Discussion of The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King by T. H. White, includes these Books:

I. The Sword in the Stone
II. The Queen of the Air and Darkness
III. The Ill-Made Knight
IV. The Candle in the Wind

The following are excerpts from a discussion on the planning list and House of Education support group list about the suitability of The Once and Future King, which requires parental guidance, and about the prospect of using Malory's Morte d'Arthur instead.

Question: Charlotte Mason used Malory, why not just use that as a King Arthur story? Why use The Once and Future King, which apparently has some problems?

I would place The Once and Future King under both literature and citizenship, perhaps more in the citizenship category. Malory is definitely literature, and it might be citizenship, too, but I don't know, not, (ahem), having read it.

The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is probably not going to bother anybody who doesn't have a problem with the fantasy element. The second book, Queen of the Air and Darkness has some very disturbing elements. Some of these can be skipped with no great loss to the integrity of the story, in my opinion. Some of them are vital. I can send a list I compiled of what I found troublesome, if you like.

The last two books have so many problem areas we felt it best simply not to recommend them at all. My own dd  read this book when she was thirteen, or started to read it. She got to book three and brought it to me, eyes flashing, lips tightly together. She shoved it my direction and said something like, "You didn't preview this book, did you? I don't appreciate that!"

I read it and she didn't finish it.


Question: Why use The Once and Future King if it is so objectionable that you didn't let your own daughter read it?

She read the first two sections, the same ones we are reading for House of Education. She did not read the last two sections, the ones we are not using for House of Education. I let her get into the third section without previewing, and I regretted it. But we are not recommending the third section for House of Education students, either. =) There is still much of value in the latter two sections that we're not doing. It's just that the number of mature issues increases greatly in the later books.

Honestly, had I the time, I would read through the whole book with my daughters, skipping and editing as I went, explaining when necessary, putting in my own comments on the issues. But most of us don't have that time, so we're making a concession, a sacrifice to some degree of some good content, to the reality of our lack of time. But I think we'd be doing our students a disservice, I really do, if we skip this book altogether. That's why we are doing only the first two sections.

A regular ole King Arthur Book cannot take the place of The Once and Future King, as the Arthur story in The Once and Future King is really only incidental to the purpose and place of this book in the curriculum, and to the message of the book itself. The Once and Future King is really about government, the rule of law, right and wrong, responsibility, self-government, the responsibility of the rulers toward the ruled, the limitations of government--and more. T.H. White merely uses the Arthur story, or perhaps I should say adapts it, to his purposes as a vehicle for these ideas. He does this very well, so the book has literary merit as well as philosophical value. The book is really a fantastic, very CM way of approaching these topics. Even the majority of the few parts I didn't like serve a very important purpose and have a place in the book--this is why I'm hesitant to just share those excerpts without explanation. Taken out of their setting, this is difficult to see. This book is so good, so useful, so important that I would hate for somebody to skip it based on a handful of sections that work better in their settings than out of them, or that could be skipped if necessary.

Some of the fiction books could be interchanged with others with no great loss of integrity of the curriculum. It might not matter a whole lot if you choose a different Ivanhoe book, for example, or choose to skip The White Company. But if you use something instead of The Once and Future King, well, it will create a huge hole in the soul of the curriculum.

I'm still going to pass on the list of passages parents may choose to skip or go over with their children--but please, read some other parts of the book looking for the elements I mentioned first, before deciding not to use it.


I'm reading through How To Read a Book, trying to decide how we're going to divvy it up for year 8. I'm wishing very badly that chapter 14 could be used in year 7 while students are reading The Once and Future King. As it is, I may try to post some of the questions Adler raises that would be helpful to consider when reading The Once and Future King, not quite a lesson plan, but something like lesson suggestions. =) LOL, if you all knew how many projects I burn to complete and never will have time for . . .

Anyway, in preface to sharing the possible problem passages, let me say some more things (mostly picked up from Adler's How to Read a Book, a book I strongly suggest all of us should go through with our children).

Adler says that we can learn from imaginative literature [fiction] through the 'vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination.' 'Imaginative books teach... by creating experiences from which we can learn...'

David Hicks, in Norms and Nobilities, says it another way. "novels raise questions we cannot ignore or answer, the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.'

In reading a work such as The Once and Future King, for example, there are things we can do to understand it better.

One of them is to first classify the work--is it a lyric, poem, novel, play? There are reasons why this makes a difference, and Adler expounds on them in this chapter.

Next we must grasp the 'unity of the whole work.' This is important. He says that we need to discover the problem the author is facing, and we find this in the plot. We indicate our grasp of the story when we can "summarize its plot in a brief narration."

Cool, eh?

But the plot itself is only the framework. I think this is more true for some books than others, and it's definitely true for The Once and Future King. We next go on to consider the parts of the book, the 'details of characterization and incident.'

It's important to keep in mind, though, that

"the chapters of a novel... often become relatively meaningless when wrenched from the whole."

I emphasize this because this is exactly what I'm about to do, render certain sections meaningless by wrenching them from the whole. I think there is a need to do this--we're busy, again, all busy hsing mothers, and we need to know what to watch out for. Also each of our children have differing levels of sensitivity. Some of these wrenched out parts I will not be letting my 13 y.o. read next year--but some of them I could let her younger sister read--because one of these girls is hypersensitive and one isn't very sensitive at all. ;-)

But do keep in mind that what you are reading may make more sense to you, may seem more useful or acceptable, or at least serve an obvious purpose within its setting rather than starkly by itself as I am about to offer.

Interpretive rules: "The elements of fiction are its episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions. Each of these is an element in the world the author creates. By manipulating these elements, the author tells his story."

The incidents, including the ones in The Once and Future King are usually there for a reason, to reveal something about character or plot or theme. A mediocre writer will tell you "Johnny was a lazy boy". A good writer will choose his episodes and incidents so that you draw that conclusion yourself. As we learn to do this our enjoyment of the book actually increases as we are able to see not only that we like or dislike this book or that chapter, but why.

Finally--I know I've been longwinded. These topics are important to me, and also something I've only really been thinking about the last few years, as I've worked with others on the AmblesideOnline and HouseofEducation curriculum. I'm excited about them and I always like to share what I'm learning, sometimes, I'm sure, reminding people of being buried by an avalanche of commentary.

But I do not want anybody to feel defensive, inferior, or in any way like any kind of a schmuck if you read the excerpts I'm going to share, look at the context and other content of The Once and Future King, and then decide that, in spite of my enthusiasm, you don't want to do this book. I will be sorry, but I won't be thinking that you are somehow inferior to those who choose to use it. You are your kid's mom. I have strong opinions about how valuable this book is, but I am not presumptuous enough to assume that I know what's good for your child more than you do. My suggestions are generalizations, the specific application is, in the end, your decision. This is not a "more intellectual than thou" issue. It's okay to differ. None of us on the Advisory are guru types. We are just mothers and hsers like you, and we make adjustments for our children and have no problem with others making adjustments for their families. We like to study and learn and share what we've learned, and we do have a lot of years of homeschooling under our belts, but it is always our purpose only to share, not to force. It is our constant desire to be a help, not a burden. I can't tell you how we yearn that each person using the curriculum will have the courage and confidence to tailor it, nip and tuck it, use it as needed. If it ever seems otherwise, I assure you, we are probably miscommunicating our intentions.

[In The Once and Future King] there are a lot of thought provoking questions about love, and valour, and wars and why we have them and when it is right to fight and when it is wrong, and protecting the innocent and considering others and selfishness and stupidity and thoughtlessness and loyalty for the right reason and loyalty for the wrong, as well as a very thought provoking passage on sin coming home to roost and sin having consequences, whether done in ignorance or not. It is good.

But for a handful of 'iffy' bits, it would be perfect. Here are the iffy bits I was able to spot. I tried to be very, very picky and isolate all the most doubtful bits--other than the whole theme of Merlin the magician and his use of magic which is going to be impossible for some to overlook. This runs throughout the book, so if this fantasy element is a problem for anybody, you needn't read on. This book will not be suitable for families who object to magic/fantasy books.

Please keep in mind that I am a fast reader and I have seven children, so life is pretty busy. I tried very hard to be comprehensive, but I could have missed something. I would appreciate it if anybody else reads any of the books in the curriculum and finds something you think merits a warning, go ahead and let us know. If we don't fix it, try again, unless you hear otherwise from one of us. It's not that we are ignoring you--it's that we don't always stay as organized as we'd like.

The Queen of Air and Darkness:

In chapter 1 of The Queen of Air and Darkness (p. 217 in my book) there is a really nasty description of a cat's death. A witch (Queen Morgouse) puts a live cat in a kettle of boiling water and its death is not pretty. I think this to give some insight into the character and to make the reader horrified--but you could simply skip it, explaining that she's nasty and cruel to animals.

Final Paragraph, ch 3 (p. 232), Merlin says, "My father was a demon, they say, but my mother was a Gael. The only human blood I have comes from the Old Ones." You could skip this without any loss of integrity to the story, I think. Or maybe the point is that the Gaels are not quite human?

p. 240, ch. 5; Queen Morgouse's four young sons have been visiting Saint Toirdealbhach, who is, I believe, a monk. He tells them stories. Then, "The saint helped himself to a fresh dose of whisky, hummed a few bars of "Poteen, Good Luck to Ye, Dear" and glanced at Mother Morlan [who I think is a nun]. He was feeling a new heresy coming over him, possibly as a result of the spirits, and it had something to do with the celibacy of the clergy. He had one already about the shape of his tonsure, and the usual one about the date of Easter, as well as his own Pelagian business--but the latest was beginning to make him feel as if the presence of children was unnecessary." No further details are given, and the couple marry at the end of the book. If this is a problem, you could skip it without missing any major part of the story.

On the next page (242/3) the children find some donkeys and are cruel to them. This scene was not as nasty as the boiled cat, but it was uncomfortable to read. It's also got a touch of crudity as the boys are riding the donkeys and beating them to make them go faster, and one of the boys rides backward and thrashes the donkey 'round the vent, to make it hurt more.' If I saw this passage only outside of the context, I would skip it without question. But reading it in context the decision is not so clear-cut or simple to me. This is a brief passage and yet T.H. White manages in a few short paragraphs to explore some of the relationship dynamics between abusers and the abused, and I think it has some value. But it was uncomfortable reading, and for many the philosophical merit may be outweighed by the difficulty of dealing with the cruelty. You could skip it and just explain that the boys are very cruel to the donkey, maybe asking the student if he can come up with any ideas as to why the boys might be like this.

p. 250/1--the problems in this passage come from reading between the lines, rather than what is clearly stated, but it is quite clear that the boys' mother is chasing after some young knights who have dropped in, and at least one of the boys knows what's going on and is very angry.

The knights are persuaded to spend several days hunting a Unicorn while the Queen is the virgin for them. There's also a bit of the Oedipus Complex and some Freudian nonsense hinted at (this is in several sections, wherever Agravaine appears). As I said, it's not at all graphic, it's all smoke and mirrors and hints like: "Our mother, " said Agravaine..."went on a unicorn hunt , and she was the virgin for them." [you need somebody to play virgin on a unicorn hunt, according to myth] His voice sounded strange as he made this announcement..." The younger brother doesn't see what their mother wants with a Unicorn "and Agravaine looked at him sideways, cleared his throat and quoted: "Half a word is sufficient to the wise man."

For some students this will go right over their heads, to others it will be embarrassing or disturbing. It does go a long way toward illustrating the character of the mother and how it affects her sons, but you could simply say, "The mother is flirtatious, and her sons are jealous for her attention and embarrassed by her behavior." and skip over it.

261 ch 7; nasty, brutal scene where the boys catch and kill a unicorn for their mother (who doesn't care, an important detail in revealing more of the mother's character, but...). It's bloody, gory, brutal, and sickening. They cut off its head in the end because they can't butcher it properly and have to drag the head home by the horn and it's just gross. The sequence does serve a purpose in the narrative, and there is much point for discussion, but it is off-putting. There were a few too many details in the butchering for me, but I am queasy about that sort of thing.

p. 275: a murderous fight between two of the brothers, one draws a knife on the other and the second nearly succeeds in throttling him. Description a bit graphic, and the boys are quite young. Again, there is a point to this and much room for discussion, and it's not any worse than the Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau story, but I'm trying to find all the most likely objections, and it would probably be best to at least discuss this episode.

p. 306 (ch 13); another gruesome black magic scene with Queen Morgause. She has a Spancel, which is 'a tape of human skin, cut from the silhouette of the dead man,' and in case that isn't clear to you, White goes on to explain, nearly inch by inch, what part of the body the strip is cut from and where it begins and ends. The purpose of the tape is to toss it over the head of the man you loved while he slept, tie it in a bow. If he wakes while this is happening, he dies in a year, otherwise he falls in love with you.

Personally, I'd just skip it, but I do think it important enough to explain that she is going to cast a love spell and that it's a very evil, yucky one using something called a Spancel (they will need to know the name for it). I think it's also an important illustration of her character and 'love' that she is willing to risk the death of the object of her affection--but you could just explain that if he wakes up while she's casting the spell, he dies, and discuss how 'loving' that is. How's that for literary analysis?

p. 311-312, last chapter, and probably the most disturbing, yet the most important of all these episodes to the story:

The person the evil queen Morgause loves is King Arthur. It might help if parents and student had some familiarity with the Arthur story before reading this--you all know, right, that Mordred is Arthur's arch-nemesis and doom, and also his son by a relationship Arthur has with his half-sister when he did not know about the relationship. This is part of the Arthur story. It will be in any accurate retelling of the Arthurian legends.

Anyway, the book merely states that Arthur wakes up in the middle of the night to find Morgause in his room, the four children behind her, skips any details about what happens next, and then jumps to the result. It is not exactly graphic. It is no worse, and considerably better, in my opinion, than La Morte De Artur. Here is the account in its entirety:

"It is impossible to explain how these things happen. Perhaps the Spancel had a strength in it. Perhaps it was because she was twice his age, so that she had twice the power of his weapons.... Perhaps it was because he had never known a mother of his own, so that the role of mother love, as she stood there with her children behind her, took him between wind and water. Whatever the explanation may have been, the Queen of Air and Darkness had a baby by her half-brother nine months later. It was called Mordred...this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur. It is why Sir Thomas Molory called his very long book the Death of Arthur, although nine-tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.

That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur's son Mordred, and to remember, when the time comes, that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough."

I think this is important enough to include, but very important as well to discuss.

I'd also like to note that out of just over 300 pages of material, I found nine passages, most of them short paragraphs, that needed addressing. It looks to me like this would be broken down to around a hundred pages per term, which would mean that there'd be nothing worrisome in the first term (if I didn't miss anything), about four paragraphs to watch for in the second term, and about five in the third term.

Hope this helps,

Comments About Malory's Morte d'Arthur

I'm up to the part where Nimue has just stuffed Merlin under a rock in Malory, and I'm just not sure about this... It does not seem to me to have any of the elements of character and the importance of choosing right over wrong that are in The Once and Future King, especially the first two books. It does seem to have all the problems that are in the The Once and Future King, and it gets to them much sooner, and it seems to wink at fornication much more than the The Once and Future King, for all that it describes it more melodiously. In the very first chapter we learn how King Uther felt about a married lady:

The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her..."

And how Merlin tricks her into sleeping with Uther instead of her husband (first telling Uther he'll only help him if Uther will give him their firstborn child, which will be conceived the first time they lay together):

"I will well, said the king, as thou wilt have it. Now make you ready, said Merlin, this night ye shall lie with Igraine in the castle of Tintagil; and ye shall be like the duke her husband, Ulfius shall be like Sir Brastias, a knight of the duke's, and I will be like a knight that hight Sir Jordanus, a knight of the duke's. But wait ye make not many questions with her nor her men, but say ye are diseased, and so hie you to bed, and rise not on the morn till I come to you, for the castle of Tintagil is but ten miles hence; so this was done as they devised. "

Apparently, this is okay, because the Duke, her husband, dies before they actually sleep together (though Uther doesn't know that)

"So after the death of the duke, King Uther lay with Igraine more than three hours after his death, and begat on her that night Arthur, and on day came Merlin to the king, and bade him make him ready, and so he kissed the lady Igraine and departed in all haste. But when the lady heard tell of the duke her husband, and by all record he was dead or ever King Uther came to her, then she marvelled who that might be that lay with her in likeness of her lord; so she mourned privily and held her peace."

13 days after her husband's death, Igraine marries Uther, who is twice in that paragraph described as a lusty knight. She is already pregnant with Uther's child when they wed, though she doesn't know it was Uther who violated her. He explains that it was him, and how,

"there he told her all the cause, how it was by Merlin's counsel. Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child."

Joy? He tricked her, caused her husband's death, and violated her while pretending to be her husband!

Jumping ahead, Arthur has drawn the sword, but the knights still don't want him to be king, he's too young, and they don't know his 'breeding,' and they ask Merlin why Arthur should be king,

"Sirs, said Merlin, I shall tell you the cause, for he is King Uther Pendragon's son, born in wedlock, gotten on Igraine, the duke's wife of Tintagil. Then is he a bastard, they said all. Nay, said Merlin, after the death of the duke, more than three hours, was Arthur begotten, and thirteen days after King Uther wedded Igraine; and therefore I prove him he is no bastard. "

Then there's the story of Pelinor and his illegitimate son Tor. Tor's mother is married to a cowherd, and Tor wants to be knighted. The cowherd brings him to court, and Merlin says Tor is fit to be a knight because of his 'noble' blood as the cowherd is not his father. The cowherd says he thinks not, and Merlin calls the mother--

"and there she told the king and Merlin that when she was a maid, and went to milk kine, there met with her a stern knight, and half by force he had my maidenhead, and at that time he begat my son Tor, and he took away from me my greyhound that I had that time with me, and said that he would keep the greyhound for my love. Ah, said the cowherd, I weened not this, but I may believe it well, for he had never no tatches of me. Sir, said Tor unto Merlin, dishonour not my mother. Sir, said Merlin, it is more for your worship than hurt, for your father is a good man and a king, and he may right well advance you and your mother, for ye were begotten or ever she was wedded. That is truth, said the wife. It is the less grief unto me, said the cowherd. "

And of course, Arthur still sleeps with his sister in this version, although in this version he does it willingly, because he's attracted to her, even though she is another man's wife. He doesn't know she is his sister in either version, but in The Once and Future King, she tricks him and bewitches him first. This doesn't happen until the very final page of book 2 in The Once and Future King, and White makes it very clear that it's wrong, and that it will have lasting consequences. I don't see Malory doing that, and he just throws it at one fairly early in the book

Between the two I really think we'd be better off with The Once and Future King, or at least The Sword in the Stone, which is all about Arthur's childhood (which Malory doesn't address), and perhaps book 2--leaving the final 2 books unread for now.

Or we can keep looking and find another book. I really don't think Malory is more suitable.

But that is just my .02 =)

Yes, I didn't care for Elaine and Lancelot--but isn't that not until the third Once and Future King book? If we were only to use the first one or two we wouldn't get into that part of it.

It appears as though the story of King Arthur is full of immorality.

Yep. Not surprising in a culture that thought it was perfectly acceptable to be in love with another man's wife.

In Charlotte Mason's Parents Union Schools they read Malory: "Knights of the Round Table," edited for schools in Form III, and Form II read Malory's "The Coming of Arthur" I don't know if these are just edited versions of "Le Morte D'Arthur" or something entirely different.

I have one called The Romance of King Aurthur translated and edited by A.W. Pollard (illustrated by Arthur Rackham). He is also listed as one of the three editors for the online version of Malory's book. My book is edited for children--the worst bits from Malory that I quoted last night weren't there, although the story of Tor and his parentage and the story of Uther tricking Igraine and lusting after her are all still there. Malory was pretty wordy. I think there are several editings of his work. I would guess that CM used one of those.


I found a student's essay on the morality issue in Malory online: http://www.omnigroup.com/~cirocco/academic/malory.html. Just to sum it up, the writer feels that it was a worse sin in that culture to do something against the king than against Biblical imperatives like adultery; for example, the sin Guinevere really repents of is not her adultery, but her part in helping bring about the fall of the Round Table.

Anne W.

Question: What was Charlotte Mason's purpose for using this book? Was it history, citizenship or what?

Below is some info on Malory and Le Morte D'Arthur from an old English Literature book. This might shed some light on why the PUS used the book.

The greatest English work of this period, measured by its effect on subsequent literature, is undoubtedly the Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the Arthurian romances told in simple and vivid prose. Of Sir Thomas Malory, the author, Caxton [William Caxton, 1422-1491, was the first English printer. He learned the art abroad, probably at Cologne or Bruges, and about the year 1476 set up the first wooden printing press in England. His influence in fixing a national language to supersede the various dialects, and in preparing the way for the literary renaissance of the Elizabethan age, is beyond calculation.] in his introduction says that he was a knight, and completed his work in 1470, fifteen years before Caxton printed it. The record adds that "he was the servant of Jesu both by day and night." Beyond that we know little [Malory has, in our own day, been identified with an English country gentleman and soldier, who was member of Parliament for Warwickshire in 1445] except what may be inferred from the splendid work itself.

Malory groups the legends about the central idea of the search for the Holy Grail. Though many of the stories, like Tristram and Isolde, are purely pagan, Malory treats them all in such a way as to preserve the whole spirit of mediaeval Christianity as it has been preserved in no other work. It was to Malory rather than to Layamon or to the early French writers that Shakespeare and his contemporaries turned for their material; and in our own age he has supplied Tennyson and Matthew Arnold and Swinburne and Morris with the inspiration for the Idylls of the King and the Death of Tristram and the other exquisite poems which center about Arthur and the knights of his Round Table.

In subject-matter the book belongs to the mediaeval age; but Malory himself, with his desire to preserve the literary monuments of the past, belongs to the Renaissance; and he deserves our lasting gratitude for attempting to preserve the legends and poetry of Britain at a time when scholars were chiefly busy with the classics of Greece and Rome. As the Arthurian legends are one of the great recurring motives of English literature, Malory's work should be better known. His stories may be and should be told to every child as part of his literary inheritance. Then Malory may be read for his style and his English prose and his expression of the mediaeval spirit. And then the stories may be read again, in Tennyson's Idylls, to show how those exquisite old fancies appeal to the minds of our modern poets.

William J. Long, English Literature, 1909, 1919 Ginn and Company, Boston.
[This does indeed appear to be the same William J. Long who wrote Secrets of the Woods, School of the Woods and Ways of Wood Folk]

Charlotte Mason may have read Malory aloud to her students and edited as she went; she did tend to use books that way.

from CM's Towards a Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6 p. 187, 188

"Children like ourselves must see life whole if they are to profit. At the same time they must be protected from grossness and rudeness by means of the literary medium through which they are taught. A daily newspaper is not on a level with Plutarch's Lives, nor with Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, though possibly the same class of incidents may appear in both. . ."

"We labour under a difficulty in choosing books which has exercised all great thinkers from Plato to Erasmus, from Erasmus to the anxious Heads of schools to-day, I mean the coarseness and grossness which crop up in scores of books desirable otherwise for their sound learning and judgment. Milton assures us with strong asseveration that to the pure all things are pure; but we are uneasy. When pupils in the higher forms read the Areopagitica they are safeguarded in some measure because they perceive that to see impurity is to be impure. The younger children are helped by the knowledge we offer them in Ourselves, and chastely taught children learn to watch over their thoughts 'because of the angels.' So far as we can get them we use expurgated editions; in other cases the book is read aloud by the teacher with necessary omissions."

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