Author: T.H. White
Reviewed Format: trade paperback
Publication Date: October 1996 (this edition); originally compiled in 1958
“Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe--his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at the pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction. Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. […] Why did men always fight?” (p.667).
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is written in four parts, the first of which may read very familiar in title and story as the Disney adaptation, “The Sorceror and the Stone”--with a few variations (as the original, I suppose these aren’t variations, but if the movie is seen first--and I am assuming for most it has been--these differences would appear so). Arthur, or as he is known as a child, the Wart, is raised by the benevolent Knight Sir Ector to be squire to his son and future Knight, Kay. When Arthur, never a terribly bright boy or particularly talented, but honest, innocent, and earnest, loses his way trying to retrieve a lost hawk, he stumbles upon the magician Merlyn and the adventures of his very magical childhood begin.
In a lot of ways, this first part was one of my favorites. It’s light-hearted and filled with good intentions and possibilities, especially because we get to experience Arthur’s adventures from his point of view; the rest of the novel is told in third person. But Book One is an adventure story, a place where Arthur must learn the basics of human nature as written with T.H. White’s subtle British humor. He (Arthur) is surrounded by a lovable cast of curious characters pulled from, among others, Malory, Chaucer, and Tennyson. The narrator frequently compares certain events to Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) as the tale unfolds with differences or incongruencies denoted in reference to previous adaptations of the Arthur myth. As Merlyn struggles to adapt his to his contemporary world with the confusion that being born out of time presents, the list of things he must remember to tell Arthur becomes a list of things to remember to tell the reader. Rather than just tell another version of the story, he is devoted, as the author is, to hit all of the familiar points as if to say, “don’t worry, we haven’t left that bit out, it’s still coming.”
Although White’s version of the legend is by no means drastically different than Malory’s (in its way), it has considerably more heart. Because the narrator recognizes the characters play a part in which certain actions must be undertaken, the narrative is taken one step further than a dull re-telling; each character is brought to life in brilliant portraits that elucidate their humanness over their character-ness. In some cases, a chapter is reserved for attempting to explore and explain the psyche of each character as in chapter 34 of Book Three in which the narrator explains of Guenever: “It is difficult to write about a real person” (p. 497).
I’ve taken the date of publication into consideration when reading and writing about The Once and Future King. White dates the text and himself, though, with frequent contemporary references meant to give context to an older world so the reader can relate between the distance of an imagined time, between the real and the mythic. References to Frued and psychoanalytics, then-extant and burgeoning scientific and other modern practices serve not only to date the narrative, but also plays on the idea that the text is aware of itself as being text--it knows it will be read at a future date as if in full knowledge that it, too, has been, like Merlyn, born out of time--timeless, if you will.
There are times when the narrator gives up omniscience or authority on the text with moments of pause in which we are reminded that certain parts of the legend have been written thoroughly of before and “that way of telling the story can only be done once” (p. 459). In these cases, it’s up to us to go back, like the narrator tell us if we’re so inclined, and read what Malory had to say about it. But there are other odd times when the narrator leaves the story to rise up and out into the airiness of myth in which Arthur the Legend begins take on a life of his own outside of any narrative. When the narrator admits, “we do not know the reason” (p. 515) or “It [the story] does not say” (p. 523), it’s then better left to the reader to come up with answers and in that wondering, allow the legend of King Arthur to live ethereally in our imaginations. In these situations the narrator effortlessly translates power not only to the myth itself, so that it rises above the printed word, but to the reader. We are given a bit of responsibility.
Merlyn’s at times mournful foreknowledge of Arthur’s life appears early on in the text, reminding us that we’re not reading about a real man, just a legend. When we leave Book One and enter Book Two (the most engrossing of the four, in its way), Arthur is already crowned, an ordinary boy raised to aspire to be nothing better than a squire, but given the opportunity to be educated and this, White constantly reminds us, makes all the difference. We are lead to believe it’s not just kings who would do well to set examples for others, to be dutiful in our ongoing education, or to use “Might for Right.” It doesn’t even matter that Arthur was never real--it’s his beliefs and dedication to the art of learning, his devotion to the idea of chivalry, not any particular physical strength of mental capacity that enables him to become larger than fiction. He is a man torn by trying to do “what is right,” especially by his old teacher, so much so that he becomes entangled in his own civil laws of justice and is forced to acknowledge publicly the accused relationship between his best friend, Lancelot, and his wife, Guenever.
The further Books get progressively darker and the bright lessons of Arthur’s childhood are with difficulty turned to the murkiness of mankind and the realities of adulthood. As our ordinary hero watches his beloved Round Table break apart, he realizes that “the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent” (p. 666). As despondent and despairing as this sounds, Arthur still believes in the good nature of man and trusts his story to Tom of Newbold Revell, trusts that Tom will keep his promise not only to live (by way of not fighting, to make the conscious decision to live, as proper Knights should), but to carry Arthur’s candle of Knighthood and keep the idea alive. It’s one of the most touching moments in a book that has a lot of them, but the most important to remember.
I didn’t write too specifically about the characters or White’s take on the plot because I don’t want to spoil the joy of reading this one for yourself. Already I wish I could go back and experience reading it for the first time all over again. The Once and Future King is uplifting and encouraging. It’s life-affirming and inspiring. But most of all, the book comes alive when being read--when King Arthur, his Knights, and his Round Table are brought back to life in our imagination by young Tom’s promise, by the inspirational sense of good fellow feeling left at the end which plants in us the same small seeds Merlyn used for Arthur when he was an ordinary boy, an ordinary pupil, an ordinary person who dreamt romantically of becoming a real Knight.
It is a wonderfully insightful book, in which Arthur, dutiful student and courageous thinker, leave us with these thoughts:
“There would be a day--there must be a day--when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none--a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason” (p. 676).