Most literary folk vaguely know the story of King Arthur: that he pulled a sword from the stone to become king of England...that the wizard, Merlin, helped him achieve power through various mystical lessons...that his wife, Guenevere, fell in love with the greatest knight in the land, Arthur’s right-hand man, Lancelot du Lac...that Arthur was seduced by his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to give birth to Mordred, who became his implacable foe...and so on. Yet no two stories of Arthur agree on all the specifics, so whether you read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, Chretien de Troyes’ Romances, or the Lays of Marie de France, you get a very different Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot. That’s why T.H. White’s version of the legend is so welcome, since he takes bits and pieces from each and translates them from his own perspective to fit his own philosophy. Simply put, the four books of The Once and Future King (or five, if you count the suppressed The Book of Merlyn) are one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written, and certainly among the most original. There’s nothing quite like it in literature, though it shares a satirical heritage with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a sense of the fantastic and absurd with Nikolai Gogol. Those expecting a grim, fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein or Marion Zimmer Bradley will be somewhat disappointed. However, like all books, if you approach it on its own terms, and appreciate it as a wholly unique take on the Arthurian epic, you’ll be surprised, confused, delighted, and amazed by White’s achievement.
The Once and Future King is composed of four books, the first three of which were published separately. Only in 1958 were they finally compiled as the single-book epic White envisioned, though minus the fifth book in the series. You can read them as separate books (though they are no longer sold as such), but perhaps the best way to read it is simply as one epic poem in prose. Like most long books, earlier passages make much more sense as you progress, so a fair amount of head-scratching awaits the novice reader. And it’s certainly not, as it is often billed, a children’s book. The language and philosophy of the book is best suited for an adult, and even more so, an adult reaching middle age, as the themes of the work are deeply autumnal (particularly in Books 3 and 4) and would have escaped me as a ‘youngster.’
There are four books in the series, starting with The Sword and the Stone, which creates an elaborate back story for Arthur—here called Wart. As a poor squire to his half-brother, Kay, Wart expects nothing better in life than to serve Kay and train falcons. Once he meets Merlin, the sorcerer who lives backwards (he already knows everything that will happen to Arthur, but keeps most of it under wraps), his life takes an unexpected turn. The book is quite episodic, mostly concerning the strange people Wart meets, such as King Pellinore, a character more resembling Don Quixote than anything in Arthurian legend, and Robin Wood (not Hood, he insists) who commands a fierce band of Saxon warriors. Merlin wants to train Arthur for the arduous task of becoming king of England not by instructing him in the affairs of a knight errant, but by challenging his understanding of Might and Right. To this end, he transforms Wart into various creatures that are considered lower than man—ants, geese, falcons, badgers—to determine the true meaning of “humanity.” A few of these adventures actually come from the fifth book in the series, The Book of Merlyn, which his publisher suppressed because they found it too philosophical; White quickly salvaged the better parts and inserted them into the first volume (so if you have a first edition of The Sword and the Stone, you may notice some startling changes from the final version published in the complete The Once and Future King).
The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is a thornier work, as it concerns the Lothian children: Agravaine, Gawaine, Gaheris, and Garteth, who are cruelly neglected by their mother, Arthur’s half-sister, Morgause (sister to Morgan le Fay). Morgause is constantly scheming against the men in her world, yet as White explains, is a fairly incompetent sorceress (she bears a strong resemblance to his own mother, Constance). Her one true power is over her children, from whom she demands unquestioning authority and affection—while giving none in return. The children make various pathetic attempts to win her favor, such as trapping and killing a unicorn which they manage to pull to pieces in their attempt to drag it back to the castle. Eventually, these children will become some of the greatest knights in the Round Table, though like any tragic hero, they will also become the means of undoing it. While these children come of age, Arthur is learning (under Merlin’s tutelage) to distinguish Might from Right, lest he take too much relish in the Saxon business of kingship—battle, death, and sportsmanship. After various adventures and some low-brow comedy including King Pellinore’s Questing Beast and four men disguised as its “mate,” Arthur is inevitably seduced by his half-sister. The doom of Camelot has begun.
The third work, and by far the best of the series, is The Ill-Made Knight, which explores the love triangle between Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot. However, the book is largely a study of Lancelot himself, an “ugly” knight who has grown up worshipping Arthur. His jealousy of Guenever quickly turns to love and the two begin a torturous, chivalric relationship that sends him off on various quests. White had been studying the 19th century Russian authors just prior to writing this book, so something of the tragic romance of Anna Karenina and Vronsky hovers over this book. Guenever, in particular, transforms from an initially selfish, slightly cruel woman to a deeply wise, sympathetic character—something White didn’t bother to attempt with Morgause. However, even more than his love for Guenever, Lancelot wants to be loved by God. He is constantly attempting the most foolhardy quests in order to prove his worth, which leads him to save a woman from boiling eternally in a tub prepared by Morgan le Fay. This woman, Elaine, then expects Lancelot to marry her, which he is too gallant to refuse. This causes a terrible rift between his ‘pure’ relationship with Guenever, all the more so when Elaine bears him a child. Lancelot abandons both women, runs mad in the woods for two years, and finally returns to save Guenever from accusations of infidelity. All the while, Arthur knows the two are in love, yet turns a blind eye, terrified to cast judgment. However, his silence becomes a bastion for the injustice of his courtiers, most notably Mordred and Agravaine, who hate Arthur and Guenever respectively. Lancelot is forced to come to Guenever’ rescue several times, while Arthur can only shrug his shoulders and hide behind the vague notion of justice. In the end, however, Lancelot is given his greatest wish—to perform a miracle that only a holy man could accomplish. God—or perhaps Guenever—has finally redeemed the “ill-made knight” and proven him worthy.
The final volume in the series, The Candle In The Wind, is fast-paced and doom-ridden. Mordred has decided to publicly defame Lancelot and Guenever, and forces Arthur to set a trap for both in Guenever’s bedroom. Arthur agrees, since he wants to be the ‘good’ father to Mordred (despite initially ordering him killed as an infant). Lancelot ends up evading the trap, killing all the knights sent to capture him save Mordred, who limps away in disgrace. However, Mordred soon finds a way to outright accuse Guenever of adultery, and she is set to be burned at the stake (again, with Arthur’s silent approval). Lancelot arrives at the last second, saves her, and mows down dozens of knights—including, sadly, the Lothians brothers, Gaheris and Gareth (both of whom were devoted to Lancelot). Gawaine, who had previously supported Arthur and Lancelot, now declares eternal war on Lancelot. He forces Arthur to invade Lancelot’s kingdom and pull down his castle. Mordred uses this distraction to take over the throne and force Guenever to marry him—a way of getting revenge on the man who slept with his mother (Arthur’s half-sister). Arthur learns too late of the deceit and returns with his armies to face Mordred. And here the book breaks off, on the eve of the final battle, as Arthur realizes that his kingdom is doomed and that the great vision of Merlin will never be realized. He can only die for an ideal and hope that one day, his legacy will live on in an age that can escape the petty wars of conquest and the sportsmanship of death.
White wrote a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which his publisher rejected and never saw its way into the grand tetralogy. The book has Merlin return on the eve of battle and whisk Arthur away to another series of animal adventures, so he can learn the true nature of man. The book was composed at the end of WWII, and found White at his most cynical and philosophic. The book as a whole is very talky (one might say, preachy) yet it is a powerful document; for this reason, White removed a few striking passages and inserted them into the first book (the ants, as mentioned earlier). For now, we have to read The Book of Merlyn as a kind of epilogue to the entire series, and perhaps not an altogether fitting one. However, even without it, The Once and Future King stands as a monument to the human imagination, and in particular, its ability to shape our shared cultural heritage into something new and inspiring. I learned more from this book than from dozens of others I’ve read over the years, and look forward to returning to it again in a few years, or perhaps even using in class in a semester to come.
A few of my favorite quotes:
“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never
fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at
night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may
see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled
in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn
why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can
never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never
dream of regretting” (The Sword and the Stone)
“Look at the decisive battle of Brenneville in which a field of nine hundred knights took part and only three were killed...Look at sporting etiquette, according to which Henry had to withdraw from a siege as soon as his enemy Louis joined the defenders inside the town, because Louis was his feudal overlord...Look at the battle of Malmesbury, which was given up on account of bad weather...the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt” (The Queen of Air and Darkness)
“Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the
commandments, without difficulty. The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the
other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments...The bodies
which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are
deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the
inevitable grave, under the protection of the last sense” (The Ill-Made Knight)
“...human beings don’t go to war for private quarrels nowadays, You need a national grievance—something to do with politics which is waiting to burst out...It must be against large numbers of people, like the Jews or the Normans or the Saxons, so that everybody can be angry” (The Candle in the Wind)
“Do you think they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?...If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?” (The Candle in the Wind)