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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 20

Summary and Notes

The seasons pass in typical fashion, and six years pass in one sentence. At the Forest Sauvage nothing remarkable has happened in the interim: Sir Grummore has visited often, Pellinore has been spotted questing, Wart was changed into many other animals, and Kay became more difficult.

Kay is preparing to be a knight and Wart his squire, and this causes a division between the boys. Wart is in the process of accepting his new position with a melancholy resignation. Wart confides his sadness to Merlyn and asks him what actually happens when one becomes a knight. Merlyn tells him the process of the knighting but that it is foolish and trivial.

Wart tells Merlyn that if he were a knight he would fight against all of the evil in the world, and Merlyn is saddened.

The reader again sees Merlyn’s knowledge of the future, and how heroic he is, in a certain sense, for keeping his mouth shut. He recognizes that Wart has the natural characteristics of a good king: generosity, kindness, etc., but that any knowledge of his future might interfere with his natural learning process. In other words: don’t interfere with fate.

Chapter 21


Kay’s knighting ceremony approaches, and Wart becomes increasingly withdrawn. Merlyn tells him the best thing to do is to learn something new. He suggests that Wart meet his friend the badger, but also tells him this is the last time he will turn him into anything.

Wart finds himself in front of the badger hill, and turned into a badger, but feeling desperate and unsocial, decides to go live in the wilderness instead of meeting the badger. He threatens to eat a hedgehog, and the hedgehog pleads with him for his life. The hedgehog sings him songs as a means of distraction, and Wart, relenting, asks him where he learned to sing. The hedgehog explains that Merlyn raised him, and Wart suddenly remembers him from when he was a baby hedgehog. Wart has mercy on the hedgehog, feels in better spirits, and decides to go in search of the badger Merlyn wants him to meet.

The badger tells Wart that there are only two things to teach: “dig, and love your home.” Wart is deeply charmed by the badger’s home, which is a stately bachelor pad.

Badger offers to read his thesis to Wart, which is why Man has become the master of the animals. The thesis starts with the supposition that all of the embryos of all of the species look the same, and God intended it that way. God offers each embryo the chance to develop one part of their bodies as tools when they grow up. Each species in turn decides on which body part they want to develop. So, for example, the badgers develop their forearms for digging. The man is the last to decide and he tells God that he wants to stay the same, for he will fashion his told outside of his body from the elements. God is delighted, and bestows his favor on the man, and gives him dominion over the other species.

Wart is pleased by the story, but badger expresses reservations about whether Man having dominion is a good thing. Man, after all, declares war. Wart counters that ants declare war too, but badger says that it is only a few species of ants that do, and that humans are alone in their sweeping embrace of war. Wart maintains that war is admirable.

The badger then asks Wart, which he prefers, the ants or the geese.

Wart’s lessons are profound. The badger is a humble, scholarly animal, and Wart’s interactions with him remind one of a dusty meeting with a favorite college professor.

The badger solidifies all of Wart’s lessons for him. The other animals have their talents (swimming, flying, eating other animals), but the human is the most talented because he, through invention and wit, encompasses all of these talents. Wart, of course, has literally realized this earlier through his transformation. Now, in his adulthood, he will intellectualize these lessons and have them realized in a political sense: through his reign as the King of England.

Wart’s conversation with the badger shows how young and ignorant Wart is still. The issue of war and its glamour is still a sticking point for him, and the badger makes the very clear point that it was better to be a goose than an ant. Will Wart understand the lesson as king?

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