Arthur begins the tale as a boy nicknamed "Wart": an awkward and mediocre lad who is eclipsed in every way by Kay, the son of his guardian Sir Ector. Wart is not exceptionally talented at anything in particular, but is befriended by Merlyn, an unusual old man who has magical powers and who experiences time backward. He puts Wart through a variety of lessons, forcing him to experience life as an ant, a goose, a badger, and a variety of other animals so as to gain a better understanding of human nature. These experiences lead Wart to develop a new values system and moral code: instead of believing that "might makes right," he seeks to establish a code of conduct whereby the strong protect the weak.
After pulling an enchanted sword out of a stone, Arthur inadvertently reveals that he, the son of Uther Pendragon, is destined to rule as King. He establishes the Round Table, an association of the bravest and mightiest knights in the realm, to enforce law and order. Yet his efforts are doomed almost from the beginning. He begets a son, Mordred, through his incestuous relationship with Morgause (his half-sister, although Arthur does not realize it at the time). This son, together with other enemies of both Arthur and his wife Guinever, eventually gathers forces strong enough to divide the Round Table and challenge Arthur's government.
As a king and leader, Arthur rules as a man of ideas and vision. His marriage to Guinever is chiefly one of convenience; however when his wife and his favorite knight, Lancelot, fall in love with one another, Arthur allows the affair to proceed unhindered due to his love for both of them. This morally and psychologically complex man is not the exaggerated hero of legend but a very fallible person who makes mistakes.
King Arthur's earliest tutor and confidant, Merlyn is a man who lives through time and human history in reverse. He grows gradually younger as the story progresses and appears to have knowledge of the future, along with the ability to use magic. He causes young Arthur to spend time as a variety of different animals, to help the eventual king develop the sense of ethics and social rectitude that later influences his decisions as king. Yet he is willingly entrapped by Nimue, a young sorceress, so that he is unable to provide Arthur with counsel later in Arthur's reign.
Morgause is the daughter of Gorlois and Igrayne, whom Uther Pendragon seduces while disguised as her husband and whom he marries after Gorlois dies. This makes Morgause the half-sister of Arthur, although neither is aware of this fact until after their brief liaison, which produces a son named Mordred.
Prior to meeting Arthur, Morgause is married to King Lot of the Orkney Osles. She has four sons: Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. However, she spends very little time with them, preferring to study magic. The boys grow up valuing aggression and possessing fierce tempers, although they have distinct personalities.
Guinever is the Queen of "Gramarye," which is understood to be England, having married King Arthur in an arranged marriage. She does not dislike Arthur, but accidentally falls in love with his favorite knight Lancelot. The subsequent affair between them is one of the occurrences that destroys the coalition of the Round Table and leads to war.
An important figure in the realm, Guinever is not universally liked. Morgause and her sister Morgan le Fay dislike her intensely. Agravaine and Mordred particularly hate her for being an adulteress, for failing to produce an heir for the King, and for what they perceive as her hostility to the Orkney faction (the sons of Morgause).
Lancelot is a physically ugly young man who trains from an early age to be a knight at King Arthur's Round Table. He succeeds in this goal but never defeats his basic self-loathing. He wants to be perfect, but fails to be so, and is thus never satisfied with who he is or what he accomplishes.
Since Lancelot has no friends at Court, Queen Guinever befriends the awkward, ugly young knight. They fall in love and begin an affair that is an open secret. Lancelot is such a potent fighter that nobody openly dares to challenge him; however, Agravaine and Mordred despise him. In fact, the whole Orkney faction dislikes the influence he has over Arthur and believe that they, as relatives, should have more influence over the king.
What Lancelot, a religious man, wants more than anything else is to perform a genuine miracle. He believes that he can only do this if he is perfect in every way, but since he falls short of perfection all that happens is that he hates himself even more. He has a short fling with a woman named Elaine and begets a knight named Galahad, who is apparently perfect.
Arthur's illegitimate son by Morgause is considered by many to be the rightful heir to Arthur's throne. Since he is raised in the Orkney Isles and not by Arthur, he fails to absorb Arthur's moral code. Father and son end up in a fight to the death that is in many ways predestined. Mordred hates Arthur for several reasons, chiefly because Arthur tried to have him killed in the belief that a child of incest must necessarily be evil. Mordred does indeed do some evil things, often as reactions to the evil that is done to him. He can be considered an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A bumbling older man of impeccable pedigree, King Pellinore provides comic relief throughout much of the book. He starts out on a mission to find and kill the Questing Beast, but turns aside from it to get married. Since he kills Lot of Orkney, Lot's sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris are honor-bound to kill King Pellinore in revenge. This violates Arthur's law-and-order concept, but since the Orkney knights are technically relatives he is not in a position to easily restrain them.
Gawaine is the eldest of the five sons of Morgause, and is one of Arthur's bravest and best knights aside from Lancelot. He is technically Arthur's nephew. However, he has a sense of blood loyalty to his brothers and also possesses the famous Orkney temper. From time to time, if provoked past endurance, he loses his temper and becomes violent.
Compared to his brothers, Gawaine remains loyal to Arthur and Guinever even after Lancelot accidentally kills Agravaine, who was trying to enter the bedchamber to confirm the Queen's adultery. It is not until Lancelot cuts down both Gaheris and the gentle Gareth (unknowingly) on his way to rescue the queen that Gawaine completely turns against him and completes the rupture of the Round Table.
Agravaine is a hot-headed, violent man with considerable physical strength and not much restraint. He is offended by many things, including the fact that the queen is carrying on an affair with Lancelot, who in Agravaine's opinion should not be Arthur's favorite knight. He sees the hypocrisy in Arthur's pretense that the Round Table is in fact an association of equals, because Lancelot enjoys far more influence than he, the King's own nephew, possesses. In many respects, Agravaine is the victim of his own jealousy.
Galahad the Pure
Galahad is Lancelot's natural son by a woman named Elaine (roughly associated with the Lady of Shalott depicted by Alfred Lord Tennyson). Elaine was a woman Lancelot rescued during the course of one of his adventures. She fell deeply and passionately in love with him despite the fact he was platonically committed to Guinever. They had a short fling, and Galahad was the result.
As a human being, Galahad is, well, perfect. Yet instead of admiring him as his father Lancelot is admired and respected, people tend to dislike him because they find him annoying. Whereas most individuals have to work hard to be good and to avoid temptation, Galahad seems to manage such purity naturally.
Arthur's guardian during his youth, Sir Ector is a gruff yet kind-hearted man who is on very good terms with the peasants and laborers who serve him.
Kay is the son of Sir Ector; despite his frequent turns of moodiness and sarcasm, he is a close companion for Arthur, his adopted brother. Knighted shortly before Arthur is named king, Kay eventually accompanies Arthur to the new court that forms around the Round Table.
Sir Grummore Grummursum
Sir Grummore is one of Sir Ector's friends. He also forms a strong bond with King Pellinore, inviting the wandering King to share in his hospitality and eventually dressing up as King Pellinore's cherished Questing Beast.
The Once and Future King Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Once and Future King is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.