Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Once and Future King

Book: The Once and Future King by T. H. White

Published: 1958

Description: T.H. White's masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations. (from

I had heard great things about this book, from many people, but I was very disappointed when I read it.

But I'll start at the beginning. This book was written as a retelling of the Arthur myth, based mostly on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. It's divided into four books: Sword in the Stone, The Question of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. These books are normally combined, but they were also written separately, and each could stand alone. 

Sword in the Stone was great. It was absolutely my favorite. It had a very dry humor (my favorite!), and it was very satirical but in a rather kind way. Wart was alright--not the brightest, perhaps, but brave and honest. He had good adventures, and him turning into animals was nice (some animals were better than others). Merlyn absolutely made the book--he was a great character! He was extraordinarily quirky, and he lived backwards in time rather than forwards, so he was always saying things about the future (which, of course, was the past to him). Most of the other characters were fun and entertaining as well, like King Pellinore, Robin Wood, and the Questing Beast. White also went into a lot of detail about medieval life, which benefitted the book a lot.

The other three books were not so good. Most of The Question of Air and Darkness dealt with the witch Morgeuse and her children (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth). They were a very twisted family, and I did not enjoy seeing their perspective one bit. The Ill-Made Knight was all about Lancelot and Guinever, and the search for the Grail. Arthur came across fairly well in this book, as a wise, merciful king devoted to doing what was right for his kingdom, but no one else really did. The Candle in the Wind was depressing, and not in a good way. I know there is evil and death in the world, and it is awful, but this book seemed to be mostly about despair and how nothing good will ever last, and that is not the Christian message.

My main problem with this book was that it tried to tell a very Christian story, but take God out of it. The result was a book where the message seemed to be that we should try to do good, but we probably won't succeed, and if we do then it won't last. I suppose that's what the world turns into when you don't believe in God. There were also numerous references to evolution, especially in Sword in the Stone when Wart was turning into animals; although that doesn't bother me, it could bother some. Perhaps as a nod to the Christianity of the British Isles at the time, some characters referred to their Christianity and taught others about it, but it was a Christianity without God and an understanding of Him.

The reason that I included this book in my Journey Through Time series/challenge was because this was a book very much influenced by its time--that is, a world still recovering from World War II and in the midst of the Cold War. (This was also the time when biologists were refining their ideas on evolution to be the more refined ones of today, so perhaps that's why there are so many evolution references) White's ideas of war were very much shaped around those events, and around teaching children the wrongs of war. White wasn't against war, but he was against ever starting a war. Merlyn (who had lived through World War II) taught Arthur never to start war, and to try to redirect the might of the knights into something good and pure (chivalry and the Round Table). He referenced World War II, condemned going to war to convince others you're right and building up weapons to stay at the same level as your enemy, and turned Wart into an ant so he could see what it was like to live in a society with no free will or thought. 

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