This is a review written for my 4th semester of grad school, in which I was asked specifically to focus not only on the book itself, but how you approach the book as a writer.
Despite being an avid fan of such movies as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, until now I hadn’t read any of the classic Arthurian tales. I know many of the names, through one version of fiction or another, and do actually own Le Morte d’Arthur. In my mind, Arthurian tales are great, grandiose epics of stories, with big words and sprawling prose. Nothing that I would consider light reading; perhaps a shade on either side of Tolkien.
And despite it all, Once and Future King wasn’t at all what I expected.
Yes, the prose is lovely and the descriptions longer than I really thought I needed, and it’s as thick as the average brick, but it has a lovely sense of humor about itself that I hadn’t expected in the least. There are anachronisms thrown in entirely on purpose (moments where they express something like a wine or liquor as something that doesn’t exist in the storyline proper yet) and give Merlyn/Merlin (I saw it spelled both ways; I’m not sure what to make of that) a sense of humor that reminds me more of Gandalf or Fizban than the classic interpretation of Merlin as I assumed it. But there’s a certain whimsy that comes from making the great King Arthur nothing but an orphan bastard boy named Wart at the start, and the rest of the humor follows from that nicely.
There is so much more depth to the story than I’d ever thought as well. Intrigue with the Cornwall sisters (who I hadn’t realized there were three of, and I’m still not sure other stories haven’t melded two of them together) and tales of the Questing Beast and the amount of drama between Lancelot and Guenever, good heavens. The stories we write for children take so much out, and I suppose intelligently so, but it leaves me reeling at how much more there was to the stories. It’s not just a poor boy finding the sword and tugging it out of the stone and then being the best king ever; as with any proper monarchy, there’s much more than that. (Now I’m curious as to where Monty Python gets their Lady of the Lake handing him Excalibur, as well. I see no lake in Once and Future King.)
From a writing standpoint, it’s a very interesting approach. The author is clearly coming at the (fictional) history with an aim to tell the story and have the reader understand what’s happening and who is doing what…but they’re doing it from a much more casual approach than any history textbook. The anachronisms, the familiar speech, the fourth-wall-breaking off-hand comments…it’s much more approachable and easier to read. Coming from a book as thick as Once and Future King is, that’s certainly a plus. One of the most amusing (and useful) asides that they toss in are the mentions to Le Morte d’Arthur, the well-known text by Malory covering the life (and death) of the king. Given that Malory’s work is so well-known, and that it covers more in depth chunks of the book which T.H. White didn’t want to rehash, especially if his readers (as he assumed was true) had already read or at least obtained Malory’s book, White simply tells the readers in some scenes that if they want to hear more about this then they should go look in Le Morte d’Arthur. I will admit, I giggled each time I saw that.
White is a charismatic author, keeping his reader fairly well entertained for each segment of the story ride, as it were. It must be said, there are slow bits. Not everything is fascinating and interesting, as with any reign of any king, Arthur or not. There are pieces of the book which feel like they drag along, and places where the eye naturally wants to gloss over and find the more interesting bits on the next page over. But they are not the norm, and it’s easy to make the eye pay more attention again.
The cover touts the book as being the “world’s greatest fantasy classic.” I’m not entirely sure I would go so far as to call it that, but it’s certainly a very good and entertaining book, and not one I mind having on my bookshelf for years to come. …Though it’ll take a good investment of time for me to read it again!
3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Once and Future King”
Well-thought review! Thanks for considering the pacing as well. For the time it was innovative, but does that sort of writing stand the test of time? In White’s case, probably from this review.
I have so many things I want to say, but I am rather hindered by it having been fifteen years since I read this and I can’t find my copy to reread it. Woe.
Your impression of Arthurian works is fascinating to me! It sounds very heavily influenced by Tennyson, which amuses me since I am sure you have never read any of his stuff or possibly anything by Tennyson at all. But, his work was very influential so I can’t say I’m surprised, just intrigued. I don’t know much about how most people view Arthurian fiction so it’s a fun insight.
On that note, possibly the only constant in Arthurian fiction over the centuries is that everyone is always taking significant creative liberties from prior work with theirs. As a result, you wind up with a lot of conflicting “canon” because quite frankly there is no canon, it’s all very mythological. Drawing Excalibur from the stone as a sign of kingship etc. is one of the origins people use, but the Lady of the Lake granting him the sword during his reign is another very common one. Sometimes, there is both the “sword in the stone” proving kingship and Excalibur, the gift from the Lady of the Lake.
I gotta say, I am trying to remember three Cornwall sisters and I’m blanking… Depending on who they are, they might’ve been at least partly made up by White himself?
Morgana, Morgause, and Elaine are the three. Dunno what the “canon” on them is, but I know Morgana/Morgause float around, sometimes as one person in other works. XD