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Free Study Guide-The Once and Future King-T.H. White-Free Book Summary
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Chapter 1

Summary and Notes

A radically different setting and tone is established from the onset of this chapter. The reader is placed in a broken down turret, and the main characters are introduced: four children. The children have no bed and are sleeping on straw.

These children have a mother, who is absent from the scene, with whom they are obsessed and of whom they are afraid. The children are speaking Gaelic.

The children’s names are (from oldest to youngest): Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth. A rudimentary sketch of two children’s personality is given: Gawaine is the leader, Agravaine is unlikable and a bully. Gawaine is telling the others a story.

The story is about their ancestors, and is crucial for understanding the rest of the novel. The boys’ mother has two sisters. Her name is Morgause, and her sisters are Elaine and Morgan la Fay (the latter was introduced in Book One). The three sisters are witches. Their mother’s name was Igraine, and long ago, Igraine was married to the Earl of Cornwall, the boys’ grandfather.

Long ago, King Uther Pendragon fell in love with Igraine, and decided to have her for himself. He declared war on the Earl in order to take possession of his wife, and the Earl hid his wife in a castle called Tintagil. Apparently, Merlyn helped Uther’s side, and with his help, Uther was able to slay the Earl and marry Igraine.

The children are clearly indignant and vengeful over this piece of family history.

The scene shifts suddenly. Below the children, in the castle, is a Queen, their mother. In short and horrific description, the Queen kills a cat by boiling it.

Morgause searches through the remains of the cat in order to find a legendary bone that will cause one to vanish; she cannot find it and throws the whole mess out the window and falls asleep.

The author then reiterates the boys’ simultaneous revenge and Oedipal fantasies and the chapter ends.

This chapter sets the tone for Book Two, which is dark and vengeful. The relationships between the characters are already far more adult and complicated than the frivolity of the first book. The brothers are introduced and angry, violent, and confused boys, with a mother who is complicating beyond any psychiatrist’s wildest dreams. Not only is Morgause a witch, but she is beautiful, violent, neglectful, and utterly worshipped by her sons.

It is important to start differentiating between the brothers. Gawaine is loyal and nationalistic; Agravaine is sniveling and sexually confused; Gareth is generous and good; and the youngest, Gaheris, is a follower.

The story about Uther and the Earl sets the stage for the revenge that defines the plot of the next three books. It is important to remember that Arthur, for these boys and their mother, represents Uther. Furthermore, Arthur is biologically Morgause’s half-brother and the boys’ uncle. The reader can also remember from Book One that Morgan la Fay and her crew (the Oldest of the Old, the Orkney faction, etc.) were upset about their loss of land which was caused by the British, who are now represented by the young King.

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