★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Once and Future King by T.H. White | 1958 | Ace | Paperback $9.99
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.
I imagine that most of y’all have heard of this book — or at least of its first part, which is often read as a stand-alone children’s book, The Sword in the Stone (yes, like the Disney movie) — or AT LEAST the legends of King Arthur and Camelot. Right? Because if not, you’re missing out on a HUGE piece of Western folklore / literary canon and you should get off the internet and go to a library to amend this situation right freakin’ now.
Although it looks at first glance like a typical kind of “classic” novel, I’d say it’s closer to something like The Lord of the Rings meets Discworld meets A Game of Thrones meets Narnia. (In fact, even though I originally had it classified as red-font “20th century literature/poetry” on my Classics Club list, I’ve switched it to green for SF/F.) I was actually convinced that T.H. White had been a part of the “Inklings” group because the writing/themes seem so in-tune with their work, but apparently he wasn’t (although he did correspond with C.S. Lewis to a limited extent).
The first section — the aforementioned The Sword in the Stone — is certainly the most lighthearted of the stories, leaning more heavily on kid-friendly British folk tales and general silliness than the latter sections. It’s a kind of bait and switch, though, because the stories grow rather more morbid and grown-up after Arthur pulls his sword from that stone. The second section begins with a bored sorceress torturing a cat in gruesome detail, which should give you some clue as to how things go on for the rest of the book. The author might as well have titled part 2 “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The writing style remains consistent throughout the book, despite the abrupt shift in tone/content. The narrator fairly frequently “butts in” for little explanatory asides or gently snide remarks, which I think annoys some readers but I personally find it charming (at least in this case). The characters are mostly fully developed (or at least sketched with decent detail), with the obvious exceptions of the villainesses, who seemed to be hardly more than seductress-witch caricatures. There are certainly more interesting portrayals of Arthur’s sisters out there, though, so I’ll just leave this little quibble to whither away in the face of the book’s more significant virtues.
This was actually a re-read for me, though it’d been probably about a decade since I read it originally. It’s certainly a favorite of mine now!
- ‘Once and Future: The Biography of T.H. White’ at the Paris Review
- ‘Arthur Comes Alive in The Once and Future King‘ from NPR Books
- ‘Three Adults Discuss The Once and Future King Seriously and At Length’ at The Toast
- ‘The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Book of a Lifetime’ at the Independent
Publication information: White, T.H. The once and future king. New York: Ace, 1958. Print.
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