Thursday, November 3, 2011

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Why do I do this to myself?

Every once in awhile, I can’t help myself. Even though I know it’ll tear me apart, I immerse myself once again in the immortal story of King Arthur’s Camelot. I love the fantasy and the ridiculous chivalry. Each retelling is just a little different. You can choose to see different episodes from different points of view. One author may make one character very noble while another will make him more of a churl and give the nod to his rival. Was Lancelot really the greatest knight or was it Gawaine? (Or Galahad?) And who was the wickeder witch/fairy? Morgause or Morgan Le Fay? How guilty was Guinevere, really? Was she a conniving adulteress or a poor misguided lovestruck pawn?

In the end, the variations on the theme don’t matter. I fall into the story and am swept along. I’m always heartbroken as the love triangle plays to its inevitable, wrenching conclusion. I know what’s going to happen and yet, even in this book, EVEN IN THIS ONE!- a well-established classic- I caught myself hoping for something to divert the train from its track to avoid the wreck.

This book was The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Written in parts between 1938 and 1941, it is one of the classic Arthurian tales and is regarded as one of the epic masterpieces of fantasy. I chose it for my YA classic for the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. We can debate whether it qualifies as YA. I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf for well over twenty years but never got around to reading it. Somehow, I thought of it as a book for teens, but that probably wasn’t the original audience. It was written well before YA had carved itself out as a "genre." I do think that there are many things about it that today’s YA fantasy readers would enjoy.

The book is divided into four parts. The first is The Sword in the Stone. This part reads almost as a children’s book. It tells of Arthur's (Wart’s) upbringing in the care of Sir Ector. He is tutored by Merlyn who "lives backwards" and teaches Arthur by turning him into animals. Eventually Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone and thereby claims his rightful place as the next king of England.

But things get darker from there. In the next part we meet Queen Margause and her sons, the Orkney Clan. Morgause is an awful woman and a worse mother. Her sons are psychologically damaged by her neglect and ill-usage. We know them as Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth. Later, they will become knights of Arthur’s Round Table, but for now, they are sworn enemies of Arthur.

The third part is The Ill-Made Knight. Oddly enough, Lancelot is portrayed as an ugly knight, and one who is filled with self-loathing. To combat this, he is determined to live out Arthur’s ideals and become the greatest knight of the Round Table. He wants to be so good he can perform a miracle. He succeeds at this, but he also falls in love with Guinevere. This part of the book chronicles their love affair. (The book is definitely no longer a children’s book.) The knights also search for the Holy Grail. This part is told by the knights returning to Camelot rather than as a series of adventures, so it’s narrated rather than shown. But we’re in nostalgia mode by this time, so it’s an effective way of doing it.

And in the fourth part of the book, everything falls apart. It’s been falling apart for awhile, but now, it collapses. Arthur’s splendid Camelot dissolves back into warfare and just about everyone dies. Why doesn’t this story ever change?

T.H. White’s version is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It’s jam-packed with adventures and episodes of established Arthurian lore. White’s interpretation of the stories, often witty, often poignant or thoughtful, and tending to be heavily laced with intentional anachronisms, are what make this an accessible and thought-provoking read. In some respects, it is a little dated. For example, he compares some of the knight to cricket players that must have been contemporaries back in the 1940's. But at other times, the deliberate mixing of past, present, and a vague view of the future work to make this book and its message endure.

The story of King Arthur is timeless. I suppose that’s why I can’t get enough of it, even though it breaks my heart every time. There is a hopefulness buried in the smoking ruins.

I’ve got two books left to read for this year’s Back-to-the-Classics challenge. And now it’s time to sign up for the 2012 challenge!


  1. How fantastic to finally read a book that has been lurking on the TBR for over 20 years! I don't know all that much about Arthurian legends, not sure if I've even read one book. My son watches the TV show Merlin, but I imagine that that isn't too true to the legends.

  2. Thank you for your great review.
    I am also a fan of the different versions of the Arthurian legends.
    My favorite is Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff. Even the title is mysterious and evocative of another time and place.
    I must confess I never finished T.H. White's version. But I read the Disney's version a thousand times as a child. I liked it so much that, in its honor, I have titled my second YA fantasy, The King in the Stone.

  3. This is one I've toyed with adding to my TBR list for a long time (though I admit that part of the reason for this is that Professor X recommends it in X2...). I may just have to grab it. Thus far, my only Arthur exposure is Lawhead's Pendragon cycle.