The Once and Future King<I> by T.H. White reviewed by Mike Foster
This comitragic retelling of the King Arthur myth began with a book off the author’s shelf.
In January, 1938, Terence Hanbury White’s lonely and loveless life as a bibulous bachelor was already half over when he wrote author David Garnett, perhaps his only friend, about his newest book, <I>The Sword in the Stone<I>.
He was 31, a failed teacher living on credit with little but his books, two adopted owls, and an Irish setter bitch, but he allowed himself a rare bit of hope and happiness in his letter: “Do you remember I once wrote a thesis on the Morte d’Arthur? Naturally I did not read Malory when writing the thesis on him, but one night last autumn I got desperate among my books and picked him up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find (a) that the thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle, and an end implicit in the beginning, and (b) that the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast. Anyway, I somehow started writing a book. It is not a satire. Indeed, I am afraid it is rather warm-hearted—mainly about birds and beasts. It seems impossible to determine whether it is for grown-ups or children. It is more or less a kind of wish fulfillment of the things I should have liked to have happened to me when I was a boy.”
The Sword in the Stone happily lived up to his hopes. White began his four-part modernization of Thomas Malory’s 1485 classic Le Morte D’Arthur by subcreating a story that Malory hadn’t told: the tale of the boyhood fostering of Arthur in the palace of Sir Ector. The boy Arthur, called Wart by his obnoxious foster-brother Kay, stumbles upon the cottage of the dotty, delightful Merlyn, a character whose eclectic knowledge and anti-establishment views reflect the author’s.
Merlyn becomes the tutor of Wart and Kay, and due to White’s brilliant device of the notion that Merlyn is living backwards, born in the future, sage and passionate observations about the twentieth century on the brink of its second Great War are woven into a story that is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and misty-eyed romantic. Wart learns natural history by being turned into fish, hawk, owl, ant, and wild goose, and these lessons will teach him how to be a king. When Wart pulls the legendary sword from the stone and old Sir Ector kneels before his fosterling now his liege, White quotes Malory verbatim. Had Chesterton lived long enough to read it, he would have loved this book.
The success of this first volume led to a second in 1939,<I>The Queen of Air and Darkness<I>. As in <I>The Two Towers<I>, the second volume of Tolkien’s <I>The Lord of the Rings<I>, White trifurcates his story. Part of it is Arthur’s continuing education in how to rule, culminating in his notion of the Round Table. The second part of it is slapstick farce with the comical knights Pellinore and Palomides in dragon drag as they pursue the Questing Beast. The third and most sinister part introduces the young Orkney boys, Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth, and their malevolent monsteress of a mother, Morgause. White based this chillingly vain, sadistic, and amoral woman on his own mother, sad to say. The book ends with her seduction of Arthur at his coronation and the engendering of Mordred, the king’s son and nemesis.
In 1940, <I>The Ill-Made Knight<I> introduced Lancelot and Guenever and their fatal passion. White’s master-stroke in this third story was the creation of an <I>ugly<I> Lancelot, filled with self-loathing and self-doubt—a far cry from the stereotype of the Goulet-good-looking shining knight of most versions.
Like a symphony, each of these three books introduces a new theme that modulates, harmonizes, and dissonates with those before: the humanistic education of the simple, decent Wart, the revenge-obsessed hate of the Orkney clan, then the wrongful love that will undo all that the Round Table promised.
Finally, in 1958, White added the final movement to this symphony of story, <The Candle in the Wind<I>. This resolved all the themes of the first three. White ends his tale myth on the eve of Arthur’s great battle with the usurper Mordred, but not with the death of Arthur, but with his last hope: that what he tried to do will not be forgotten even if it finally fails. On the last pages, Thomas Malory enters as a character, a young page the King charges with chronicling the story. White’s Arthur then knights the writer who inspired his story.
Combined with the previous three volumes, this became <I>The Once and Future King<I>. It was that rarest of books, both a popular and a critical success. Its mix of humor and heartbreak was part of the appeal, as was the encyclopedic lore about everything from hawking to medieval medicine to courtly customs. White rounded and humanized Malory’s flat characters, especially the star-crossed Lancelot, while staying true to the original plot. The musical based on the book, <I>Camelot<I>, popularized White still further, and 1963, his last year of life, might have been his happiest one, as he toured the United States on a lionizing lecture tour.
On Jan. 17, 1964, while on a Mediterranean cruise, he died of acute coronary disease and was buried in Athens. His self-composed epitaph reads: T.H. WHITE/ 1906-1964/ AUTHOR/ WHO FROM A TROUBLED HEART/ DELIGHTED OTHERS/ LOVING AND PRAISING/ THIS LIFE.
<I>The Once and Future King<I> is indeed a book to be praised, inspiring both laughter and grief, a book that was love at first read. Pull it off the shelf and re-read it: you will find that, like the best loves, it grows richer and riper with age.