Once and Future King by T.H. White

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”

The Once and Future King encompasses five books written by author T.H. White about the legend of King Arthur.  In The Sword and the Stone, we meet Wart, a young boy who is the ward of Sir Ector and who lives with his guardian and his guardian’s son, Kay, near the Forest Sauvage.  By an unexpected set of circumstances, he encounters the wizard, Merlyn, who becomes his and Kay’s tutor, although we can see from the beginning that Merlyn favours Wart and there is obvious foreshadowing that we should expect something extraordinary from him later in the tale.  This book concludes with Wart unknowingly pulling the sword from the stone, a clear indication that he is England’s next king.  The book The Witch in the Wood (re-written as The Queen of Air and Darkness and apparently with little resemblance to the original) follows, chronicling the establishment of Arthur’s court under the political idea of right instead of might, and, of course, the love affair between Lancelot and Guinever receives the most attention.  The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, gives primary focus to Lancelot, his quests to purge his thoughts of Guinever, his relationship to Elaine who bears him a son, the development of a odd love-triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail, and Lancelot’s fight to defend Guinever’s honour.  A Candle in the Wind waxes philosophically about the metamorphosis of England into its present condition and the ideologies of war.  The height of tension appears in this book as Lancelot and Guinever’s relationship is revealed by a dastardly plot of Arthur’s Orkney clan, a war begins and the throne is seized by a usurper.  The death of Arthur and his son, Mordred are foreshadowed.   The Book of Merlyn, published posthumously, is added at the end and sets an aged Arthur amongst Merlyn and his animal friends from Book I, as they discuss the evils of war, why men want it, and how can it be avoided.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn
(source Flickr)
Creative Commons License

I’m really stumped as to where to start with reviewing this book.  My idea of the Knights of the Round Table was woven with nobility, courage, daring, self-sacrifice, self-denial and chivalric actions.  While the Arthur of this tale professes to have started the Round Table with the idea that might does not equal right, White makes Arthur a rather weak character.  In his youth, he is quite simple; Merlyn plants the social and political ideas into his head and as a reader, I never got the feeling that Arthur intrinsically believed in them himself.  He knowingly allows Lancelot and Guinever to have an illicit relationship and is often paralyzed in moments when it is necessary for a king to show his strength and decisiveness.  He is a simple, loving old soul who calls everyone “my dear” but it is a hard task to imagine him as the legendary King Arthur.  Lancelot for a good part of the book is a brooding morass of insecurity and dark thoughts.

“The boy [Lancelot] thought that there was something wrong with him.  All throughout his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap:  something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand ….  We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.”

 However after Lancelot’s quest for the Grail and his encounter with God, he at least develops into a man with a sense of what is important in life and an internal code of conduct that he believes is worth following.  Guinever is a moderately believable character, professing her loyalty and love to both men, but White puts her through a period of womanly jealously that is almost embarrassing to read and certainly not worthy of her.  With Arthur’s half-relatives from Orkney, the devious and twisted brothers who become not only knights of the Round Table but are the poison that festers inside Arthur’s kingdom, White does a satisfying job with crafting their personalities.  At times they can be quite appalling …… perfect villains to fit the story.  Also, King Pellinore and his Questing Beast should receive an appreciative nod, adding delightful humour to the first book.

Lancelot and Guinevere (1890s)
Herbert James Draper
source Wikimedia Commons

T.H. White was a rather tortured soul.  He was beset with fears of nearly everything, except, apparently, God.  After holding the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School, he retreated to a game-keeper’s cottage at Stowe Ridings on the Stowe Estate and, with hawks, owls and a setter bitch as his only companions, he began to write.  As war loomed over England in 1938, White’s fear almost choked him.  He declared himself a conscientious objector and in February 1939 found himself lodging in a farmhouse in Doolistown, Ireland, out of harm’s way.  He remained there for the next six and a half years.  In a December 1940 letter to L.J. Potts, a former tutor at Cambridge, he wrote: “….. [The Candle in the Wind] will end on the night before the last battle, with Arthur absolutely wretched.  I am going to add a new 5th volume in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground ….. and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese.  Don’t squirm.  The inspiration is godsent.  You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal …….”

The above information perhaps explains White confusing re-crafting of the legend, and the plethora of social and political philosophical concepts that twist the characters into a means of furthering the development of these ideas.  Instead of White employing creativity to show the reader various themes in the novel, he simply tells us, which leaves a very weak effect.  As one of my reading buddies stated, instead of cleverly weaving his opinions into the story, White attempts to weave the story into his opinions.  The result is sloppy and, in effect, he actually strips these noble characters of the dignity they had been given by previous writers.

The Sword in the Stone, by itself is an appealing read, a nice story about the young Arthur and his upbringing.  By the second book, the story takes a turn for the worst.  I only have two words:  very disappointing.

10 thoughts on “Once and Future King by T.H. White

  1. I remember picking up the first book in the library when I was a child, but I have a feeling I didn't finish it. I don't remember anything about the plot, but I certainly remember that it was weird… Now I think I should read it finally and see what I think of it now. I wasn't going to touch the rest of the series, and now after your post this is confirmed 🙂

  2. I have surprisingly never read "The Once and Future King" (I say surprisingly, because of my childhood obsession with King Arthur and the Middle Ages). However, it is on my list for the Arthurian Lit challenge, so after I read it I'll come back and see if I agree with what you wrote in your post!

  3. The Sword in the Stone is worth reading. The rest aren't unless you have free time on your hands that you don't mind wasting. I think what bothered me so much is that he took well-known characters, psychoanalyzed them and then proceeded to have them behave in ways completely contrary to how they behaved in other works. Some people might say it is interesting to view them in a different way but I thought his presentation demeaned the characters. If he had chosen his own original characters, I probably would have liked it slightly better. And Book Five where he had the council of Arthur, Merlyn and all the animals and insects having a political debate …… well, it was totally bizarre. You're not missing much if you skip books 2-5.

  4. In one way I'm glad you're reading it, Sophia, so we can compare notes. I don't think I misunderstood it and it is actually an earth-shaking literary masterpiece, but you never know. 😉

  5. What a bummer. I just found this book last week in my bookcase, thinking it was lost forever, and I was excited about possibly adding it to my Arthurian challenge. Well, I think I will still have to read it at some point. I'll have to see how my reading schedule is moving along.

  6. It wasn't entirely bad. White has some interesting ideas and there are some amusing and intense parts that were well done. My issue was with his execution. You could always read The Sword in the Stone by itself and count that towards the challenge!

  7. You're welcome, Harvest Moon! Strangely I'd read it long ago, but of course being young, I had never picked up on White's philosophical interplay. It was certainly a different reading experience the second time round!

  8. I didn't realize that The Once and Future King was actually five books. I've had them on my radar for a while, but I guess I'm less enthusiastic now that I read about White's changes. Maybe I'll just read book one… I've read part of Le Morte d'Arthur–if I remember it correctly, I think it will be a lot more what you were expecting with this one.

  9. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you read Book 1, The Sword in the Stone. The second book was re-written and apparently re-write does not resemble the original; I read The Witch in the Wood but not The Queen of Air and Darkness. Honestly I have almost no curiousity to read it even though it has extra characters and scenes.

    I'm really looking forward to Le Morte d'Arthur which I'm going to be starting soon. I have an old 1899 edition and it has lots of interesting "extras".

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!