Mythologies can be so deeply ingrained in our cultural zeitgeist that it’s hard to separate out the original from the adaptations. King Arthur is just one of those legends that I’ve always known and didn’t think too hard about the origin. Every year there’s a new piece of media that adds on to the story.
The first appearance of Arthur was in the 12th century with the first narrative story over 300 years later. I didn’t find it necessary to go back to the beginning with Arthurian Fantasy (just some light research), but I wanted to find a pivotal book that has shaped the mythology. T.H. White’s The Once & Future King is that touchstone.
A collection of four books that hit key moments in Arhur’s life with emphasis on his childhood, his rule, and the mistakes that became his (and Calemot’s) undoing. The novel is a companion piece to another significant King Arthur book, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), with the setting being 14th century Britain (instead of 5th/6th like most Arthurian literature).
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn,”is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.” (196)
The first book is probably the most well-known, The Sword in the Stone, as it was adapted into an animated Disney movie in 1963. The story follows young Arthur before he becomes king while he is being tutored by Merlyn. This volume is heavy on the fantasy as Merlyn teaches Arthur different lessons about power by turning him into different animals.
They’re some elements of sadness and foreboding about what is to come but overall the feeling is lighter than in the later books. The second book, Queen of Air and Darkness, is a parallel of Arthur’s first major battle and the introduction of the Orkney clan. In the first book Arthur doesn’t know his father’s identity until the very end, and now the consequences of King Uther’s actions are the beginning of Arthur’s downfall.
The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, focuses on the infamous Lancelot, who just wants to be holy so bad. The story is pretty epic, as we cover about twenty five years of Lancelot’s life, his rise of becoming the Round Tables’ best knight as he struggles with his love for Guenever, Arthur’s wife. Trying my best not to spoil too much, but let’s just say that the end of this volume is pretty chilling.
The last book, and a tragic story that would give Shakespeare a run for his money, is The Candle in the Wind. King Arthur reflects upon his life and his work as it all is being torn apart by the ones he loves the most.
“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.” (639)
Fantasies, like most genres, contain multitudes. Lumping everything together is limiting and insulting. The Once & Future King is a literary masterpiece and I’m shocked by how often this novel has been left out of the discussion.
Arthur becomes king in a world of ‘Might is Right’ and knows deeply that this worldview is wrong. Arthur’s question throughout most of the novel is ‘what do you do with Might?’ This leads to the creation of the Knights of the Round Table, as a means to direct Might for justice. In the third volume we’re a couple of decades into this new order and Arthur’s knights are already restless.
Arthur doesn’t know what to do with men and the violence that haunts humanity. Neither did T.H. White. While Lancelot reflects White’s inner struggles with his own nature, Arthur is White’s struggle with human nature. The book was written during WWII and the pain of grappling with this unspeakable level of violence just blankets White’s words.
“He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly…He was like a scientist who had pursued the root of cancer all his life. Might-to have ended it-to have made men happier. But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent.” (694)
As Arthur is trying to combat the forces around him, Lancelot is battling for his own soul. I was both put off by Lancelot and deeply fascinated with him. I always got the impression that Lancelot was overall noble and just got tripped up by loving Guenever. White’s Lancelot is fucked up and this weirdly makes him feel like a real character, instead of some ‘good boy’ stand-in. Lancelot is highly principled and strives for holiness because he knows something is broken inside of him, trying to restrain his cruel nature.
There’s much to unpack and talk about with The Once & Future King and how rich the unfolding experience was to me. I’ll stop here, even though I didn’t even touch on Sir Gawain and his brothers, because I highly recommend the book and don’t want to ruin anything else. Though a slow start (there’s a high level of whimsy in the first volume), I appreciated it on the whole by the end. All the threads come together for a marvelous ending and I hope other readers discover how impactful the book is for themselves.
**There’s a fifth book that was published separately and posthumously in 1977, The Book of Merlyn. Due to it being cut some parts were added to the revised Sword in the Stone. My version did not have this ‘unauthorized conclusion’. I plan on reading it at some point, I just think that The Once & Future King is great as is (also its already 700 pages, I need a break at some point.)**