The Once and Future King, T.H. White

A selection from Jill’s library, she recommended White’s magnum opus to me as a book that she loved from her youth, but wasn’t quite sure how well it help up today. After reading it, I can see how it could easily capture the heart of the young. It is like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and “Lord of the Rings”–it opens on a light, fanciful note, then moves into a deepening gloom, filled with despair and humor, epic quests and little character studies, ending on both a sad and hopeful note. The Once and Future King is, of course, Arthur, about whom Sir Mallory made his fame, and made Arthur famous, in L’Morte D’Arthur. White expects his reader to have read Mallory, making reference to it more than once. White is not merely retelling the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (although one can pick up the salient points by reading The Once and Future King); he is using the legend to explore the idea of honor, might, strength, and the feudal system.

Most people are familiar with the opening book of The Once and Future King, “The Sword and the Stone,” from the obligatory butchery done to it by Disney. Like Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio and Felix Salten’s Bambi, the flesh of White’s story–the part that illuminates and fills out the plot–was picked clean from the bones of the structure. You recognize the major points in Disney, but there is always something that gets left out. Disney’s version of “The Sword and the Stone” leaves out the rough parts, showing only the fun and fanciful bits (Kay remains, but he is a one-sided shadow of his book self). Yes, it contains humor, but Arthur’s upbringing by Merlin also has its dangerous aspects as does Sir Ector’s treatment of his young ward. The following three books are as different from “The Sword in the Stone” as Disney’s version of it differs from White’s. The second book, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” basically sets up the Orkney clan, a hot-headed Scots bunch that Arthur is related to (his father raped their mother’s sister). While interesting, it lacks the “story arc” of the first book, and is mainly background for readers to understand why they act like they do in the third and fourth books.

The third book describes how Arthur created the Round Table, and what its purpose was (to redirect the “might” of the ruling class inward, rather than outward at the people). He achieves his wish too well, creating a competition that he had hoped to avoid (the idea of the Round Table is that all who sit there are equals–no one sits at, or by, the head). Guinevere and Lancelot show up here as well, and the seeds are placed for their betrayal of Arthur (who herein is not that surprised or bothered by their adulterous affair–instead, it is envy of Lancelot by one of the Orkney clan and hatred of Arthur by his half-son Mordred that brings about their downfall). It is this downfall that the last book covers.

Some believe that Tolkien never intended for the “Lord of the Rings” to be read as an analogy of anything, contradicting the many scholarly essays on how Sauron represents Hitler, etc. White, on the other hand, is definitely saying something here about England, its imperialistic downfall, and the state of the world. Some of it is obvious, as in the discussion of Force Majeure and the concepts of “might” and “right.” Other parts require a PhD dissertation. I enjoyed The Once and Future King, but not as much if I had read it as a teenager, or if I had spent more time at it as a college student.

[Finished 11 January 1997]

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