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Classics Reissued: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

by T. H. White

Penguin reprint, 2011

This luminous novel, first published in 1958 and composed of parts written years and even decades earlier, has been garnering talk-stopping superlatives since the moment it first saw print. The Saturday Review claimed “there is everything in this great book.” A critic for the old Boston Herald-Traveler called it “the finest English novel since Middlemarch.” The Minneapolis Tribune said, “Read it and laugh. Read it and learn. Read it and be glad you are human.” The stark, unlovely cover of this otherwise-superb new Penguin trade-sized reprint (made on far better paper and with far better binding than the last trade paperback, over a decade ago) states the matter with plain, editorial confidence: “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.”

A reader coming to White’s sprawling tale of King Arthur, his Queen Guenever, and his best friend Sir Lancelot will naturally wonder if any book ever written can possibly live up to such a stack of superlatives. They’ll ask: “Is it really that good?”

The answer is yes.

There’s a familiar publishing irony at work here, wherein a portion of something gains unlooked-for popularity and thereby distorts the reading public’s perception of the remainder. Anthony Burgess, John Gardner, Joseph Heller – these and many others will forever be known for novels that caught the public imagination but are neither their typical work nor their best. Likewise far too many readers know The Once and Future King through the stand-alone publication (and Disney movie) of its first chapter, “The Sword in the Stone,” which features the little boy known as Wart (who will grow up to be King Arthur) getting turned into all sorts of animals by his kindly wizard-tutor Merlyn. Spooked by the many children’s versions of that first chapter (and delighted by that Disney movie, whose single genius sequence – I refer, of course to the shape-changing duel between Merlyn and Mad Madame Mim – isn’t in the 1958 version of the book), who knows how many readers have feared the whole thing was like that, and thus deprived themselves of one of the 20th century’s most life-broadening novels?

So maybe there’s some wisdom in this Penguin edition’s grim cover after all, because the bulk of The Once and Future King is as intensely, thrillingly adult a book as you’ll find in a year of looking. Like any towering masterpiece, it has infinite facets, one sparkling brighter than the rest during one reading, another during a later reading. Summary is simple: aided by Merlyn (who, in one of White’s many wonderful inventions, is aging backwards through time), Arthur becomes king and uses his newly-established Round Table to bring order to his blood-thirsty realm. Two forces build to thwart that peaceful dream: the implacable hatred of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, and the uncontrollable violence of the Orkney clan, mainly the maniacal Agravaine – and the catalyst for both is the famous doomed love between Lancelot and Guenever.  After the sunny opening of “The Sword in the Stone,” the book darkens steadily through the remaining three chapters, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” “The Ill-Made Knight,” and “The Candle in the Wind.”

White is the pure singer of spiritual agony – all his main characters feel it acutely, and all for the same reason: because they’re bitterly aware of how far they fall short of their own potential. Lancelot especially prizes the very purity he can never possess as long as he’s in love with the Queen:

Lancelot stayed at the court for several weeks this time, and each week made it more difficult to go away. On top of the more or less social tangle in which he found himself, there was a personal puzzle – for he put a higher value on chastity than is fashionable in our century. He believed, like the man in Lord Tennyson, that people could only have the strength of ten on account of their hearts being pure. It so happened that his strength was as the strength of ten, and such was the medieval explanation which had been discovered for it. As a corollary to this belief, he supposed that if he gave in to the Queen he would lose his tenfold might. So, for this reason, as well as for the other ones, he fought against her with the courage of despair. It was not pleasant for Guenever either …

Lancelot said: “I cannot go.”

Arthur said: “Please stay.”

Guenever said: “Go.”

But the book’s most moving element (at least during this re-reading) is the agony of Arthur himself, who finds himself trapped by his enemies into crushing his friends using the very structure of law and order he worked so hard to champion:

“But you can’t refuse to go away ever. You can’t spend the rest of your life chained to the Queen, on purpose to keep Lancelot away. What about the hunting party you were supposed to join next week? If you don’t go on that, you will be altering your plans deliberately, so as to thwart justice.”

“Nobody succeeds in thwarting justice, Agravaine.”

“So you will go on the hunting party, Uncle Arthur, and we have permission to break into the Queen’s room, if Lancelot is there?”

The elation in his voice was so indecent that even Mordred was disgusted. The King stood, pulling his gown round him, as if for warmth.

“We will go.”

“And you will not tell them beforehand?” The man’s voice tripped over itself with excitement. “You won’t warn them after we have made the accusation? It would not be fair?”

“Fair?” he asked.

He looked at them from an immense distance, seeming to weigh truth, justice, evil and the affairs of men.

“You have our permission.”

His eyes came back from the distance, fixing them personally with a falcon’s gleam.

“But if I may speak for a moment, Mordred and Agravaine, as a private person, the only hope I now have left is that Lancelot will kill you both and all the witnesses – a feat which, I am proud to say, has never been beyond my Lancelot’s power. And I may add this also, as a minister of Justice, that if you fail for one moment in establishing this monstrous accusation, I shall pursue you both remorselessly, with all the rigor of the laws which you yourselves have set in motion.”

The novel ends in a crescendo of loss and disillusion, and yet it’s all so brilliantly cathartic that no reader will be anything but happy they encountered this book. And the loss and disillusion gets one of the most graceful and moving refutations imaginable in The Once and Future King‘s glittering coda, the detached and stand-alone fifth chapter, The Book of Merlyn. Together they comprise one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, not some proto-Harry Potter. If you haven’t read this novel, take advantage of its new edition’s prominence at your local bookstore mega-chain to buy a copy. And if you’ve already read it, avail yourself of the prettiest paperback edition it’s ever had. Either way, read it before you’re a year older – you’ll be very, very glad you did.

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