T. H. White’s The Once and Future King 

once_future_king_coverRebecca Swain penned this review.

This classic work is a must for anyone interested in Arthurian legend. White has taken Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and retold it in modern language, in a novel that adults and young people can read over and over with pleasure and tears. It is an enormously influential novel as well, a book by which other tellings of the legend are judged.

White’s version of the legend takes place in the 13th century, presumably because that’s when Malory set his work. However, historians agree that the real Arthur lived sometime in the fifth century AD. So much is known about the kings of England after the Norman Conquest that there is no way Arthur could have reigned then without our knowledge.

Though White’s setting in time is inaccurate, it does fit well with the legend, since castles and knights play such a large part in Arthur’s story. White stays fairly faithful to the time he has chosen, mentioning Robin Hood (Robin Wood), and occasionally making references to Richard the Lionheart and other Norman rulers, although he talks about them as if they were imaginary and only Arthur was real. He gives some detailed descriptions of typical knightly pursuits such as training falcons and competing in tournaments, and describes castles and armor, giving an idea of what life would have been like for Arthur if he had lived then.

Despite his faithfulness to his time period, White frequently resorts to anachronisms. He compares the sound of an arrow’s flight to the sound of a lawn mower. A falcon quotes Hamlet. One of his characters mentions Communism. He doesn’t actually describe his characters using inventions that didn’t exist then, as far as I can tell; the anachronisms usually appear in authorial asides. I find this a bit jarring, but not sufficiently irritating to spoil the book.

White has a lighthearted, conversational writing style. He often interjects authorial comments into his narrative, occasionally making observations of a political nature, and digressing frequently. At all times there is a definite feeling of being told a story, rather than of events happening before our eyes. Some readers may find this style annoying, although I find it charming and refreshing.

The triumph of this novel is its characterization, White succeeds in presenting Arthur and Lancelot vividly and realistically. They behave like real people, not like paper dolls, and are utterly believable, despite their fantastic adventures. Lesser characters are also convincing, though White does not take as much trouble with them. Merlyn figures prominently in the novel, but his character and history are not explored very thoroughly. Guinevere and Elaine are described beautifully, but they figure in White’s tale only as they relate to Arthur and Lancelot, while other female characters, such as Morgan le Fay and Morgause, are not described in much detail. Of the many knights mentioned, Gawaine is the only one who is really fleshed out, though we are given interesting glimpses into the minds of the Oedipal Agravaine and the self-righteous Galahad.

White’s novel is divided into four distinct books. They tell of Arthur’s life from his childhood through his old age, and are best read in order, though any of the books can be enjoyed on its own for the beautiful writing and quirky insight of the author. (It is possible to find copies of the individual books.)

The novel begins with The Sword in the Stone, which concentrates on Arthur’s upbringing. Arthur, nicknamed Wart, is a young boy living with his guardian Sir Ector, and Ector’s son Kay. Arthur knows he is not related to these people, but he has no idea who his father is. The boys run wild until Arthur meets Merlyn, who becomes their tutor. Merlyn is a wizard who is living backwards. This backwards-living makes him absent-minded and muddled, but he manages to be a good teacher, especially to Arthur.

We see Arthur’s character develop during this part of the book. He is a generous, uncomplicated, loving boy. He has an inclusive way of thinking, wanting to draw people to him, share what he has with them, rather than shut them out and separate himself from them. White describes him as a hero worshipper, a born follower, He does not lose these traits when he becomes king. This is important to know, as it helps explain his future actions.

At the end of The Sword in the Stone Arthur pulls a sword from the stone in which it is imbedded, thus proving himself the rightful king of England. He removes the sword to take to Kay, who has arrived at a tournament without his weapon. Arthur doesn’t at first realize that he has worked a miracle and shown himself to be ruler of England. The book ends with him being declared king.

The Queen of Air and Darkness focuses mostly on Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister and queen of Orkney, and on her four sons, all of whom grow up to play important parts in the Arthurian drama. Gawaine is hotheaded and loyal, and figures prominently throughout Arthur’s life. Agravaine is in love with his mother without realizing it, and this motivates all of his actions. Gaheris is rarely mentioned after this book, except as one of the Orkney clan. Gareth is handsome and sweet, and has adventures of his own in the legend, though White tends to mention them only in passing.

This book contains the story of how Morgause seduces Arthur. It also contains more violence than the other three books; one of the first scenes involves a horrible thing being done to a cat, and later a unicorn is killed. Generally, however, White’s writing does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, even when men are being killed.

Near the beginning of this section of the novel Merlyn gives Arthur and Kay a brief, highly biased history lesson about the Gaels and Normans and their place in the history of the British Isles. The Gaels do not come off very well in this conversation, although I’m not sure it’s fair to say this is White revealing his own prejudice; he could be voicing opinions he thought Merlyn would have. During this conversation the three men also discuss the Norman idea of “might makes right,” and we see Arthur groping toward his idea that justice, not force, should rule the land.

The Ill Made Knight is about Sir Lancelot, who is barely mentioned before this section. White makes Lancelot an interesting and complex character. He describes him as ugly, and as not being a good person. For example, White says “[Lancelot’s] word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them.” He also says, “He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.” These are not observations authors usually make about the best knight in the world!

The Ill Made Knight explains how Lancelot came to Arthur’s court and how he fell in love with Guinevere. White traces that illicit love through the years, interspersing his tale with Lancelot’s adventures away from the queen. His most important feat is rescuing plain, straightforward Elaine from a tub of boiling water where she has been held captive for years. She falls in love with him. He cannot reciprocate her love, but he gives her a son, Galahad, who figures prominently in the later search for the Holy Grail.

The knights begin searching for this precious object and some of them come back and tell of their adventures, though White doesn’t go into as much detail here as Malory does. Some well-known characters such as Sir Bedevere are barely mentioned, and some famous incidents, such as Gawaine and the Green Knight, are not mentioned at all.

This is arguably the most moving section of the long novel as it explores Lancelot’s struggle between his love for God and his love for Guinevere, his feelings of duty and guilt toward Elaine, and his knowledge that he is not the saint others think he is.

The Candle in the Wind chronicles the twilight of Arthur’s reign. Everyone is older now, and Mordred, Arthur’s son by his half-sister, comes into the picture. Everyone knows about Lancelot and Guinevere, even Arthur, but no one wants to say it out loud except Mordred, who hates his father, and Agravaine, who hates unfaithful women in general.

These two malcontents plot a way to take Lancelot and the queen in adultery, but their plan fails and the lovers escape. The pope orders that they return and be reconciled with the king, but Gawaine insists that Arthur not forgive Lancelot, who killed two of Gawaine’s brothers while they were unarmed. Arthur and Gawaine follow Lancelot to France and besiege his castle, leaving Mordred as regent over England. Mordred is insane by this time, and he decides to marry the queen. Guinevere smuggles a letter to Arthur, and he and his remaining knights rush back to England to rescue her. The book ends with Arthur entrusting the tale of the Round Table to a thirteen-year-old Thomas Malory.

This is a wonderful book. The characterization is outstanding, as I observed earlier. White has an original way of narrating the story which usually doesn’t get in the way of the events themselves. While he does not cover every famous adventure and incident in the legend, he certainly hits the highlights and gives them depth and meaning. It’s the sort of story you wish were true.

(Berkley Medalion Edition, 1966)

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