This book review rant is about The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I was first exposed to this novel by my 9th grade English teacher (and one of the human beings I have the most respect for) Mr. Christopher Carter. I selected The Once and Future King for my honors’ project and I have loved it ever since. Admittedly, it is very much “literary fiction” and the plotting is a bit slow. Despite that, I enjoy this this book because it has considerably more to offer than just the plot. The Once and Future King tells several of the traditional Arthurian stories (which I’ve always been a sucker for) wrapped very beautifully in compelling themes of power, the right to use it, leadership, honesty, love, trust, innocence, and friendship, among others. I can’t help but giggle every time I read White’s depiction of Merlin and yet my mind can’t help but run wild contemplating the wisdom he teaches to young Arthur.
In The Sword and the Stone (part I, my favorite) I love how Merlin teaches Arthur to empathize with others by turning him into animals so he can experience what life is like for those who have grown up and lived differently. This helps Arthur develop several of his key personality traits: patience, understanding, and love. Most importantly of all, Merlin teaches him to think! Though Arthur later calls it his curse because ever since he started thinking he hasn’t been able to stop, the gift of being able to look at the world with his head as well as his heart is what makes The Round Table and the peace it creates possible. One of the reasons this part of the story is so poignant to me is because Mr. Carter is the teacher who taught me to think about what I was reading and see more than the words on the page, a gift (and sometimes a curse) that I will forever be grateful for. In addition, I love Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast. In addition to being amusing, it is a fantastic metaphor for us and our lives. We each have our own “Questing Beast” that only we can catch, and we must again and again alight atop our noble steed and chase after it. I have always found his death later in the novel to be extremely depressing, as he is one of the truly innocent characters in this novel (assuming you count the accidental death of Sir Lot of Orkney as an innocent mistake, which I do).
Arthur struggles throughout his life to create an ideal society in his kingdom of Merry Olde England. The original concept of the round table was to create a constructive outlet for man’s inherent aggression and promote Might for Right. As the story continues the purpose of the table and Arthur’s thinking is forced to adjust as the situation metamorphoses into a many headed beast that cannot be destroyed by a physical manipulation of power, but only through inherent and eternal change within each person and society as a whole.
The bitterness and anger of the Orkney clan was to me symbolic of how letting those emotions stew within us can be so incredibly destructive. Agravaine, Modred, and Gawaine each embody different emotions taken to a destructive extreme. Gaheris represents the danger of not thinking for oneself and simply going along with the crowd. Gareth alone is able to transcend his family’s clannish grudges and is able to love and be loved by Arthur and Lancelot, and is ultimately by far the best knight of the family (he is also my favorite knight of the Round Table). His forgiving attitude, which could have healed and corrected all the hurts of this story, was ultimately lost. His demise is the catalyst for the fall of Arthur’s Kingdom and the end of the Round Table.
Lastly I suppose I must of course consider Sir Lancelot. T.H. White’s incarnation of Lancelot reminds of Heracles from Greek mythology, he is a man of extreme extremes. First he is extremely devoted to becoming a great knight, to the exclusion of all else. Then, he is obsessed with being worthy of performing a miracle to all else (which he succeeds at, only to be inebriated and seduced), then he is obsessed with Guienevere, then he is obsessed with his own self-loathing, then he is obsessed with becoming pure and pious, then he is obsessed with Guinevere again, then he is obsessed with his own self-loathing, and so it goes. Ultimately I had a hard time relating to Sir Lancelot, his emotions are so conflicting and his sense of what is honorable and right becomes so skewed that I find it very difficult to appreciate him. To a certain extent it comes back to the Questing Beast metaphor, loving Guinevere is his questing beast and no matter what is right or good he can’t seem to get away from it until he eventually accepts it and embraces it, even though it ultimately harms him, his lover, and his best friend.
A central theme of this novel that jumps out to me is the need for self-mastery and individual morality(Lancelot, Guinevere, the Orkneys etc.) and mental integrity (Arthur, Gaheris, Merlin etc.). Sadly, the silver-tongued Mordred is a symbol that even the greatest of us can make mistakes. Arthur’s being seduced by Morgause (and his subsequent treatment of infant Mordred) was as much a keystone to the eventual fall of Camelot as Lancelot and Guinevere’s infidelity. Gawaine, so loyal to his family that it proved destructive to himself, his Lord, and his brothers ultimately failed to put Right for Right’s sake before his dogged loyalty.
Ultimately one of the key lessons I got from The Once and Future King is that there is no force on Earth we can rely on other the human principle of unbiased goodness. Arthur tries to channel anger into a productive tool, it ultimately fails him and begins to consume itself. Even justice, which he labors so hard to institute above human emotion must be guided by a moral heart, or else it could be manipulated to destroy the people he loved. Lancelot tries to convert his lust and inner weakness into outer strength and ultimately he was defeated by problems that only inner fortitude could resolve. All the loyalty and power in the world couldn’t replace the need for love, forgiveness, and a personal understanding of self-worth for Gawaine and his brothers.
I love The Once and Future King because it teaches me about myself and the people around me in this crazy little world we live in. I recommend reading it very slowly, I read it over eight or nine days with a notebook next to me so I could write down some of my favorite quotes and impressions. I love the Once and Future King because here I sit, more than three weeks later and I’m still thinking about it, making new connections and understanding more about the characters and what T.H. White was trying to help me see. I love The Once and Future King. Give it a try, I bet you will too.