The Once and Future King
T. H. White
“When I was a young man I did something which was not just, and from it has sprung the misery of my life. Do you think you can stop the consequences of a bad action, by doing good ones afterwards? I don’t. I have been trying to stopper it down with good actions, ever since, but it goes on in widening circles. It will not be stoppered. Do you think this is a consequence too?”
It is a shame that T. H. White’s fabulous quartet of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King, is best known for its first installment, The Sword in the Stone, which details the education of young Arthur under the wise if scatterbrained magician Merlyn. The first novella is amusing, yes, but the book’s height of achievement comes later. Of course, the traditional Matter of Britain makes for wonderful retelling material, and White has capitalized upon that extensively in this phenomenal book.
The legend of King Arthur has been told countless times, and the retellings are always reimagined for the writer’s own era. White’s book, written in the 1930s, is very dated, but not in a negative sense. Rather, it is fascinating to see how he uses the traditional stories to comment upon the politics and culture of his own time. The book is also intensely anachronistic — White seems to revel in anachronism, constantly referring not only to modernity but to every other time period of recorded history. In fact, I don’t know that I have ever read a book, fantasy or otherwise, which includes such a broad variety in its tone. Employing a prominent narrative voice, White covers the spectrum, from farce to high tragedy and everything in between, sometimes switching tones remarkably rapidly. And the farce is hilarious, the tragedy heartbreakingly beautiful. In the hands of anything less than a brilliant author, this would be hideous; here, it’s enthralling.
The best part of this book is the third novella, The Ill-Made Knight, which tells the story of the forbidden romance of Lancelot and Guenever. White makes the adulterous lovers out to be neither heroes nor villains, but rather human beings — intensely real ones. His characterization is marvelous, explaining through direct narration and through depiction of events the inner conflicts of these characters, as well as King Arthur. All three are fatally flawed, and their flaws bring events to their inevitable tragic conclusion. White refrains from strict judgment upon his characters, but shows how their shortcomings lead to their doom; he is sympathetic, but faces their failings for what they are. His insight into human character is considerable.
This is a deeply moral book. Arthur, the central figure, is an idealist, as he was taught to be by Merlyn. His goal in creating the society of the Round Table is to harness the power of ‘Might’ to serve ‘Right’ — he dreams of a perfect world preserved by his heroic knights. However, due to the flawed nature of human beings (himself included), this ‘perfect’ world cannot sustain itself and eventually collapses. He struggles with the reason for this; he does not want to accept man’s fallenness, but he sees it evidenced all around him. In the end, Arthur returns to the idealism represented in the phrase ‘the once and future king’ — looking forward to the future Golden Age which he will usher in — although this idealism has been proven futile by the content of the entire book. The moral questions this book asks are basic and yet complex, and White (unlike Merlyn) does not offer easy answers.
Content warning: White deals with the adulterous affair at the center of this story with admirable delicacy (unlike his medieval source material). The book contains mild bad language. It also contains one or two disturbing images — the worst being a bloody scene where young boys decapitate a unicorn.