The Once and Future King

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.” (The once and Future King, T. H. White)

The first book of this quartet is the much loved and acclaimed The Sword in the Stone. Being a story of Wart (the child King Arthur), it has an entirely different feel than the chronicles of his later life. While the last three books speed through decades in order to focus on the main events which make up the downfall of the king, this first book stalls to wade through the miniscule, and lovely details of life in the middle ages.

If anyone is familiar only with The Sword in the Stone, from Disney or the original, they might be rather shocked to finish the chronicles. The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is in particular very difficult because is combines a frequently used old Scottish accent with the same problem many wrestle with Russian books: long names that sound uncannily similar. Although the transition from the beautiful lightness of the first book to the density of the second slowed me down for a few weeks, T.H. White had good reason to include it. It serves the purpose of demonstrating, with unbelievable psychological deftness, the upbringing of the people who influenced Arthur most near the end. That way, when the last war occurs, the reader understands all of the doomed necessity that brings his life to such a conclusion.

The whole novel reads like a deeply psychological essay. It seems more a companion to Malory’s King Arthur, or to the general knowledge of the story, than a retelling because it hardly even touches on large chunks of the plot. The childhoods, the thoughts, secrets and passions of the main characters are, however, brought to light with the utmost clarity. The emotional necessity for every action is laid out so that the doom of Arthur does not seem cheap, easy, or random – instead it seems a beautifully choreographed dance, where the characters, though endowed with free will, fall into the fate of their choices.

Beverage: this book, being as epic as it is, requires much more than one simple drink. Each of the four books has its own personality, and one should start at the lighter end of the beverage spectrum (such as a hot chocolate or spiced cider) and finish with the darkest of Russian teas or a black coffee.

Reminds me of… One Hundred Years of Solitude because both T. H. White and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are phenomenal at diluting a person’s character down to its essence. Marquez does it with such force and brevity that some people only deserve one beautifully crafted sentence, whereas T.H White revisits the character time and time again over the course of their enormous lives.

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5 thoughts on “The Once and Future King

    • Excellent! That’s the goal! Please write back when you do read them, I’d love to hear what you think. I’m going to be reading Le Morte de Arthur (the original King Arthur) this fall, so check back in a few months for more on the subject.

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