Book Review – The Once and Future King by T.H. White
“Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.”
I plead ignorance.
Okay, a lot of ignorance.
All my life, I’ve known about King Arthur and his companions. I have hazy memories of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and I’m almost positive there’s a dusty VHS copy of 1981’s Excalibur buried in my parents’ garage. The well-known myth is embedded in Western culture, making it nearly impossible to avoid. But for some reason, the story never took a hold of me like it had other people. My guess is I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate its themes until I had already lost interest. Conan the Barbarian was more my speed.
One could argue that I’m a poor student of Western European folklore in general, but along my writing journey, I’ve come across several references to T.H. White‘s The Once and Future King. Authors such as J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, and Michael Moorcock cite the book as a major influence in their careers.
I can eventually take a hint, so I grabbed a copy.
Having now finished it, I’m happy to say that not only am I more familiar with the narrative and characters, but I want more. I’ve already ordered other Arthurian reads: A co-worker recommended Steven Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and then I’ve heard great things about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. I’ve even gone so far as to download an ebook version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (a Modern English version…don’t think I have the patience for the Middle English original).
The Once and Future King was published in 1958 and is composed of four smaller stories written between 1938 and 1958. For the most part, you can tell the stories were written separately. They each have a beginning and an end. Still, White maintained a certain consistency; the tone of each book matches the life stage of the main characters and it cuts an emotionally satisfactory trail.
The whimsy of The Sword and the Stone abuts the wonderment and imagination of youth. Then comes The Queen of Air and Darkness. A little of that childlike playfulness still exists, but we begin to scratch the surface of adulthood — just as in our teenage years. The Ill Made Knight comes third, introducing Lancelot and the resulting love triangle involving Guinevere and Arthur. Seriousness pervades. And by the time we reach the final book, The Candle in the Wind, tragedy just doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.
I feel as if White wrote these stories so that they could be read throughout our life. They can all be appreciated when we’re older, but I don’t know that a young person could truly grasp the totality of the compendium. They (hopefully) haven’t experienced enough.
The tumultuous years during which the book was formed are evident in the text. White was an ardent pacifist. He utilized both his omniscient point-of-view and characters to illustrate his struggles with war and violence in general. The final ten pages were bitter, but probably my favorite throughout the book. Arthur had become a tired, old man, left to the hard thinking that Merlin had taught him as a child. He thought deeply about the recurring questions of his life: Why do men kill each other? What can be done to stop it? This man had seen his ideals and dreams shattered and used against him, but he beseeched a young, and soon to be well-known, page to records his thoughts and keep the crusade alive.
Regarding the mechanics of the story, White’s rendition was masterful. There are so many memorable lines in this book. Nearly every character has something poignant to say. That doesn’t mean it’s a flawless read, but I feel its flaws are due more to the fact that the book was a product of its time rather than intrinsic to the writing itself. It’s not a page turning thriller. It’s not filled with lurid, overcharged sex. That’s not to say it avoids such situations, but it never overindulged. The Sword in the Stone proved that White’s imagination and humor were exceptional while the rest of the stories exposed his philosophical learning.
I’m genuinely excited to reread this book in a few years and if you’ve never taken the opportunity to pick it up, do yourself a favor and grab a copy. If you can hang in there with the sometimes slower format, I guarantee you’ll be happy with what you find.