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Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King - T.H. White The Once and Future King was recommended to me on Reddit as probably the best Arthurian fantasy book extant. I have read Stephen R. Lawhead's [b:The Pendragon Cycle|73928|Pendragon (The Pendragon Cycle, #4)|Stephen R. Lawhead|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170843497s/73928.jpg|179264] and Marion Zimmer Bradley's [b:The Mists of Avalon|402045|The Mists of Avalon (Avalon, #1)|Marion Zimmer Bradley|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388857089s/402045.jpg|806813] and - if my memory serves me correctly – did not care for either of them. I am still interested in the Arthurian saga though so I proceeded accordingly.

The Once and Future King is divided into four parts, the first three previously published as separate books. The four parts are:

- The Sword in the Stone
- The Queen of Air and Darkness (Goodreads lists this as [b:The Witch in the Wood|6400069|The Witch in the Wood (The Once and Future King, #2)|T.H. White|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1318128502s/6400069.jpg|6588779], the original title)
- The Ill-Made Knight
- The Candle in the Wind

I usually try to avoid reading a book’s synopsis first before reading it so initially I was surprised the protagonist of the first part [b:The Sword in the Stone|316845|The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, #1)|T.H. White|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1355212194s/316845.jpg|2457438] turns out to be some kid called “The Wart” instead of Arthur, Merlyn is of course instantly recognizable even with the “y” instead of the “i” in his name. By page 30 I was a little tired of reading about The Wart and wondered when Arthur would show up. Not being a complete idiot (only a partial one) I did suspect that the Wart is indeed Arthur but I had no idea why they could not just call him by his proper name. So I peeked at the book’s summary and resumed reading.

I find The Sword in the Stone to be very whimsical and very juvenile, cartoonish even, not my cup of tea at all. The chapters are quite episodic and the book seems to lack any real sense of momentum or urgency. Most of it feels rather disjointed as there is no single clear story arc to unify the chapters. The reader is basically following The Wart’s charming magical childhood adventures under Merlyn’s tuition. It is all very nice and safe and rather soporific. The numerous chapters where Merlyn transforms The Wart into various animals to go on adventures mostly bored me. The effortless transformations are just too Teletubbies for me to simply suspend my disbelief.

I almost gave up on reading the entire The Once and Future King after finishing The Sword in the Stone but cooler heads (on Reddit) prevail and I am assured that it gets better after this first volume. I quote from a sage advice I received from Reddit:

“The books change in style as they go - the first (The Sword in the Stone) is much more light comic in tone, but they get much darker in The Ill Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, so don't judge too much by the first book. If you're not enjoying Wart's boyhood adventures you could try skipping there.”

Also, I do like T.H. White’s prose style which is quite charming in an old school sort of way, though the floweriness and his love of obscure words sometimes get the better of him. So I stayed the course and continued with The Queen of Air and Darkness ( [b:The Witch in the Wood|6400069|The Witch in the Wood (The Once and Future King, #2)|T.H. White|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1318128502s/6400069.jpg|6588779]).

The Queen of Air and Darkness is a considerable improvement on The Sword in the Stone. It is mainly the story of the Orkney clan (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth), sons of King Arthur’s half-sister Morgause. Given their unloving upbringing by their mother it is not surprising how several of them grow up to become Arthur’s antagonists. This part of the book is much less juvenile than The Sword in the Stone. There is a scene involving a unicorn being murdered which is quite tragic. However, the chapters involving King Pellinore, Grummore and friends still contain too much childishe buffoonery for my taste. The “romance” between King Pellinore and the Questing Beast is like something out of a Tom and Jerry episode. As a separate book I would just about rate The Queen of Air and Darkness 4 stars.

With the third part of the book [b:The Ill-Made Knight|688770|The Ill-Made Knight (The Once and Future King, #3)|T.H. White|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333385893s/688770.jpg|675123] The Once and Future King makes a huge leap forward in quality and maturity. The Ill-Made Knight focuses on the legendary Sir Lancelot (well, most of the characters of The Once and Future King are legendary must Lancelot is extremely legendary). Starting from his childhood, his rise to being the best knight in the world and his love affair with Queen Guenever (more commonly spelled as Guinevere in other books). The various quests he goes on to distract himself from his illicit love are great adventure yarns. While these often have fantastical elements there is no juvenilia to speak of. Tonally The Ill-Made Knight is much more mature than the previous two parts of The Once and Future King and I was finally really digging the book at this point. The characterization of Lancelot is very well done, he is the most interesting, complex and conflicted character in the book. It is also interesting that T.H. White makes him ugly instead of giving him the usual knight in shining armor look. His affair with Guenever is a tragedy for all concerned, the queen even drives him completely bonkers at one point. Lancelot’s relationship with his other lover, the poor totally friendzoned Elaine is even more tragic.

The final part of the book The Candle in the Wind continues the sophisticated tone of the previous part. This part of the book is a culmination of all the previous parts, even the childish animals transformations of The Sword in the Stone is given a mature context here. The Candle in the Wind is mainly concerned with the downfall of King Arthur (and there is no mention of Norma Jean anywhere). I really like this description of Arthur:

“He was a kind, conscientious, peace-loving fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius. Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong. Now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood.” Poignant stuff.

King Arthur is far too nice for his own good, he is well aware of his wife’s infidelity but tries to overlook it as best he can, and he is not a silly cuckold as some would have us believe. He turns a blind eye for the sake of his best friend and his unworthy wife. Unfortunately his vengeful son Mordred cannot leave well enough alone and this leads to a war he does not want, his Chivalry project and his Round Table collapsing miserably. The Candle in the Wind is the most philosophical part of The Once and Future King and leaves the reader with much to reflect upon.

Over all I like The Once and Future King a lot in spite of the juvenilia of The Sword in the Stone. If you are interested in Arthurian fiction this is definitely one for your TBR list.