The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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Merlyn is an eccentric magician who serves as Wart's tutor throughout his childhood. Merlyn lives time backwards and thus already knows what is going to happen to Arthur. By turning Wart into different animals, Merlyn teaches him about violence, warfare and justice, and informs the King Arthur will become. Eventually, Merlyn meets and falls in love with the witch Nimue who locks him in a cave for thousands of years.

Merlyn Quotes in The Once and Future King

The The Once and Future King quotes below are all either spoken by Merlyn or refer to Merlyn. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Ace Books edition of The Once and Future King published in 1987.
Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean and nearly everything in the world goes forward too…But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Merlyn curiously knew to set two places at the table even before Wart entered his cottage, and Wart is not tentative about questioning Merlyn about this during their lively breakfast conversation. Merlyn, in response, asks Wart to draw a W in a looking-glass. When Wart only succeeds in drawing an M, Merlyn explains his unusual request: Merlyn experiences time in a distorted, reversed way and experiences time backwards. This, the first of Merlyn's lessons to Wart, introduces Merlyn's unconventional methods of teaching -- which will become even more supernatural and unusual as the narrative continues. It also calls into question traditional notions about time, fate, and destiny; Merlyn's ever-present foreknowledge creates disturbances in these seemingly unquestionable phenomena.

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Book 1, Chapter 24 Quotes

I know all about your birth and parentage, and who gave you your real name. I know the sorrows before you, and the joys, and how there will never again be anybody who dares to call you by the friendly name of Wart. In future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker), King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator comically describes Wart's coronation as it would appear to a boy; it was an occasion where Wart was lucky enough to receive wonderful gifts. Yet, after the coronation has ended, Merlyn suddenly appears next to Arthur and reveals that he knew all about Arthur's true name and title (or, in other words, Arthur's fate as the King of Camelot). Merlyn renames Wart as King Arthur in the last lines of the narrative's first book, moving the story beyond its childhood phase and into a more complicated phase, where antagonists such as Kay may not become truthful at the end (as Kay did, when he admitted that he had not pulled the sword out of the store) and hostility that was previously unimaginable may occur within an entire kingdom.

Book 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armor, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

As Arthur and Merlyn stand on the castle battlements at Camelot, Arthur begins a conversation about a recent battle by calling it "lovely" and claiming that it is "nice" to rule as king and maintain his authority over such battles. Merlyn questions him on this, and takes a more sober view of the battle, asking Arthur how many of his footmen died -- a fact which Arthur does not remember, so Merlyn supplies the knowledge that seven hundred of Arthur's men (and none of his  knights) were killed. Merlyn comments that the defeated enemies will merely come back, even stronger, and that Arthur is only acting exactly like his father when he enjoys such prospects of warfare. From remarking on Arthur's father, Merlyn then expands to the idea of chivalry more generally, asking a contemporary audience's questions about the nature of chivalry during Arthur's time.

Merlyn inserts a modern, skeptical attitude; like a contemporary reader, Merlyn is far enough removed from medieval chivalric society to notice that its leaders are only created by material wealth and military might, not any kind of divine right or moral superiority. Merlyn momentarily seems to reject the same hierarchical society that controls medieval life (which he, too, is a part of). Similarly, Merlyn notes that chivalry revolves around needless warfare, inserting a pacifistic element into the narrative as well (a crucial theme for White).

Book 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

"Even if I wanted to," said Merlyn "it would be no good. There is a thing about Time and Space which the philosopher Einstein is going to find out. Some people call it destiny."

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker)
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

At Bedegraine, during the night before Arthur's battle with King Lot, Arthur and Merlyn have a "chat," a seemingly unimportant exchange that will nevertheless clarify the title of the novel. Before this, though, Merlyn fears that he has forgotten to tell Arthur something important. Instead of remembering, he tells Arthur a parable about the inevitability of death and destiny. In response, Arthur asks if this inevitability applies to Merlyn, who can know the future and knows how Nimue will attempt to trap him. According to Merlyn, no one can avoid the future -- not even Merlyn -- because of the fundamental physics of the world. This passage also offers, of course, another humorous juxtaposition of modern concepts with ancient mythology.

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 going 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.

Related Characters: Merlyn (speaker), King Arthur or Wart
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

As Merlyn continues conversing with Arthur the night before the battle at Bedegraine, he claims he will "tell you something else." This inauspicious start leads into one of the most clarifying moments of the narrative, when Merlyn explains why it is titled "The Once and Future King." Arthur is indeed a king of the past, present and future; his existence was predicted by legend, he exists now, and apparently he will "come back," again. This reveals how Arthur's story, and his tragic death, does not entirely belong to the medieval era which the narrative focuses on; it is a broader pattern, indicative of enduring human truth.

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Merlyn Character Timeline in The Once and Future King

The timeline below shows where the character Merlyn appears in The Once and Future King. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1, Chapter 3
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
...approaches, the old man says, "Your name would be the Wart," and introduces himself as Merlyn (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Merlyn invites Wart into his cottage, in which there is a breakfast set for two. The... (full context)
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
After breakfast, Merlyn declares that it's high time they returned to Sir Ector. Wart is surprised, and then... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 4
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Wart, Merlyn, Archimedes and Cully return to the Castle Sauvage. Hob, the caretaker of the hawks, takes... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Wart declares that he has been successful on the quest for a tutor—he has found Merlyn, the great magician. Merlyn shows Sir Ector his references (including a tablet signed by Aristotle... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...a quest all on his own. Kay, fired by jealousy, dismisses the quest. To which Merlyn responds suddenly and rudely: "Kay, thou was ever a proud and ill-tongued speaker, and a... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 5
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...a child and he had been spurned by the other children ever since). One morning, Merlyn finds Wart with Dog Boy petting the hounds. (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
"I think it's about time we began lessons," Merlyn announces. It is hot, and Wart wishes he could swim in the moat instead. "I... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...a timid young roach (a type of fish) appears. He begins crying, and pleads with Merlyn to help his Mamma who has begun to swim upside down. The three find the... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 6
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
The boys are practicing their archery, while Merlyn sleeps off his lunch in the shade. Kay, as competitive as ever, is in a... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 7
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
It is nearing Autumn and Wart is lying in the shade with Merlyn while Kay has his tilting (jousting) lesson. Wart, sighing, thinks how nice it would be... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
Wart finds himself deep in the Forest Sauvage with Merlyn at his side. King Pellinore emerges out of the gloom, shortly followed by Sir Grummore... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
...succeed in ramming into trees. With the knights lying stunned and motionless on the ground, Merlyn and Wart return to the Castle Sauvage. (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 8
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
Wart is moping in the castle. He goes to Merlyn in the hope of some education. Merlyn suggests that he try being a hawk and... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...hooded, silent, and stately in the August moonlight in the Mews. A few moments after Merlyn had left Wart, there is a gentle ringing of a bell and the great peregrine... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...while they ring the bell three times. Wart agrees (although he had been warned by Merlyn not to do just this) and proceeds to Cully's enclosure. While he stands near the... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 9
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
...a bleeding nose and Wart with a black eye. Kay begins to sob and whimpers, "Merlyn does everything for you, but he never does anything for me." Wart feels awful and... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Merlyn lives in the tallest, most beautiful tower in the Castle Sauvage. Wart demands that Merlyn... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
Merlyn explains that sometimes you cannot understand why certain things happen, but there is usually a... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 12
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
...if he might take Wat home—the witless man who had also been held hostage—so that Merlyn can give him his wits back. (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...to bed by the nurse. When he wakes later that day, he rushes off to Merlyn and asks him what he had done with Wat. Merlyn responds that he has "pscyho-analysed... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 13
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...is confined to his bedchamber for three days and howls miserably through the keyhole to Merlyn to be turned into something—even an ant! Merlyn, reluctantly, does so. The ant nest Wart... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 17
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...off into the snow weeks ago, to be followed two hours later by King Pellinore. Merlyn, in his tower with Wart, asks him what he would like to be. Wart wants... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 21
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
The day for the ceremony draws near and Wart becomes sulky. Merlyn decides the best thing for Wart is to learn something and decides he should meet... (full context)
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
...him if only the hedgehog stops singing. Wart discovers the hedgehog is the very one Merlyn had had as a pet when it was younger; he promises not to hurt him.... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 22
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
At this moment, Wart comes in with Merlyn to hear they will be travelling to London and Wart will act as Kay's squire... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 24
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
...Sir Ector. When Wart lights it at the top end, as you are supposed to, Merlyn appears standing before him. (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Merlyn tells Wart that his father had been King Uther Pendragon. Merlyn, disguised as a beggar,... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 2
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
...men plough farmland and fish in the streams. "It was a splendid battle," Arthur comments. Merlyn looks only skeptical and says that they will all come again, the Kings of Orkney,... (full context)
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Arthur is unfazed by this prospect. Merlyn, Arthur notices, is upset and asks what he has done. Merlyn says merely that Arthur... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Merlyn gives Arthur some advice about battles: Arthur should not say a battle was lovely, he... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...Arthur wonders what would happen if he dropped a stone on one of their heads. Merlyn answers that it would kill the man it hit, "You are the King…Nobody can say... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 3
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Kay, Arthur and Merlyn are riding back from hunting. Kay asks Merlyn about Queen Morgause and what the Gaelic... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Merlyn begins: three thousand years ago, the country belonged to a Gaelic race; they were then... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
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Merlyn ponders and says that if we think like that, there will never be an end... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 4
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
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Merlyn explains how, when he was young, there was a general idea that it was wrong... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 6
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
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...one can decide how to fight the second campaign against King Lot's slowly moving army. Merlyn presents himself in Court because Arthur has summoned a council of Sir Kay, Sir Ector... (full context)
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Arthur continues: why does Merlyn help him to fight battles if they are bad things? The only reason Arthur can... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
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After Arthur has finished speaking, Merlyn stands up and stretches his hands to the ceiling. (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 8
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...Arthur barely leaves his own pavilion, and talks instead to Sir Kay, Sir Ector and Merlyn about his vision for the Order. Arthur decides the knights must sit at a round... (full context)
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...knights young before they are impressed by the old chivalry—for instance, the young child Lancelot. Merlyn then tells Arthur that King Leodegrance has a round table that will do and, seeing... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 10
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
In Bedegraine, it is the night before the battle. Merlyn is concerned that he has forgotten to tell Arthur something—they have spoken about the battle,... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
Arthur reflects on this and realizes that destiny is something you cannot elude. Merlyn decides to tell Arthur something else—that when he is dead, his tomb will say: Hic... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 14
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
...for King Pellinore. No trouble is spared—there are flowers, bells, and feasts. Meanwhile, far away Merlyn jumps up in bed—he suddenly remembers what he had forgotten to tell Arthur: his mother's... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 3
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
...in this story have a sort of genius or tutor in the family: Arthur had Merlyn, Gawaine and his brothers had Sir Toirdealbhach, while Lancelot has Gwenbors or Uncle Daps. Uncle... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
...an elderly gentleman with a white beard and a young woman with an olive complexion. Merlyn (the old man) announces to Lancelot that he will be the finest knight Arthur ever... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 5
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
...that Lancelot and Guenever are falling in love. Arthur had been warned of this by Merlyn, but had never truly paid attention to his warnings. Unsure what to do, Arthur decides... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 38
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
The next day, Nimue arrives at Camelot on behalf of Merlyn (who is locked in a cave) and clears up the whole Patrick accusation with her... (full context)
Book 4, Chapter 14
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
...battles. The Round Table is now dispersed. He feels that he has failed the service Merlyn trained him for—to conquer Might with Right. He sees now that his whole reign has... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Fate (Time) Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Arthur sleeps and dreams of Merlyn. When he wakes he begins to remember: Lyo-Lyok and the birds migrating; the belligerent ants;... (full context)