The Once and Future King & Lots of Quotes

Posted: July 27, 2016 in Book Review
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Premise:

T. H. White retells the Arthurian epic with a modern touch. King Arthur attempts to use “Force, the metal illness of humanity” for human good, creating an age of chivalry that will one day come again. Published 1958, considered the literary pinnacle of the fantasy genre.

About:

T. H White actually wrote five books about King Arthur, but only four of them were published together in The Once and Future King. The Book of Merlyn was published later, in 1977. So my copy of The Once and Future King contains The Sword in the Stone (upon which the Disney movie was based, delightful humor and all), The Queen of Air and Darkness (a much darker book about life in the Middle Ages before the Round Table), The Ill-Made Knight (a book about the glorious Round Table and its darling knight, Lancelot), and The Candle in the Wind (about King Arthur, in his weary old age, as his Round Table falls about him in ruins).

What I Liked:

(1) Book I. All of it. It’s adorable, hilarious fun (Merlyn is…so funny. And The Wart is adorable), and it really brings the Middle Ages to life, especially for children. My favorite joust in all of literature:

“The knights had now lost their tempers and the battle was joined in earnest. It did not matter much, however, for they were so encased in metal that they could not do each other much damage. It took them so long to get up, and the dealing of a blow when you weighed the eighth part of a ton was such a cumbrous business, that every stage of the contest could be marked and pondered.”

(2) The whole book really enlivens the Middle Ages in humorous, detailed ways:

“The Dark and Middle Ages! The Nineteenth Century had an impudent way with its labels.”

“Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever’s window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent? Do you think they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wards, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?”

(3) T. H. White manages to humanize everyone, especially King Arthur, Queen Guenever and the knight Lancelot, despite their questionable decisions and outright mistakes. Arthur, despite his preoccupation with justice, prefers to overlook the affair between his wife and Lancelot. Lancelot, despite his preoccupation with holiness, cannot keep himself from the queen. And the queen herself?

“People are easily dazzled by Round Tables and feats of arms. You read of Lancelot in some noble achievement and, when he comes home to his mistress, you feel resentment at her because she cuts across the achievement, or spoils it. Yet Guenever could not search for the Grail. She could not vanish into the English forest for a year’s adventure with the spear. It was her part to sit at home, though passionate, though real and hungry in her fierce and tender heart. For her there was no recognized diversions except what is comparable to the ladies’ bridge party of today. She could hawk with a merlin, or play blind man’s buff, or pince-merille. These were the amusements of grown-up women in her time. But the great hawks, the hounds, heraldry tournaments—these were for Lancelot. For her, unless she felt like a little spinning or embroidery, there was no occupation—except Lancelot.”

What I Didn’t Like:

(1) I didn’t enjoy book II or think it necessary. It drags, it’s dark, and most of it seems unnecessary. The point of it is to humanize “the Orkney faction” while Arthur, Lancelot and Merlyn conceive of the idea of “the Round Table.” But mostly, it’s a lot of unpleasant or boring episodic “showing” that could have been condensed into a few scenes. (2) King Arthur’s questions, the questions asked by the whole book, get only very vague answers, at least to my understanding. The thematic questions are mainly these: (a) Why does humanity fight and go to war? (b) How can we stop ourselves from doing so?

His solution appears to be that humanity must rid itself of political boundaries.

“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 [the birds], and would to Man if he could learn to fly.” OH, OH, and also EDUCATION! “The hope of making [the new round table] would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.”

I don’t really mind the vagueness of the dear king’s answer to his own troubling questions; perhaps his are the best humanist answers. And the book is too lovely for me to really mind; the answers aren’t the point, after all. Fortunately, this little piece of culture (or, rather, big piece of culture, coming in at 639 pages), instructs us in history, empathy and how to laugh at ourselves.

Overall:

I loved this book. Everyone who loves fantasy literature, or wants to read just one account of the Arthurian epics, should read this book.

Recommendation:

Book I is a great kid’s book, in addition to being a fun read for teens and adults. Books II-IV are fine for teens +.

*****5/5 STARS

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