The Once and Future King: Nostalgia for Feudalism, Contempt for Modernism

From Disney's The Sword in the Stone, 1963.
Arthur Draws the Sword. From Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, 1963.

In his novel The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s tone as a writer goes from that of a medieval enthusiast to a disgruntled citizen of the twentieth century. The novel begins with the first book, “The Sword in the Stone,” the endearing story of King Arthur’s innocent and adventurous childhood told in the voice of a contemporary author. Many of us remember the classic Disney film based on this first book, in which “Wart” begins his exciting adventures with Merlyn away from the rather dim-witted Kay and overbearing Sir Ector. However, as the story goes on, it becomes less jovial and more serious as Arthur grows and encounters deeper and more serious problems than those he faced as a child.

This shift symbolizes more than just the story of a boy growing up – it illustrates the evolution of England from a content feudal society to a competitive warring state (“The Sword in the Stone,” after all, being the only part of the novel written before the breakout of the Second World War). Through this story, T. H. White demonstrates nostalgia for the medieval feudal England and furthermore resentment of what the twentieth century world has become. Throughout the book, White makes brief deviations from the story to give political commentary mildly clouded by the creations within his fictional world. These sections are important to analyze, as they are the key to understanding White’s views both of twentieth century politics and of the Arthurian legend as a whole.

The Good Earth: An Ideal Feudal Society

One of the major themes in “The Sword in the Stone” is politics, as T. H. White acts initially as a sort of apologist for the feudal system. He describes Sir Ector’s estate working in preparation for winter, saying, “Everybody was happy. The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at it in one way – but, if you chose to look at it in another, they were the same farm laborers who get along on too few shillings a week today. Only neither the villein nor the farm laborer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector” (White 130).

In this section, White is acknowledging the low and permanent social status of the working class, but is slyly criticizing any opposition to feudalism by mentioning the society of modern England. In a way, he is portraying the medieval laborer as having an easier life since they at least had a chance of having a vassal who looked after them. Sir Ector, while portrayed at times as hot-headed and foolish, represents this ideal vassal. “They (the laborers) were healthy, free of an air with no factory smoke in it… They knew Sir Ector was proud of them… He walked and worked among his villagers, thought of their welfare, and could tell the good workman from the bad” (White 131).

White is making a subtle comparison of world leaders. He seems to admire the leader who takes the needs of the masses into account, and his mention of “factory smoke” implies resentment towards industrialization. As if these illustrations were not clear enough, White states that “the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system” (131). This section could be seen as a criticism of leaders who do not take the welfare of the lower classes into account, such as, possibly, the authoritarian dictators during World War II. Andrew Lynch writes that “Totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century … were satirised by White in his transformations of Malory’s original” (181), a claim that becomes more evident as the novel continues. However, White focuses his criticism primarily on the Axis powers of the Second World War, and Lynch claims that “British versions of power get off more lightly” (181).

From Disney's The Sword in the Stone, 1963.
Sir Ector of the Forest Sauvage, from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, 1963.

White’s mild criticism of English politics is made evident through Merlyn’s opposition to making violence a sport, such as when the magician says, “A lot of brainless unicorns swaggering about and calling themselves educated just because they can push each other off a horse with a bit of stick! It makes me tired… The trouble with the Norman aristocracy is that they are games-mad, that is what it is, games-mad” (55). The rest of the book focuses on more foreign forms of government.

Nationalist Ants and Peace-Loving Geese

Such an obvious commentary from the author on politics is not often found in “The Sword in the Stone.” Instead, White presents both his beliefs in and criticisms of various political systems through the animalistic societies Wart temporarily joins (The book, after all, being about children, for children).

One example is when the Wart is transformed into an ant. François Gallix writes, “In the allegory of his stay among the ants, the king finds himself involved in a society that is both communist and fascist, the two terms being, in White’s opinion, very close in meaning” (Gallix 288). It is important to note that White characterizes these two ideologies into one metaphor. At the beginning of Wart’s travels as an ant, he sees a sign which reads, “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY” (White 121). This alone is a more communist idea, that no member of the community may have property that is not necessary to the welfare of the state.

Next, the Wart begins to feel sensations through his antennae, and White says “the easiest way to explain it is to say that it was like a wireless broadcast” (121), a clear reference to the radio propaganda that was increasingly used during the Second World War. Another allusion to the Nazi state is found soon after when an ant greets the Wart by saying, “Hail, Barbarus!” (122).

There is also a sort of fascist ideological history introduced when White writes that “Ant the Father had ordained in his wisdom that Othernest pismires should always be the slaves of Thisnest ones” (127), giving the ants an idea of supremacy over all others. This is comparable to the racism, nationalism, and militarism demonstrated within Hitler’s Germany. At this point, it is clear that White is opposed to both communism and fascism. Both ideologies were on the rise when the book was written, and both starkly contrasted his idea of a pacifist society.

Massed ranks of the SS at the Nuremberg Rally, 1936.
Massed ranks of the SS at the Nuremberg Rally, 1936. Hitler’s regime is a clear influence on White’s ant colonies and Mordred’s Thrashers.

The Wart later encounters a way of life quite unlike the ants’ “collectivist and warlike society” when he joins a group of “peaceful wild geese who constitute a model for man to follow, an ideal society” (Gallix 290). The geese live in familial groups, yet altogether have a “comradeship, free discipline and joie de vivre” (White 168). As a result, the Wart becomes “restless” to join them. This sentiment alone can be seen as White’s view that a good, peaceful society will always be sought after by members of other communities, no matter how nationalistic and organized they may be.

However, when the Wart accidentally brings up the idea of war to one of the female geese when he asks why there are sentries, she is quickly disgusted by the idea. “What a horrible mind you must have,” she says, “of course there are sentries. There are the jer-falcons and the peregrines… the foxes and the ermines and the humans… These are natural enemies. But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” (171). Once again we have a less subtle political commentary clouded by the fact that it is geese who are delivering it. Throughout “The Sword in the Stone,” White presents an advocacy for pacifism and contempt for war, sentiments which he presents with less subtlety in the following books.

The Onset of War and Fascism

The tone of the novel changes in its second book, “The Queen of Air and Darkness.” Andrew Hadfield writes that the beginning of this book “marks the transition from the relative innocence of the Wart’s boyhood… to the savagery of the adult world outside” (Hadfield, “T. H. White’s” 420). This transition is likely due to the shifts that were also occurring in the world surrounding White. Hadfield argues in another essay that “White’s conception of the purpose of his retelling of the Arthurian legends grew more grand and precise as the project continued into the years of the Second World War” (Hadfield, “Pacifism and Violence” 209).

White’s references to the war grow more numerous and less subtle from this book onward. His work becomes less of an enjoyment for children and more of a medium through which he may both educate and inspire England during its dark days ahead. In order to do this, White must incorporate what Hadfield calls “the adult world outside.”

The “adult world,” according to White’s writing, is full of problems of a more serious and political nature. Arthur and Kay have grown and are currently at war with King Lot. In a discussion about good reasons for starting wars, Kay says to Merlyn that “there might be a king who has discovered a new way of life for human beings… if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests, by the sword.” Merlyn is shaken by this and responds, “There was just a man when I was young – an Austrian who… tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos” (274).

Here, Merlyn acts as White’s political persona. He is agitated, even angered by the idea of authoritarianism, an ideology that was being taken to the extreme by the “Austrian” in Germany when “The Queen of Air and Darkness” was written. Merlyn then mentions Jesus Christ, saying that “the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers… On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not impose them on people” (274). This passage is not a confession of faith in Christianity. Rather, it is White’s recognition of, if not admiration for, Jesus of Nazareth’s ability to spark a worldwide, two thousand year-long belief system without the need to resort to violent force. If anything, White is using Jesus as a political archetype for the modern head of state.

This anti-fascist attitude is further demonstrated in “The Candle in the Wind,” when White makes Mordred into the head of a sort of medieval Nazi party, whose aims, White writes, “were some kind of nationalism, with Gaelic autonomy, and a massacre of the Jews as well, in revenge for a mythical saint called Hugh of Lincoln. They were already thousands, spread over the country, who carried his badge of a scarlet fish clenching a whip, and who called themselves the Thrashers” (628). In the novel, medieval England has become weak under the breaking of the Round Table, much like Germany during the decline of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930’s. As a result, Mordred is able to rally a “popular party” and spread his own hatred for Arthur’s monarchy among his followers. The badge and the far-fetched pretense for killing Jews are obvious references to the Nazi Party.

Furthermore, Arthur receives and shares the news that “(The Thrashers) are besieging her (Guinever) in the Tower of London now, and Mordred is using guns,” after which the Bishop of Rochester “asked in bewilderment: ‘Guns?’” (658). This introduction of firearms is a first in the story and, historically speaking, marks the end of the Middle Ages as we know it. White writes that this use of guns “was too much for the old priest’s (Rochester’s) intellects,” and the bishop cries, “To use cannons against men!” This is probably a reference to similar outrage sparked by the Blitzkrieg during which Germany targeted and bombed civilian areas in England.

The combat of Arthur and Mordred, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth for Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur, 1922.
The combat of Arthur and Mordred, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth for Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur, 1922.

The Once and Future King

White’s final and arguably most significant commentary is given at the end of the novel, when Arthur, old and weary, sits in his tent before his final battle against the cannons of Mordred. “Chivalry and justice became a child’s illusions,” he writes, “if the stock on which he had tried to graft them was to be the Thrasher, was to be Homo ferox instead of Homo sapiens” (667).

Here, Arthur is feeling what England must have felt. Nothing but misery and bloodshed surround him, and certain death awaits him on the battlefield. Arthur then ponders his reign as king, wondering where he went wrong in his hopes of bringing England to a warless era. “Was it wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?… A leader was surely forced to offer something to appeal to those he led?… If it was so easy to lead one’s country in various directions… why had he failed to lead her into chivalry, into justice and into peace? He had been trying” (668).

This is both Arthur and White wondering why a man like Mordred or Hitler could thrive when their ideals went against peace and justice, and whether it was they or those they led who truly sparked their movements. White continues with Arthur’s thoughts as his persona, saying, “Perhaps the great cause of war was possession… Perhaps war was due to fear… Perhaps wars happened because nations had no confidence in the Word… Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it” (679-671). In the end, White and Arthur cannot decide on what causes war.

In the end, however, Arthur is encouraged by two things. Firstly, by his final order to his page, a young Thomas Malory, whom he tells to “remember their (the Knights’) famous idea… to remember that you (Malory) are a kind of vessel to carry on the idea… and that the whole hope depends on you alive” (674). Here, Malory serves as a metaphor for Arthur’s old ideals of chivalry and justice, that they may live on in the hearts of the English people.

The second occurrence that gives Arthur new hope is when he thinks of Merlyn, and suddenly sees in his recollection all of the animals he had encountered during his lessons with the old magician. White comes to his conclusion as he describes Arthur’s thoughts: “He saw the problem before him, as plain as a map. The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing – literally nothing… Frontiers were imaginary lines… Countries would have to become counties – but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws” (676).

This is both White’s final presentation of political commentary and Arthur’s forming of plans for when he returns as the Future King. The King had been able to conquer as far as Rome, so surely he could do so again when he returned, only this time get rid of boundaries and rule his kingdom with a bit less centralization. Arthur is suddenly clear-headed and “his spirits are finally buoyed by his realization that the dream and legend are alive, even though the institutions have crumbled” (Lacy, Ashe, and Mancoff 182). This is White’s solution. He recognizes that feudalism is gone and that tyrants now thrive. However, he shows that there is a chance that as long as the legend, or idea, of justice lives on, England and the world may yet abandon war and reestablish their own sort of Table Round, only this time it may last eternally.

"The Death of Arthur" by John Garrick, 1862.
“The Death of Arthur” by John Garrick, 1862.

The Once and Future King, a modern Arthurian classic, went from being a retelling of Malory for children to T. H. White’s microphone to the world of politics. White demonstrates some degree of longing for the organized and mostly all-pleasing form of feudalism found in the Middle Ages, and much resentment of the warmongering attitude the world has cultivated in modern times. Through his criticism of rising radical ideologies, White shows the many flaws in the idea that “Might makes Right,” and that forms of government such as fascism and communism cannot exist if they continue to thrive on war and the blind, unfulfilled support of the people. Instead, White presents the possibility of peace as almost achieved by Arthur and his court. Although Arthur lost this chance, White encourages the world to hope that justice, like Arthur, may yet return so long as its legend lives on.

Works Cited

Gallix, François. “T. H. White and the Legend of King Arthur: From Animal Fantasy to Political Morality.” The Once and Future King. Ed. Edward Donald Kennedy. King Arthur: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1996. 281-297.

Hadfield, Andrew: T. H. White, Pacifism, and Violence: The Once and Future Nation Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate, (6:2), 1996, 207-26. (Electronic publication.).

Hadfield, Andrew. “T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.” Companion to Arthurian Literature. Ed. Helen Fulton. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 420-433. Print.

Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff. “Modern Arthurian Literature.” The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland Pub., 1997. 181-82. Print.

Lynch, Andrew. “Imperial Arthur: Home and Away.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Ed. Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2009. 181. Print.

White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: Ace, 1996. Print.

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  1. A literary friend of mine says children today aren’t reading The Once and Future King. What a shame. To have the classic stories of Arthur told with the humor, wisdom (and spleen)of White is one of the true gifts from the 20th century.

  2. Clawson

    “The Sword in the Stone” is delightful.

  3. Chaffin

    I thought it portrayed the end of Arthur’s life very well. Although it was not based off of the accepted Arthurian Legend as much as it could have, the way it was written makes up for it.

  4. Lean B.

    I read it back in the 70’s? I have not re-read this book as an adult. I need to. I will someday.

    • Stephen Matthias

      I would highly recommend doing so.

    • Just re-read this, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My favorite part is still the beginning. White captures the innocence and courage of a perfect childhood and made me fall into the world of the Forest Sauvage. You should pick up a copy and read it again!

      • Stephen Matthias

        The Forest Sauvage ranks among the Shire and Narnia as one of my favorite literary places. It is ideal in both the community of Sir Ector’s castle and the adventures that lurk in the woods. I think I may end up re-reading it this winter!

  5. DoDavid

    I feel like T.H. White gets overshadowed but his (admittedly brilliant) contemporaries, C.S.Lewis and Tolkien. Perhaps that’s because The Once and Future King is less of a fantasy and more of a sad, romantic commentary about humanity and war. As much as I have always admired Lewis and Tolkien, I think that White captures more of both true childhood and adulthood than either of them do.

    • Stephen Matthias

      I agree that it is more a commentary simply utilizing a great legendarium as its microphone. I am also a great admirer of Lewis and Tolkien.

    • Yes, and Tolkien really tried to shy away from admitting that his religion and experiences with WWI-II influenced his writing, whereas Lewis wears both of this on his sleeve as an author.

  6. Fantastic article! This is an incredible retelling.

  7. Stephen Matthias

    Thank you, Luster!
    Indeed, The Once and Future King is a book for all ages. From the nostalgia of childhood in The Sword in the Stone to the woes of both adulthood and leadership in The Candle in the Wind, the book has something to offer to really any reader.
    The last sentence is among the greatest book endings I have read.

  8. JLaurenceCohen

    Really interesting article. So much of The Once and Future King revolves around ideals of justice. How do you think the Lancelot subplot fits in with the political commentary you sketched out here?

    • Stephen Matthias

      “The Ill-Made Knight” is a unique section of the novel in that it lends its focus almost exclusively to Lancelot and, for the time being, leaving Arthur and the fall of his kingdom alone. I would have to go back and reread it, but I would argue that White needed that section in order to get to the next step in his story. His book is, after all, a synthesis of Arthurian legend and modern commentary. In the legend, it is Lancelot’s love for Guenever and his killing of Gawain’s brothers that sparks the civil war, the rise of Mordred, and thus the dissolution of Arthur’s court. Without first establishing the tragic romance between Lancelot and Guenever, White would not have been able to arrive at the ‘Great War’ between the remnants of Arthur’s England and Mordred’s Nazi-like Thrashers.

  9. What an interesting article. I am curious, though — in your opinion, is there more nostalgia than political commentary? Or, perhaps, does nostalgia drive the political commentary?

    • Stephen Matthias

      There is a great deal of nostalgia expressed, and yes I find that White uses this nostalgia to illustrate to the reader how, in his opinion, a just society has become a rare thing. At the same time, though, I get the feeling that White misses medieval England simply for what it was. I cannot deny that when I read “The Sword in the Stone” I sometimes wish I, too, lived in Sir Ector’s castle. 🙂

  10. Lovely article. It’s my favorite one I’ve read in a while.

  11. I’ve always liked the Arthurian legends – but this was tough to get through. White has a tendency to go on and on for pages and pages about grand philosophical questions, and I found these passages kind of boring.

    • Stephen Matthias

      I did too, the first time I read it. It took me a long while to appreciate them as among the more important elements of the story.

  12. Communism in medieval times? Fascism?!

    • Stephen Matthias

      White was critiquing communism and fascism and essentially stating that the feudal system was better system, as outlined above. 🙂

  13. T.H. White’s writing is very accessible.

  14. It would be a hard sell to say it isn’t the greatest fantasy novel. Ever.

    • Stephen Matthias

      Many would agree with you; though I would watch out for the Tolkienites and the Westerosi – they might have a thing or two to say in response. 🙂

  15. Zoe Kerr

    Great input into political viewpoints prominent in the author’s lifetime as well as others.

  16. This book made me respect the figure King Arthur a lot more.

    • Stephen Matthias

      I am sure White would be grateful to hear that! There are plenty of other contemporary Arthurian novels that put a spin on the legend, The Mists of Avalon being among the most well-known.

  17. I had just watched the movie version of the musical Camelot on TV with my Aunt and adored it – I didn’t want it to end. She’s the one who clued me in that it was based on this book. I found it at the local library and devoured it within a couple of days and read it through at least once more before I had to return it.

    Since then, I have been studying it to pieces. Glad I found this essay. Will add to to my bookmarks and share it with my book club.

  18. I always love coming of age stories and this book follows every Arthurian all star from early childhood to grisly death. What else could you ask for? Thanks for the post.

  19. Tobie Hassell

    I can barely recognize the Arthurian legend in this book compared to the movies I’ve seen. Sacrilegious though it may be, I preferred the movies. Here, Arthur was naïve and a bit of a wimp, Lancelot was a troll, and Guenevere was a whiney tramp. I much prefer my golden heroes to be golden.

    • Stephen Matthias

      As do I, Tobie. White’s characters remind me a lot of George R. R. Martin’s. I have not really read much of Martin’s work, but both he and White appear to favor grey characters over black vs. white, or golden vs. dark, so to speak. Usually I prefer golden heroes, but my love of Arthur kept me from waiving White’s work.

  20. Stovall

    Constantly throughout the book, I had to work hard to suspend my disbelief and remember that this is a parallel world and forget my knowledge of history.

    • Stephen Matthias

      The suspension of disbelief is arguably what we owe the author in our social contract in return for their entertaining work. 🙂

  21. Maximus

    It took me a very long time to finish it, not only because of my busy schedule (not an excuse, I know), but also because the book itself was rather hard to be chewed up, to be honest.

    • Stephen Matthias

      It is certainly worthy of attentive reading, it is not a book one can simply blaze through. Especially in the latter three books, White poses more philosophical questions as the story goes.

  22. T.H. White is the best teller of the Arthurian legend.

  23. White perfected the love triangle.

  24. Jesica Vo

    I read it in college, along with J.R.R. Tolkien and some C.S. Lewis. Hey — what IS it with fantasy authors and initials instead of names!

    • Stephen Matthias

      Sometimes it is recommended by the publisher, sometimes it just sounds better to the author. Lewis, for example, despised the name “Clive,” which is why everyone who knew him referred to him as Jack. Personally, I don’t think Clive Lewis is nearly as catchy. 🙂

  25. Great piece of writing, thanks. I found this novel to be fascinating, not just because it educated (eddicated?) me further on the legends, but because it turned out to be so good.

    • Stephen Matthias

      I am glad you enjoyed it, Adah! I remember when I first read The Once and Future King. I had just finished the last sentence and found that it was the first time I was truly disappointed, almost upset, that the book was over and that there was nothing else to read of it. I found it to be a great source of eddication as well 🙂

  26. One of my favorite literature. The story is amazing, the characters are heartfelt and the magic is wonderful.

  27. What a brilliant book. It’s so epic.

  28. AmadaDaley

    I was really, REALLY mad at Lancelot for killing the character that I consistently loved, Gareth.

  29. Chia Alaniz

    I was reading it with a great group of people, and still, I just couldn’t get into a groove with this book. His descriptions of Merlin munching on his beard made me want to gag, the humor didn’t reach me, and White’s constant insert of modern observations jarred me.

  30. Thank you for sharing.

  31. I went from loving some characters, to hating them, and back to loving them again.

    • Stephen Matthias

      As did I. I especially sympathized with Mordred when he tells Arthur that he wishes he’d never been born, but I went back to despising him when he took Guinever as his own wife.

  32. Tatijana

    I had no idea that the movie was based on a book let alone that there were more books. I thought it was Disney’s take on the story. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  33. I had no idea the movie had this much background makes me look at it in a new light.

  34. I had no idea the movie had this much background makes me look at it in a new light.

    Childhood ruined?

  35. Oh without a doubt. Might need to get my hand on the book

  36. Francesca Turauskis

    Lovely article! I tried to read this a few times, and always got distracted. I might go back to it over Christmas…

  37. Such a great story of King Arthur and the more I think about it, the more I enjoyed it. Really gets exciting once Lancelot comes into the picture

  38. Myrtice

    This is my favorite book! This lengthy book is so worth the time commitment!

  39. I never knew this book existed before, and now I really want to read it.

    Also: “the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system”

    Cross out the word feudal and this could basically sum up all government ever, if you ask me.

  40. Emily Deibler

    This one has been on my “To Read” list for a while. Thank you for the informative article!

  41. Heavy92

    Though I never had to read this book in high school, I had the opportunity to use it as optional reading for a college course, and am so glad I did. It is a masterful work, and something anyone who likes light fantasy mixed with some, at times, heavy social commentary would thoroughly enjoy. Great article!

  42. An observation that I would make is that White seemed to believe, based on his look to the past, and how he portrays the past, that the past, for its faults, was a more tranquil place (a more traditional view of the world, in summation).

  43. Scott J. Suchora

    Actually, having taught this book for a number of years, now, I feel an essay brewing. Despite the fact that book one is so obviously about education, many of Merlyn’s most powerful lessons are taught in book 2; particularly in the exchanges between Merlyn and Kay. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some sort of happy medium between the extremes of Christ on the one hand and Hitler on the other. People need help. However, I concede that when you inflict your will upon another, even with the most benevolent intentions, you encroach upon the freedom of another and, therefore, take a step towards the dark side. At any rate, Arthur is Merlyn’s best student, and he learns TOO well. When we consider the passive observation that Merlyn makes in regard to Christ, that He “made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not impose them on people” (274), coupled with the notion that personal reasons are no reason to start a war, the seeds of the dissolution of Camelot are sowed early, and Arthur is simply implementing what Merlyn has taught him from the beginning.

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