T.H. White: The Once and Future King

“I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king.” -Merlin, in The Queen of Air and Darkness

I’m going to make a (I think) reasonable assumption here, that the reader is aware of basic Arthurian legend. Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Morgause, and Morgan Le Fay. The Round Table, Holy Grail, and the sword called Excalibur. There will be some spoilers, some universal to the legend, perhaps one or two little ones specific to this particular book. If this concerns you, read no further.

T.H. White’s four-volume take on the Arthurian cycle draws heavily on the late-fifteenth century epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. This in turn brought together in one place the myriad legends, songs, and poems, both French and English, about the mythical king and his knights. But in the half century and change since its publication, White’s tetralogy has almost certainly been the more widely read, if not amongst scholars of medieval literature.

The first part, originally published as a stand-alone novel, even inspired a feature-length animated film from Disney: The Sword in the Stone. It’s a natural fit. Though relatively lighthearted compared to later books, Arthurian legend is so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of Western society, even young children certainly must pick up on the fact that great things are in store for the young Wart.  Certainly that self-proclaimed nigromancer, the white-bearded Merlin, would not take such an interest in his tutouring otherwise.

The Once and Future King is certainly more readable (and several hundred pages shorter) than Malory’s tome (or so I suspect, not having read that work myself), but it’s not an abridged version, a children’s version, or an update with modern language. It’s an entirely new work of Arthurian fantasy, implicitly based on Le Morte d’Arthur as all such works must be, but even within the constraints of retelling this old story, somehow managing to tell a different one.

The titles themselves are revealing. The publisher gave Malory’s work as a whole the same title as the final section. To him (and to White, nearly five centuries later), the ultimate narrative arc was the slow playing out of Arthur’s inevitable tragedy. Themes of sin, doom, and fate pervade the work. Questions of morality, the right to rule, the possibility of change, are given short shrift.

But if Malory’s story was all about the ending, White’s was all about continuing on. The book’s closing chapter drops the curtains before Arthur strides out to his final battle, and the reader is reminded of Merlin’s promise. One day, returning perhaps from beyond the vail of Avalon, Arthur will rejoin the world and be king once again.

The Once and Future King is about the important lessons Arthur learned in his boyhood, and worked hard all his life to put into effect. It’s about how the world was different for his having lived in it. It’s about how, whether he comes back bodily or not, the spirit of Arthur is in all the good parts of humanity and governship today.

The morality in Le Morte is, at times, contradictory, ambiguous, or altogether absent. But White makes the assumption that there is a reason this man is special, beyond finding a magical sword and winning all his battles. He became king for a reason: to make things better. Consequently, he is far more interested in how Arthur strives to achieve this (and how, even today, we strive to achieve it) than in enemies slain or heads chopped off.

Despite this comparative optimism, White doesn’t shy away from the gruesome facts of the barbaric Britain in which his story is set. He avoids detail but states plainly that such things occur. He thoroughly demonstrates the point that might does not, and cannot make right. Simultaneously, he makes clear that finding a better way is an uphill battle. The world can get better. But it is a slow and painful process. Even for wizards, legendary kings, and the best knights the world has ever seen. Every single one of them, you see, is merely human.

The Once and Future King remains today, as the day it was first published, one of the very best works of fantasy ever written. An absolute must-have for any fantasist, literati, or parent. And the Ace hardcover is absolutely lovely.

(Ace, 2011)

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