Chevalier Mal Fet, "the Ill-Made Knight", as he is short, ugly and quite possibly ridiculously bow-legged. Yet he is loved by Guenever and Elaine, and admired by many other ladies as well. Being the best knight of the best knights in England probably has something to do with it.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Merlyn does this constantly due to moving backwards through time. Some of his most marvelous ones spiral off into funny and inspiring sermons about learning and the nature of spoken language.
  • Level Ate: In The Sword in the Stone, Arthur and Kay enter a faerie castle made of food. Said food turns out to be lakes of butter, walls of cheese, and the Fairy queen is found on a bed of lard.
    Narrator: It was horrible beyond belief-sweet, sickly, and pungent- so that they did not feel the least wish to swallow a particle of it. The real temptation was to run away.
  • Literal Transformative Experience: Invoked by Merlyn, who changes Arthur into a variety of animals, as insight into the kind of compassionate perspective-shifting he'll need to be a good king.
  • Meaningful Name: T.H. White refers to King Arthur's Britain as "Gramarye", an archaic term for magic. It comes from Old French and more accurately refers to any book of magic.
  • Mentor Archetype: White's Merlyn might be a modern Trope Codifier. White also plays with this trope a bit, explicitly contrasting the mentor figures of Arthur, the Orkney boys and Lancelot.
    • Merlyn treats Arthur kindly and sees it as his duty to teach him to think, not just rule. Arthur grows wise, and to be generous and kind to a fault.
    • Saint Toirdealbhach, like the Orkney boys, is violently inclined, irreligous and a slave to his vices. He tells them stories of wars and death, though he does teach Gawaine, Gareth and Gaheris a rudimentary moral code and "the only culture they ever learned" in his stories. Agravaine and Mordred, being obsessed with their mother instead, never even learn that.
    • Lancelot's uncle Dap is dedicated to teaching Lancelot his knighthood role to the point where he plays no part in the story outside it. Lance faces constant struggles because while he learned everything about being the best knight, he learned nothing about the more complicated things in life like, say, falling in love with his best friend's wife.
  • Merlin Sickness: Trope namer and codifier. Merlyn was/will be born in the future, and ages backwards through time. He remembers the future, and frequently gets confused as to what has and what has not happened yet.
  • Might Makes Right: A central discussion within the book. Arthur strives to leave behind the old school's ideas of "Might Is Right" and redirect it as "Might for Right", adapting Might as a force for good.
    Lancelot: The man with the strongest arm in a clan gets made the head of it, and does what he pleases. That is why we call it Fort Mayne. You want to put an end to the Strong Arm, by having a band of knights who believe in justice rather than strength. Yes, I would like to be one of those very much.
  • Mister Muffykins: Mordred's mother, Queen Morgause, has a succession of these little lapdogs. Mordred grows up hating them, but as an increasingly unstable adult starts keeping his own.
  • Momma's Boy: Morgause's alternately neglectful and obsessive mothering of the Orkney boys through life is the principal driver of the tragedy. Gareth comes out best, being the most level-headed and noble. Gawaine too, except it inculcated in him the inability to forgive people who killed his family members. Gaheris was impressionable and followed those brothers. But Agravaine ended up with confused sexual feeling for Morgause, and Mordred... Mordred was left alone with her for twenty years after his brothers went to Camelot. It eventually drove him mad.
  • Monster in the Moat: Downplayed in "The Sword in The Stone". The castle moat is ruled by an enormous and quite vicious pike, who upon encountering the young Arthur (whom Merlin transformed into a fish at his request), argues that Might Makes Right and that power is the only thing worth respecting, before trying to eat him. Merlin intended the experience as a warning to Arthur about the dangers of absolute power and how it leads to tyrants. Being an ordinary fish, though, the pike poses no danger to un-transformed humans.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Queen of Air and Darkness switches from the lighthearted romps of the comical King Pellinore and the darker scenes featuring Queen Morgause.
  • Motifs: Several, one early one being the crow with an arrow in its beak, which symbolizes trouble to come. It's first seen catching the Wart's arrow, upon which Kay claims it was a witch's doing. The same crow is seen at Morgan le Fay's castle, and then a crow-with-arrow weathervane sits atop the Orkney castle.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: Arthur, who has no magical powers of his own, is tutored by the magician Merlin.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Lancelot fully shares everyone's horror and disbelief that he killed Gawaine's siblings. Only the corroboration of multiple witnesses confirm that Mordred didn't kill them himself to frame Lancelot, given how improbable it seems.
  • Mythology Gag: Since White wasn't planning to fit everything into the novel, occasionally characters will mention events that will be familiar to readers of Malory or other Arthuriana, but are only throwaway mentions to others. Probably the most obvious are the occasional mentions of the trouble between Sir Tristram and King Mark of Cornwall, but there's also some subtle mythology jokes and nods to inconsistencies and disagreements between stories.
  • Naked First Impression: When Lancelot goes to save Elaine from the cauldron of boiling water she's been magically imprisoned in for years, she is "naked as a needle."
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Thrashers of Mordred.
  • Old Soldier: When Lancelot and Guenever (both in their fifties) are cornered in her room by 15 fully armed, armoured and younger knights, Lancelot is only vaguely annoyed that he forgot to bring his sword. Once he manages to disarm one of them and take his weapons and armour, he goes on to prove that his confidence is totally justified.
  • Old-Timey Ankle Taboo: In the first verse of the Bawdy Song mentioned above, "Wold King-Cole" accidentally sees a lady's ankle, which is treated as something scandalous. ("Ee could'ernt elp it, / ee Ad to.") The song is implied to get progressively more risqué from there.
  • One-Man Army: Everybody knows that opposing Lancelot with a group of mediocre fighters is suicide, regardless of how big the group is. Though he has (very occasionally) lost duels with other highly skilled individuals, numbers make no difference to him.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. The narrator even goes as far as to point out to the reader how the Elaine of Carbonek (who is in love with Lancelot) is not the same as Queen Elaine, sister to Queen Morgause and Morgan le Fey.
    • Same with Sir Bors and his son... who is also referred to as Sir Bors.
    • And then there's Sir Ector, who was Arthur's childhood guardian and Sir Ector De Maris, who is cousins with Sir Bors (the younger) and Sir Lionel.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: The eponymous sword of The Sword in the Stone, which can only be freed from the stone by he who is "rightwise king born of all England".
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: The Book of Merlyn contains a lengthy Hannibal Lecture on humanity's flaws, which seems like a massive downer. However, it does follow it up with a brief Patrick Stewart Speech on what the speaker considers to be humanity's saving grace: the love it has for its pets.
  • Pet's Homage Name: Merlyn's Familiar is an owl named Archimedes, after the ancient Greek mathematician. And you may NOT call him "Archie".
  • Pike Peril: In the first book, Merlyn transforms young Arthur into a fish after the boy wishes for it, leading to an encounter with an enormous pike who rules the castle's moat and argues that might makes right and that power is the only thing worth respecting, before trying to eat Arthur. Merlyn intends this excursion as a lesson against absolute monarchy, and how it leads to tyrants like the pike.
    Power is of the individual mind, but the mind's power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Sir Bors the younger. The book is quick to frequently call him out as a misogynist... but he's also one of the three knights that achieves the Holy Grail. Not to mention how he's fiercely loyal to Lancelot and agrees to be the Queen's champion (when Lancelot wasn't around) despite that it's been made very clear he can't stand her.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Lancelot has one in The Candle in the Wind, before he goes out to fight the knights who are confronting him about his affair with Guenever:
    "Ah sirs," he said with a grimness, "is there none other grace with you? Then keep yourselves."
  • Public Domain Character: Apart from the obvious, Arthur meets Robin Hood (who says his name is really Robin Wood, but it's clearly the same person the legends are about) in The Sword in the Stone. Several personages from Greco-Roman mythology, such as Neptune, Hecate, and Minerva, also make appearances in The Sword in the Stone (not to mention Castor and Pollux blowing Merlyn to Bermuda).
  • Pure Is Not Good: Depends on your definition of "good": during the Grail quest, a number of knights are put in situations where they had to make a moral decision where a dogmatic vow was tested against the individual circumstances (eg. fight your own brother while he's in a killing rage to protect the innocent and defenceless hermit who's risking his own life to stop the brother from killing you, and another one was asked to have sex in order to save a number of lives). In all cases, the path that led to the Grail involved remaining pure by sticking to the dogma, even if it let innocent people die. Guenever is horrified, and Arthur troubled, and it's telling that of the three knights who succeed, only one of them is actually compassionate and likeable.
  • Red Right Hand: The description of Mordred's appearance makes it clear he's not to be trusted:
    He was a thin wisp of a fellow, so fair-haired that he was almost an albino: and his bright eyes were so blue, so palely azure in their faded depths, that you could not see into them. He was clean-shaven. It seemed that there was no part of him which you could catch hold of, neither his hair, nor his eyes, nor his whiskers. Even the colour had been washed out of him, it seemed, so as to leave no handle. [...] He walked with an upright carriage, both ingratiating and defiant — but one shoulder was higher than the other. He had been born slightly crooked — a clumsy delivery by the midwife — like Richard III.
  • Reference Overdosed: It's packed with historical and literary allusions (mostly medieval, but with plenty of Shakespeare and others thrown into the mix).
  • Revenge by Proxy: Since Uther killed the Duke of Cornwall to have Igraine as his wife, Morgause and children forever resent and plot against Arthur even though he really nothing to do with it.
  • Rule of Three: Lancelot saves Guenever from the stake three times. The first time fighting for her honour against a lie, the second time fighting for her honour against a technical truth and the last time alongside his cousin knights against a truthful accusation.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Lancelot devoted most of his youth to learning how to fight, at the expense of having a proper childhood. He's better with a weapon than anyone else in the book, but among other things, he never learned to climb trees.
  • Spell My Name with an S: Most notably "Merlyn" (with one discrepancy in the poem before Book 1, where the name is "Merlin") and "Guenever" (in lieu of "Guinevere" or any other varied spelling).
  • Spinning Out of Here: Merlyn always spins around before he disappears in a cloud of smoke.
  • Supporting Protagonist: King Arthur is clearly the protagonist until the Ill-Made Knight, where Lancelot takes over as the protagonist. In the final section, we switch between the two perspectives before settling on King Arthur to wrap things up.
  • Tangled Family Tree: Inevitable since it involves a little incest. Arthur's half-sister rapes him, which means he has five nephews, one of which is also actually his son. Add in Guenever and Lancelot's relationship, and Lancelot's son Galahad by Elaine, and your tree gets pretty tangled.
  • Tearful Smile: After Lancelot and Guenever quarrel and make up:
    The Queen dried her tears and then looked at him, smiling like a spring shower.
  • Took a Level in Badass: King Pellinore, first introduced as a friendly but bumbling knight, becomes a formidable jouster after his marriage to Piggy. Unfortunately, it ultimately leads to his death after he accidentally kills Lot and the Orkney boys swear vengeance.
  • The Tourney: Unusually, using the melee form.
  • Tragedy: As early as The Queen of Air and Darkness White tells you this story is ultimately the Tragedy of King Arthur.
    • Fatal Flaw: Arthur's, sadly, is his innate decency and his sense of duty, refusing to see Mordred's scheming until it was too late. Because he feels he must be bound by his own laws too, he will not rid himself of Mordred, and Mordred eventually uses Guenever and Lancelot's relationship as leverage to break the Table. Gawaine in turn is pathologically incapable of forgiving the deaths of his family, and in seeking revenge against Lancelot for the deaths of Gareth and Gaheris, puts Mordred in position to seize the throne.
    • Tragic Mistake: Arthur slept with his sister, albeit unknowingly. When Mordred was born, after prophecies and warnings made him fearful, nineteen-year-old Arthur had him, and other babies born on the same day, cast adrift to die at sea. That one sin, which he spends the rest of his life atoning for, is what eventually brings his kingdom to ruin. Lancelot, during the final rescue of Guenever from the stake, laid about himself with his sword and unknowingly killed the unarmed Gareth, whom he loved, and his brother Gaheris, driving Gawaine to pursue him in a Blood Feud.
  • Translation Convention: Explicitly invoked by the narrator. In the first few pages the narration states that characters are actually using or referring to certain period-accurate things like some kind of drink, but the narration will translate it into a modern equivalent, like port. In addition, most of the dialogue is in modern colloquial English, but for a few important parts here and there it switches to something much more old-fashioned-sounding. There is no in-universe explanation for this; the switch is probably just to drive home the point "this is important".
  • Two-Timing with the Bestie: White leaves no doubt that Sir Lancelot was a good friend and loyal knight of King Arthur, nor that Lancelot and Queen Guinevere were engaging in adultery. The conflict when Arthur must judge them both after they've been caught in the act is a dramatic high point.
  • The Un-Twist: Wart's given name is Arthur.
  • Virgin Power: Invoked by Lancelot, believing this is the case early on in the Ill-Made Knight.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: Mordred is "so fair haired that he was almost an albino." He is, at first, merely self-pitying and creepy in the give-the-poor-kid-a-break way (due to being partially inspired by the concept of “what would Hamlet have looked like from Claudius’s point of view?”) but ultimately turns evil.
  • Who's on First?: When Arthur and Merlin meet Pelinore and Grummore there is significant confusion over hail (the weather) and hail (the greeting).

The BBC's 2014 radio dramatization of The Once and Future King provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The serial starts out with Arthur in his tent waiting for the final battle against Mordred, when Merlyn comes into his tent "taking a leave of absence" from Nimueh's cave, a scene taken from The Book of Merlyn. Rather than go to the Badger's sett they reminisce about Arthur's childhood and how they met, leading to the events found in The Sword in the Stone, and continuing from there.
    • The comic subplot involving King Pellinore from The Queen of Air and Darkness is left out, making it a very grim episode.
  • Adapted Out: The episode with the hawks is left out, as is the adventure with Robin Hood. The royal boar hunt if also left out, although it's aluded to. The Hedgehog whom Wart meets before he sees Badger is also left out.
  • Anachronic Order: Although the serial follows the general order of White's novel but there are some scenes appear out of order, due to the Framing Device of Arthur and Merlyn looking back on events before the final battle with Mordred.
  • Canon Immigrant: Madam Mim, the witch from The Sword in the Stone who was cut from the 1958 omnibus edition including all four books, is restored here. Although as a flashback during the episode covering The Queen of Air and Darkness instead of the episodes covering The Sword in the Stone. It's justified as Merlyn uses it to show Arthur how being sneaky in battle can be justified.
  • Demoted to Extra: King Pellinore is mostly a minor character.
  • Gender Flip: The Badger becomes a female.
  • Take That!: Merlyn is reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court during Kay's jousting practice and calls it "insufferable twaddle".

Alternative Title(s): The Sword In The Stone