Book Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Originally from March 2014
“If I were to be made a knight, I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.”
“Many of the greatest books are like a forest,” writes Anthony Esolen. “The best way to get to know them is to wander right into the middle and get lost.”
Getting lost is precisely what I had in mind when I picked up T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. My reading of late has consisted primarily of non-fiction – good stuff, but hardly a Forest-for-Losing-Oneself-In. I needed a story, and I needed one because for me, stories are like WD-40 for the brain: they keep all the wheels and gears and clicky-things running smoothly. Without them, cognitive function becomes a bore. I mean, really. Why even bother?
As far as stories themselves go, are there any grander than that of King Arthur and his famed spheroidal dining furniture (more colloquially known as the Round Table)? The tale hath been told a thousand times in a thousand ways. In fact, it was Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that I was going to read; but since Mallory was absent from my bookshelf, and White was very cheerfully present, I had a change of plans.
White’s storytelling is something of a marvel to me, because I can think of no other book in recent memory that so beautifully melds humor and pathos. In Book One, young Arthur (affectionately dubbed “the Wart”) is given a thorough education by his tutor Merlyn – an education which consists, among of other things, of being turned into a fish, and helping Robin Wood (Hood is merely a misnomer) kill a Griffin. You know, the usual K-12 stuff.
It’s all delightfully fun reading. Gentle, too. But as Arthur matures, so does the story (just as Harry Potter grew with its readership). The plot thickens, exactly the way broth would if you poured a bit of cement into it. Unpleasant characters like Queen Morgause are introduced. Battles are fought. Blood is spilt. Feuds are nursed. Arthur’s ablest knight and closest friend, Sir Lancelot, carries on an affair with Guinevere. The downward spiral begins, as it generally does in such stories, with the final third of the book being especially tragic. What started as a frolic ends as a sobering meditation on the glory, savagery, and frailty of man himself.