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.