notes on development of the
series by
T. H. White

T. H. White

This page:

books and variants
plot variants of "The Sword in the Stone"
my own preferences
a "best version" reading plan


Arthurian (modern)
my favorites

index pages:

the books and variants of the “Pendragon”

Quoting White's "Pendragon" presents some difficulties because there are different versions.* The whole work was completed by 1942 in five parts; three are revisions of earlier novels. It was finally published in 1958, seriously chopped up, as The Once and Future King.

* It's even difficult to refer to the parts by name. I use italics when referring specifically to a separate book publication, and quotation marks when I mean a book of The Once and Future King, or that book's portion of the story.

My collection of quotations from the first book, "The Sword in the Stone," draws from both versions and is presented with color-coding to indicate the sources. (The same set of colors is used below to compare the plot lines.) The original version is more of a "children's" book.

The second book, "The Queen of Air and Darkness," was published in 1939 under the title The Witch in the Wood. The third, "The Ill-Made Knight," appeared in 1940 as a novel with the same title. I don't have copies of the separate publications for comparison.

The fourth book, "The Candle in the Wind," was published only as the final part of The Once and Future King.

The fifth, "The Book of Merlyn," was omitted; some portions were moved to the "The Sword in the Stone," to the detriment of both. It was edited from manuscript and published posthumously, in 1977.

Here's a plot comparison of the two versions of "The Sword in the Stone". For explanations, read the book. Material from different sources is color-coded and marked as follows:

plot comparison for versions of “The Sword in the Stone”
Chapters 1-4 [both] Kay and Wart lose the goshawk Cully, and Wart stays in the forest at night to try to retrieve him. He meets King Pellinore, who is questing after the Beast Glatisant, then Merlyn, who retrieves Cully and comes back to the castle to tutor the boys, accompanied by the owl Archimedes.
Chapter 5 [both] Lesson: Merlyn turns Wart into a perch.
Chapter 6 [both] Kay and Wart hunt rabbits; a gore-crow steals Wart's arrow.

[SitS] Pursuing it, they are captured for dinner by Madame Mim. A goat in the next cage escapes with Wart's help and brings Merlyn to the rescue, and he defeats Madame Mim in a magical duel.

[OaFK] The chapter ends with the loss of the arrow.

Chapter 7 [both] Tilting lessons; while Kay is practicing, Merlyn takes Wart to the forest to see real knights in combat. After their battle, King Pellinore goes to stay with Sir Grummore.

[SitS] While watching Kay's lesson, Merlyn and Wart discuss what happened to the goat from the Madame Mim episode.

Chapter 8 [both] Lesson: Merlyn turns Wart into a hawk in the mews.
Chapter 9 [both] Kay and Wart fight because Kay is jealous of Wart's extra attention from Merlyn. Merlyn says he cannot turn Kay into things, but promises an adventure for him.
Chapter 10 [both] Start of Kay's adventure: the boys go into the forest and meet Robin Wood and his men.

[SitS] Little John and Robin compete at archery, until Marian stops them.

Chapters 11-12 [both] The boys, needed to enter the castle of Morgan le Fay, join Robin's band to rescue Friar Tuck, the Dog Boy, Wat, and Cavall. Before the band escapes, they are attacked and Kay kills a record griffin.

[SitS] The castle is surrounded by a cordon of 50 griffins and 50 wyverns. It has a sort of Hollywood-style opulence.

[OaFK] There is only the one griffin shot by Kay. The castle is made entirely of food. (The crow with the missing arrow is seen on top, to link it with this episode since the Madame Mim one is removed.)

Chapter 13

[SitS] Lesson: Merlyn turns Wart into a grass snake.

[BoM chapters 7-9] Lesson: Merlyn turns Wart into an ant.
[OaFK] Revised so the warring ant colonies are of the same species. The ants' original greeting of "Heil" changed to "Hail," removing a specific World War II reference.
Chapters 14-16 [both] Autumn and winter: harvest, Christmas festivities, and the Boxing Day boar hunt. King Pellinore finds the Beast Glatisant pining away for him, and decides to nurse it back to health, release it, and return to questing after it.
Chapter 17 [both] Wart and Merlyn discuss his next lesson: flying as a bird. Discussion of the origin of birdsong.
Chapter 18 [both] Lesson: Wart, turned into an owl, goes flying with Archimedes.

[SitS] Wart and Archimedes visit Athene, who shows Wart dreams, first of the life of trees, and then of the life of stones.

[BoM chapters 12-13] The flying lesson continues with Wart becoming a wild gander.

Chapter 19

[SitS] Merlyn and Wart visit the castle of Galapas the giant, whose prisoners include King Pellinore. Despite an invisibility spell, Merlyn and Wart are trapped, but all are rescued by the Beast Glatisant.

[BoM chapter 14] Wart migrates with the wild geese across the North Sea.
[OaFK] The chapter ending is moved from chapter 18.
Chapter 20 [both] Years pass, and Kay is preparing for knighthood, Wart to become his squire.
Chapter 21 [both] Last lesson: Merlyn turns Wart into a badger and sends him on a visit. Wart threatens a hedgehog and hears (from the real badger) a parable on the origin of Man.

[OaFK] A short discussion of man and his vices (particularly warfare) follows the parable.

Chapter 22 [both] Preparations for Kay's knighting; King Pellinore brings news of King Uther's death and the appearance of the sword in the stone, and plans are made to attend the tournament in London. Merlyn, his tutoring finished, leaves the castle.
Chapter 23 [both] At the tournament, Sir Kay sends his squire back to lodgings for his sword, but they are locked up. Wart finds the sword in the stone and (not knowing its significance) tries to obtain it for Kay. He pulls it out on the third try, after hearing advice from all the creatures whose ways he has learned.

[SitS] The advisors include the oak and a stone (acquaintances from the Dreams of Athene) and the grass snake.

[OaFK] A wild goose speaks instead of the snake.

Chapter 24 [both] Coronation of Wart as King Arthur, presents from friends, and Merlyn's return.
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Which "Sword in the Stone" do I prefer? The changes for The Once and Future King fit the story better into a novel for adults. The episodes of the ants (one of the few species, other than mankind, that engage in warfare) and the wild geese (who have no concept of borders) were salvaged from "The Book of Merlyn" to establish an important theme. But some of the cuts are very roughly made, with jarring effect.

The revision produced two definite improvements.

The story develops more smoothly and naturally, and seems to have more energy, in the original book. Perhaps Madame Mim and the original version of Morgan le Fay's castle would not have done in the adult novel, but I like them. The episode with the giant is also good, and the lessons with Athene. I particularly recommend the lesson with the snake (T. natrix), who thinks in terms of species instead of individuals, who tells a tale of "H. sapiens armatus georgius sanctus," and who makes an important connection to The Book of Merlyn.

As a general rule, the last published version of an author's work is most likely to represent his best-thought-out intentions. In this case, however, the attempt to salvage something of "The Book of Merlyn" by sacrificing part of "The Sword in the Stone" seems almost an act of desperation. I think White may have become convinced that the anti-war theme written in the early days of World War II, and brought to a point in "The Book of Merlyn," would not have been accepted in the postwar world.

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If you can get hold of all three books, here is my own reading plan for the best combination of continuity with a close approximation to White's complete plan for the "Pendragon" books:

I haven't tried this yet, to make sure that White didn't put any explicit references to the geese or the ants elsewhere in The Once and Future King, but I don't recall any. This plan loses some whimsical but expendable elements in the earlier version of Morgan le Fay's castle. A more significant loss is the set of changes which made the warring ant nests belong to the same species; to make those changes, while preserving the episode's original context in "The Book of Merlyn," would require careful editing.

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