T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” is one of those novels. Actually, it is four books, each focusing on a different character and aspect of the Arthurian legend. And as the novel progresses we are treated to a wonderful mixture of fantasy, comedy, psychology, history, romance, philosophy and tragedy. We also meet the Arthurian characters we have heard about in so many tales from so many authors over the years, but in these pages they are not just icons going through the motions. Mr. White has truly breathed life into them, giving each a background and personal depth rarely found in stories often considered mere fantasy.
The first book in “The Once and Future King” is “The Sword in the Stone,” most well-known for being the basis of the wonderful Disney film of the same name. It starts the reader’s journey off in brightness and hope, introducing the young Arthur, known as “Wart,” and his teacher Merlyn. By changing the young king-to-be into a fish, an ant, and a goose, Merlyn attempts to teach his charge about life, the futility of war and the frustrating inability of humans to avoid it. This theme is carried on through the book, both in its social/political aspects and in the personal struggles that each human deals with in their own life.
The seeds of coming darkness are planted in the next book, “The Queen of Air and Darkness.” Many people don’t realize that the story of King Arthur is rightly considered a tragedy. As White wrote elsewhere, “The whole Arthurian story is a regular greek doom, comparable to that of Orestes.” He based this novel on his deep reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’ Arthur,” the classic work on Arthur. If anyone needs reminding, “morte” means death. The seed is planted by the young man Arthur himself by way of an unknowing night of passion with his half-sister, Queen Morgause of Lothian and Orkney. Not even his ignorance will save him from the consequences of this action because, as White expresses it later, “Women know, far better than men, that God’s laws are not mocked.”
In the third book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” we finally come to what many associate with the Arthurian legend, the story of Sir Lancelot and his affair with Arthur’s queen, Guenever. This is the longest of the four books and gives the reader an intimate look at the heart of medieval chivalry in the person of Lancelot. It’s the story of a young boy who dreamed of becoming the greatest of King Arthur’s knights, who loved holiness and honor and wanted desperately to perform a real miracle. A boy whose true beauty was all in his heart because his “face was as ugly as a monster’s in the King’s menagerie. He looked like an African ape.” I wasn’t expecting that one either, but it’s there for a reason and it works.
And, of course, there’s Guenever (I know, “Where’s the ‘e’ at the end?” I’m using White’s spelling here). I’ll let White describe her for you:
She was beautiful, sanguine, hot-tempered, demanding, impulsive, acquisitive, charming – she had all the proper qualities for a man-eater. But the rock on which these easy explanations founder, is that she was not promiscuous. There was never anybody in her life except Lancelot and Arthur. She never ate anybody except these. And even these she did not eat in the full sense of the word.
One explanation of Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a “real” person. She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other . . .
This description gives you two things. A living, breathing woman, and an example of White’s incredible prose. Believe me, this novel is packed with such gems. I could do a whole post composed of nothing but my favorite passages from this book. Someday I just might. But onward.
In the fourth book, “The Candle in the Wind,” we come to Mordred, Arthur’s son by Queen Morgause and his doom. Even when Mordred isn’t in a particular chapter or scene, his presence looms darkly over every page. This book is different from the other three in that it is primarily composed of the dialogue and thoughts of the characters we have come to know so well through White. And yet I found it to be the most absorbing of the four, as if I was being allowed inside the minds of legends. Amazing.
There are many different themes and sub-themes running through this monumental work, but the one theme White himself was focused on was the theme he took from Malory’s “Morte d’ Arthur,” a quest for the antidote to war. Whether by redirecting Might to a Right and just cause, or by channeling man’s natural aggressiveness into a quest, as for the Holy Grail, White seeks to find some solution to the horror of war through the thoughts and actions of the legendary figures he so wonderfully brings to life.
“The Once and Future King” was published in 1958. One reviewer at the time called it “A near masterpiece.” Wrong. This is as much a masterpiece as any book I’ve ever read.