Review: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

Arthurian mythology has never been my favorite; I remember skipping over those parts in The Illustrated Book of Myths, because Egyptian and Norse mythology were just so much more interesting. (Such an attitude may explain why I love Tolkien so much; he also didn’t care much for Arthurian mythology and set about creating an Anglo-Saxon mythology for England.) This probably explains why I didn’t even know The Once and Future King was a composite of five books before I finished my edition, which only collects the first four books of the series—The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. (To be fair, my edition was published before The Book of Merlyn was.) So many people have told me they love The Once and Future King that I almost feel hesitant about this review—because I didn’t.

The Once and Future King retells the story of King Arthur, specifically basing itself off of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It starts with the young Arthur, nicknamed Wart, being educated by Merlyn, a wizard who is aging backwards. Merlyn’s eccentric tutorship has a purpose; shape Arthur into the king England needs to pull itself out of the Dark Ages. After Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king, his reign looks promising—the abuses of his predecessor are curtailed and Arthur comes up with the concept of the Round Table to mete out justice. But as soon as the old world is cleared away, the new world becomes horrifically complex—old feuds rear their heads, Arthur’s young queen Guenever and his best friend Lancelot struggle against their attraction to each other, and Mordred, Arthur’s son by one of his half-sisters, comes to court with a chip on his shoulder…

The Once and Future King takes a while to get off the ground—to be totally honest, The Sword and the Stone felt like episodic filler to me. It would be, I think, a delight for children who love animals, but I found it very repetitive. I did like the adventure Kay and Arthur went on with Robin Wood and Marian, since I liked Kay and Arthur’s relationship, but otherwise… it didn’t do it for me. For 200 pages. Even The Queen of Air and Darkness, which I liked marginally better, felt like it was setting the scene instead of actually doing something. I liked The Ill-Made Knight the best out of the four books, as it’s a touching story about Lancelot that ends on a high note. I didn’t care much for White’s Arthur—an explicitly good guy who is just doing what Merlyn told him to do—but I loved his Lancelot. He’s ugly, self-hating, childishly devout, and incredibly focused. The thing that finally caught my attention was his agony over his attraction to Guenever, because he loves Arthur and God as much as he loves her—as White points out, God, to Lancelot, is just as real and present as the two people that he loves.

But he couldn’t save the novel for me. You see, I don’t like universes where fate controls everything—a pinch of destiny here and there (preferably halved with self-fulfilling prophecy) can be nice, but a world where personal agency is impossible? I don’t like that. In The Once and Future King, Merlyn goes about making things match what he knows will happen; Arthur must be king, Arthur will marry Guenever, Lancelot and Guenever will end up together, so and so forth. (He does try to tell Arthur to be wary of Morgause—who births Mordred—but the universe hits him with convenient amnesia.) There’s little to no personal agency available for any of these characters; it feels as if they’re going through the motions, rather than being motivated by their own desires and personalities. I also quickly grew weary of White’s narration; he’s a mid-century, patronizing, conservative narrator a la C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, constantly taking swipes at things nowadays in favor of the story he’s telling, leading to some truly wonderful insults I’ve filed away for future use. The anachronisms also got to me, since they weren’t consistent—I suppose I’ve read enough historical Arthurian retellings that it fell flat for me, especially Mordred’s transformation into a Hitler-esque figure towards the end. (White was writing during World War II, for context’s sake.) Perhaps it was the hype, perhaps it was the time period… but ultimately, The Once and Future King and I did not get along.

Still, White can write some lovely language: “[Guenever] looked singularly lovely, not like a film star, but like a woman who had grown a soul” (564).

Bottom line: Despite White’s glorious rendition of Lancelot, The Once and Future King fell flat for me, with a world without personal agency, a mid-century, patronizing narrator taking swipes at things nowadays, and an episodic plot structure. Still, White can write some lovely language. Read it if you must.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

  • White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York, Berkley Medallion Books. 1966. Print.

22 thoughts on “Review: The Once and Future King

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not liking a book that others adore. It happens and we move on. Guilt need not be involved. 🙂

    I love Arthurian legend and remember liking this book a lot, although it’s been years since I’ve read it and was much younger when those readings (yes, I read it more than once) took place. I wonder what I would think of it now considering my tastes have changed (less magic more reality and politics) when it comes to this topic.

  2. I’ve read this a couple of times, and although it’s not my favorite book ever, I enjoyed it both times. What I liked best about it is that White works in so much. I’d heard bits and pieces of most of these stories, but never had I seen them put into a single narrative–it helped me put the pieces together in my mind in a way I hadn’t before. Plus, I think I just really like that mid-century style, which is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea.

  3. After the frequent references to this book in X-Men 2, I became curious to read it, but every time I’ve looked through it, I’ve decided to pass.

    Now that I know more about it, I don’t think I’ll pick it up at all. Instead, I’ll watch John Boorman’s Excalibur.

    • I actually just picked up a copy of that! Unfortunately, it’s at home. The musical Camelot is based on this book—very loosely—and it can be fun. (I particularly enjoyed the fact that Lancelot apparently has the lung capacity to sing straight through his entire trip to England from France.)

  4. One problem with The Once and Future King is that White went back and revised the first book, making it a stand alone published seperatly. It is much better in its second incarnation! Two of the most jarring transformation bits, the ants and the geese, then ended up in a final book, The Book of Merlin, where they are much more emotionally resonant (although that book is very heavy handed on the philosphical side of things), and the horrible bit about the castle of butter is heaily altered, and a rather lovely section got added. So anyone who hasn’t tried it yet–don’t start with The Once and Future King, but find The Sword in the Stone! But those who don’t like animal adventures probably still won’t like it so very much…..

  5. I liked this a lot when I was a tweenie girl, though in the interests of keeping matters in perspective, my big sister read it first and made jokes from it that I didn’t get until I read it too. She always liked Arthurian legend much better than I did. Is it the ants that say “All things not forbidden are compulsory”?

  6. Count me among those who love this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed your discussion of the ways it didn’t work for you. To me the retelling seems wonderfully fresh, but one person’s inventiveness is another’s nonsense, or cliche.

  7. I had a very similar reaction when I read this book. It kept cropping up on “best fantasy books of all time” or “101 fantasy books to read before you die” or whatever lists, and so I read it, and just: no. I wanted my Arthurian legend to be unsullied by all of White’s narratorial fluffery, thanks. I liked Sword in the Stone well enough, probably because the whole “turning into animals” thing captured the imagination of my inner animal-loving 8-year-old, but otherwise, this book gets a resounding “meh.”

  8. I had read The Sword In The Stone (the stand-alone version) first as a kid, and I loved it – I liked the irreverence and the comedy and the adventure. When it came to reading The Once and Future King I was older, and I enjoyed it – particularly The Ill-Made Knight – though I’ve never re-read it. I don’t think I noticed the whole lack of free will in it, and can see why this would put you off.

    I seem to remember that Beauty in Robin McKinley’s book of the same name, comes across The Once and Future King in the Beast’s library, though she decides that she prefers Malory…

  9. I came to this book fairly late in High School, and count it among my favourites despite the rocky start with “The Sword in the Stone”, which, while childish, featured a walking teapot and therefore made me smile. Your criticisms, however, are fair enough; I find T.H. White’s world view far too bleak for my own tastes–though that was shaped by his own life experience, which was far more troubling than my own.

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  11. The lack of free will in the book is brought about by two clashing worldviews. Humanism vs Christianity. Arthur is a humanist. He believes that man is basically good and given the right direction, by himself as the enlightened one, even though he is aware of his own flaws, man can be guided toward ultimate goodness. The clash comes in the final pages, when near death, he questions his own worldview in light of the Biblical worldview of original sin. He despairs that if this is true, his life has been all for naught, thus he rejects Christianity, passes the torch of humanism to a young page. It’s a feeble, tragic hope he clings to in his final act.

    It’s interesting that The Round Table is our modern United Nations.

  12. Pingback: From Page to Screen: Camelot (1967) | The Literary Omnivore

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