Book Review: ‘The Once and Future King’ by T. H. White

Posted: 30 January 2016 in Book reviews
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In a modern retelling, relive the legend of Arthur, Merlyn, Guenever, and Lancelot. Their story takes place over the course of four books:

The Sword in the Stone tells how Arthur became king. He was raised by Sir Ector and became page to foster brother Kay. While on a supposed quest, Arthur, called Wart, meets his future tutor Merlyn. Merlyn’s lessons are unconventional. He turns Wart into different creatures to teach him about different economic and political systems. He doesn’t really understand the point, but enjoys it nonetheless. His learning concludes when King Uther dies leaving no heir. A sword was set in an anvil in a church courtyard and whomever can remove it is the next king. Sir Ector and Sir Kay take Wart with them to London for a tournament. Right before Kay is to joust he finds his sword missing. Wart goes to retrieve it and pulls the sword from the stone, proving himself the rightful heir and King.

The Queen of Air and Darkness tells how Morgause brought about the future downfall of King Arthur. Her family seeks revenge for their grandparents. Uther killed the Earl of Cornwall and married Igraine, Morgause’s mother, producing Arthur. Morgause’s children are particularly vexed by these wrongdoings and desire to right them. The situation is worsened by Arthur’s desire to unify England. He goes to battle against the Eleven Kings, including Lot, Morgause’s husband. They are defeated. Morgause goes to court to beg pardon for her husband, actually planning to bewitch the king. Arthur knows nothing of his birth and thus doesn’t know that Morgause is his half-sister when she appears in his room late one night. Nine months later she bore a son named Mordred.

The Ill-Made Knight tells the story of Lancelot and Guenever. As a child, Arthur spoke with Lancelot about his plans for an order of knights. He trains and becomes one of these knights. At first, Quenever dislikes him. Over time they grow to love each other. Lancelot can’t deal with not having her and goes on a lengthy quest. After returning to court, Lancelot still can’t cope and leaves on another quest. He rescues a woman, Elaine, and is beguiled by her and her father. Elaine bears him a son Galahad. Guenever’s jealousy results in Lancelot disappearing. Elaine discovers him and they live a peaceful life. He is later summoned by Guenever and leaves Elaine. Many years pass and the round table begins to unravel. Lancelot and the knights leave to find the holy grail. He is gone for a few years. When he returns, he is converted and vows to be chaste. Guenever is amused by this. Their relationship struggles until he finally relents. People attempt to expose them. Guenever is disliked and none will be her champion when she is challenged. Lancelot travels far and fast to save her honour and wins.

The Candle in the Wind tells of Arthur’s downfall. Mordred attempts to destroy Arthur by exposing the relationship between Guenever and Lancelot. Arthur tells them his attempt to kill Mordred as a child and that the boy plans on exposing them. He implores them to be careful. Gareth, Mordred’s half-brother, warns Lancelot, but he doesn’t listen and they are discovered. Guenever is to be burned at the stake, but is rescued by Lancelot. War is waged at Lancelot’s castle in France. Guenever returns to England and Lancelot is exiled. Mordred is left in charge as Arthur continues fighting against Lancelot. Mordred plans to marry Guenever and rule England. Arthur returns home to fight his final battle.

My Thoughts

As a fantasy lover, it is strange that I never knew of this book until seeing it on the back of a George R. R. Martin novel. This book has received much renown so I figured I might as well read it.

Prior to this, I have seen many movies and TV shows based on the arthurian legend. This is the first actual book on King Arthur I’ve ever read and if I am to be honest, I was a little let down. Before everyone freaks out on me, let me say why. This is always what happens to me when something is excessively praised and lauded. It’s good, but nothing amazing. Maybe it’s just me. Anyway.

The story was very interesting. I didn’t realise that the Disney version of ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was actually based off this telling. I did like how they broke up the different iconic events into individual stories. Each story was integral to the overarching storyline, but with a focus on the one event.

I had quite a few issues with the characters. Firstly, they are complex characters that are very well depicted, but they were so frustrating. Take Arthur. He’s pretty daft. Sure he makes tough choices based off lessons he’s learned, but he let’s himself be walked over by everyone. He isn’t assertive or strong-minded. He loves people, but he can’t seem to draw a line which allows Mordred to succeed and destroy all his work. It kind of ruins the perception I had of him. Same with Guenever. When you think of the characters from the Arthurian legend, you can’t help but romanticise them. Guenever is like a spoiled little tyrant. She may be physically beautiful, but her character is ugly. She is jealous, spiteful, basically a bitch. Lancelot and Merlyn are the only decent characters. Although, if I had to choose a favourite character, I would likely choose one of the four brothers.

All that being said, the writing was excellent. I mean, it would have to be to have a reader have such feelings about the characters. Nothing is shoddily written. It is very descriptive and paints a vivid picture. While it is fairly dense material, there is a still a light-hearted attitude that permeates making it enjoyable. The language is reminiscent of a different era while still contemporary enough to keep the ready from being confused. In short, the writing is well balanced and expertly done.

If you haven’t read anything on the Arthurian legend, this might not be the best book to start with. It’s a complex read, but gives a less than romantic view of the story. It also gets pretty depressing. But if that’s what you’re looking for, then this will do you just fine. Enjoy 😉

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