The Once and Future King
by T.H. White
Have in Library? Yes!
Confession: I love fantasy. It feels like a confession because fantasy too often exists simply as “genre” writing: fun to read, but not considered as serious canonical literature. Especially in light of everything going on in the world right now, it feels indulgent. Who needs escapism? How can stories about made up things contribute to a serious examination of contemporary issues?
Enter “The Once and Future King.”
*Spoilers ahead … if you don’t already know the story of King Arthur, that is!*
This four-volume story begins with “The Sword and the Stone,” and for most of us, that’s where it ends. This tale follows King Arthur when he is a boy named Wart, learning about knighthood at his foster father’s estate in the picture-perfect English countryside with his eccentric tutor Merlyn. This is fantasy as we know it, Disney-ready (the movie came out in 1963): talking animals, magic spells, and a satisfying story arc where we can watch Wart transform from underdog to hero when he pulls the sword from the stone. But look closer. Even here there are hints of deeper meaning. Wart has a series of adventures in which Merlyn transforms him into animals: a pike, a goose, a falcon, and an ant, so that he can learn the inner workings of the animal realm. It is a place of cruelty, where “eat or be eaten” is the rule of the day. Yet the badger tells him: “homo sapiens is almost the only animal that wages war.”
The second book of the saga, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” has Arthur already king, tasked with uniting the Orkneys with the rest of England. Here the humorous tone that ruled the first book is juxtaposed with new scenes of darkness. King Pellinore’s friends dress up like the Questing Beast to cheer him up while Morgause’s children enter into a twisted quest for a unicorn that can only be caught by a virgin. It’s unsettling to see adults act like children while children meddle in pursuits too mature for them. This gives the whole volume an off-kilter, disturbing feel and introduces us to the themes of sexuality and violence that will carry through the rest of the saga.
The comedic is lost all together when we get to the third book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” which is the tragic chronicle of Lancelot’s adventures. In White’s version, Lancelot is an ugly, self-hating man tortured by issues of purity. (Autobiographical nod?) This book is yet another tale of men by a man, but TH White’s take on women is refreshing. Guenever is smart and complicated, as is Elaine, who transforms quickly from Lancelot’s damsel in distress to a free agent who schemes for what she wants. On Lancelot’s first meeting with Guenever, White writes:
The young man knew, in this moment, that he had hurt a real person, of his own age. He saw in her eyes that she though he was hateful, and that he had surprised her badly. She had been giving him kindness, and he had returned it with unkindness. But the main thing was that she was a real person. She was not a minx, not deceitful, not designing and heartless. She was pretty Jenny, who could think and feel.
Now that Arthur has united his kingdom, he must try to rule it. Despite Merlyn’s early teachings, Arthur develops his own theory of reconciling war and justice.
Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right?…You can’t just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can’t neglect it. You can’t cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad.
TH White was born in India but educated in England, where he wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” while at Queen’s College. He lived out World War II as a conscientious objector in a countryside cottage. It was at this place that he began to reconsider the work of Malory and to write “The Once and Future King.” Like fellow-war time writers C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White may be telling “fairy stories,” but he is working against the backdrop of one of the most scarring times in history. In White’s case, “The Once and Future King” is both his homage to Thomas Malory and his own searing response to the carnage of World War II.
By the last book, “A Candle in the Wind,” we find Arthur caught in the trap of his own laws, his newest idea to forge a peaceful kingdom. In a ridiculous turn of events, the King unwillingly sentences his beloved Queen to death and pins all his hopes on Lancelot swooping in to the rescue. Yet he knows that if Lancelot succeeds, it will mean that he must eventually meet him in war, breaking the Round Table forever. Despite all Arthur has done, in the end innocent blood is still spilt, justice is a charade, and the “uncivilized” emotions of revenge and fear still have a way of ruling the day.
My favorite part of the book was the last chapter, when a broken Arthur reflects for the last time about war. To fantasy cynics, if great literature is that which is still relevant today, read these words and think about our current political situation:
The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing—literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause—political geography…Countries would have to become countries—but countries which could keep their culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.
Ultimately, Arthur fails. The book closes with a scene in the King’s tent, as he readies himself for his own “war to end all wars” where he will be slain by his own son Mordred. The Round Table and the era of chivalry is ended, and while a young Thomas Malory escapes with the story, White implies that the end becomes life as we know it. The Arthur legend fades and the history of England takes over, leading up to, at the time of his writing, the horror of World War II. Like Arthur, we are left with the unsettling conclusion: are we by our very nature simply doomed to be violent? Perhaps in the end the only hope is in passing the stories on, so that one day, some day, we might learn from them. It does indeed seem like “a candle in the wind.”