Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Once and Future King by T. H. White // A Study of Humanity

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Once upon a time, a young boy called “Wart” was tutored by a magician named Merlyn in preparation for a future he couldn't possibly imagine. A future in which he would ally himself with the greatest knights, love a legendary queen and unite a country dedicated to chivalrous values. A future that would see him crowned and known for all time as Arthur, King of the Britons. 
During Arthur's reign, the kingdom of Camelot was founded to cast enlightenment on the Dark Ages, while the knights of the Round Table embarked on many a noble quest. But Merlyn foresaw the treachery that awaited his liege: the forbidden love between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot, the wicked plots of Arthur’s half-sister Morgause, and the hatred she fostered in Mordred that would bring an end to the king’s dreams for Britain--and to the king himself. 

Wow. What a perfect culmination of my Arthurian readings! This was definitely EPIC, in every sense of the word.

It was also uproariously funny (which I TOTALLY did not expect). And it was also depressingly sad.

There are four sections to this book - "The Sword in the Stone," "The Queen of Air and Darkness," "The Ill-Made Knight," and "The Candle in the Wind." Each one adds on another layer to the gradually deepening saga. As I progressed through the book, the story deepened and matured, just as Arthur did. "The Sword in the Stone" was a childish thing: it tells of little Arthur - or Wart (from Art, if you were wondering) - and how he was tutored by Merlyn. Excellently written, but almost seemingly intended for a younger age group then the rest of the books. 

It was by far the most lighthearted and playful section. Arthur gets to explore the lives of animals other than humans when Merlyn turns him into a fish, a goose, an ant, and a bunch of other creatures besides. The escapades seem to add little to the story further on, since Arthur forgets all his adventures as he ages, but White used them to make some poignant social commentary on deep issues such as war and love. For example, the ants are quite a brainwashed little society, with constant lectures and chants broadcasted at them through their antennae-speakers, and they fight the Other Ants simply because they are Other. "When Other blood spurts from the knife," goes one chant, "then everything is fine." And here is one of the lectures:

Don't these sound like basically any argument for war in the history of the world? My social commentary buzzer is going off! This is some pretty poignant stuff, no?

In general, The Once and Future King tackles a lot of big issues, mostly dealing with war and when is it okay to use Might? is it ever okay? can you use Might in support of Right, or will that backfire? is Law, instead of Might, the proper way to achieve Right? HOW THE HECK DO YOU ACHIEVE RIGHT?

Big questions, and we struggle right along with Arthur as he tries to answer them in his Great Experiment of the Round Table. 

Through the book, White makes references to things that seem anachronous and out of place in the Middle Ages, such as comparing the gazes of villagers to those of visitors to the Uffizi Art Gallery. This may seem a bit troubling and annoying to some, but it caused no issues for me, because of two things. The first is that basically all the anachronisms are in the narration and not the dialogue. The Narrator is obviously White himself, and since he is from the twentieth century, he gets to make references to things up to that time period. It's as though he is telling a story out loud to a group of kids - he gets to explain things to them using modern references, if he thinks they'll understand better that way. 
Secondly, Merlyn is living backwards in time. If Merlyn has already lived in the Victorian Era, he is totally allowed to hold his hands like Sherlock Holmes.

Let's talk Characters, because there were some pretty awesome ones here.
The original Arthurian tales that I read (Mabinogion, Chretien, Malory) introduced us to the major players of the court of the Round Table, but these were ancient writings. We understood Characters and their motivations, but it was White who turned them personable, sympathetic, and just overall more real. He was able to make us fall in love with the characters and their struggles while still retaining the history of the ancient tales. 

I have two points to make regarding my history with the Gwen/Lance/Art love triangle:

1) Before The Once and Future King, I kinda thought Guinevere was slightly annoying and not at all in love with Arthur, it being simply an arranged marriage.
2) WAY back when I was younger, I had the opposite view. I just refused to believe that Guinevere and Lancelot had an affair. Arthur and Guinevere were my OTP and obviously had to remain together forever, and I staunchly insisted that the version where she ran off with Lancelot was an UTTER ANOMALY.

Now, having read The Once and Future King, I wholly and entirely understand the Gwen/Lance/Art situation. Somehow, White just makes it so clear. It's really a true love triangle, in which all members are in love with the other two. (Hey, it reminds me of The Raven Cycle books by Maggie Stiefvater where Blue and her boys are all in love with each other at the same time, and it all makes sense. But parentheticals aside - ) Arthur was Lancelot's "first love," as White likes to say, because Lancelot truly and wholly lives for and embodies the ideals that Arthur wishes to present to the world. And their friendship is amazingly strong. Neither wants to end it, and each does what he can to ignore the issue while the solidity of their friendship is dissolving before their own eyes. Guinevere is also SO much more of a sympathetic character than in Malory - she's a full Character, a Woman, a Real Person:
She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some albel or other, as "loyal" or "disloyal" or "self-sacrificing" or "jealous." Sometimes she was loyal and sometimes she was disloyal. She behaved like herself.... It is difficult to write about a real person. 

And then there's God. I never thought of God as being the fourth part of a love rhombus, but White makes him one, and it makes sense. Lancelot realizes that he can either choose God and keep Arthur as a friend, but lose Guinevere, or choose Guinevere, but through it lose God, since it would be adultery. And he really does love God and tries to choose him, by going on the quest for the Grail. He so Wants to be holy. But somehow, it isn't enough - he cannot match the purity of his three companions on the quest: Galahad, Bors, and Percival.
[Lancelot,] an earthly, sinful man, but the best of them, plodding along behind these three supernatural virgins; his doomed, courageous, vain toil.
Really, The Once and Future King is about humanity - the beauty and fault within us all. 

(Also, I really like playing around on Picmonkey. Have you guessed?)

Have you read The Once and Future King? What did you think?



  1. Alohaa, I'm a new reader and I just wanted to say that your blog looks pretty cool and I'm going to be a returning reader from now on c:
    Also, let me know if you want to do the whole follow on GFC thing c:
    Little Moon Elephant

    1. WELCOME! Thank you for stopping by (and staying, too)! I'd love to exchange GFC follows, and I think your blog has the most adorable name :-)

  2. Great review, Sophia. I was pretty hard on White in my review, but I read OaFK before I read Le Morte. After reading Le Morte, I realized all the whacky behaviour was not due to White but actually due to Malory. So I should read this book again at some point. I really did think White used it as a vehicle to promote his own beliefs especially as the books went on, but he makes it quite obvious so I'm okay with that. I think you didn't read the fifth book, is that right? If not, very wise of you. The men in the little white coats should have come for White ;-) ...... perhaps it was that book that kind of ruined it for me. So sad ......

  3. Yes! My incoherent ravings about this book have finally been put into words! As you said, this book is at the same time hilarious and inexpressibly sad (most of the humor was at the beginning though.) Absolutely. Beautiful.
    The best thing White did was make characters I'd heard about since I was a child become like my friends (or enemies). It is an incredibly amusing, depressing and fulfilling novel. As you can probably tell, I ADORE it.
    Fabulous review! (I love playing around on PicMonkey too, so many effects to use!)


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