The Once and Future King. Now and Forever a Classic.

There is a certain freedom attendant to writing about The Once and Future King with the knowledge that I cannot possibly do it justice. I can write without the pressure to reach an unattainable goal. Now, if young Wart — Arthur — had commenced with such foreknowledge of inevitable failure, he’d never have bothered tugging the sword from the stone.

It has taken me longer than you might expect to finish reading this book. Sure, it is hefty enough, but I’ve zipped through longer works in fractions of the time I spent on this. Why so slowly, then? I read this with deliberate lack of haste, savoring each section, not wanting to get to the end. The story and the quality of the writing, the subtleties and careful choice of words are just that good. And, anyway, why would I want to reach the well-known tragic conclusion? It’s tragic. I’m eager to move on to The Book of Merlyn now, White’s follow up.

T.H. White’s masterpiece is one of the three great humane fantasies, along with Watership Down and the Lord of the Rings. Watership Down is (perhaps oddly, considering it is a novel about rabbits) itself the most humane of the three. The Lord of the Rings is the most transcendent. But Once and Future is the most human.

The novel concerns itself with the individual in all aspects of life, from childhood to old age and does so with humor, compassion, and unflinching reflection. It also grapples rather grimly with larger questions of society. War, justice, love, friendship, family, the nature of man. Perfectible? Unalterably flawed by original sin? A mechanistic creature evolved to instinctively respond to certain stimuli in certain ways?

Once and Future takes the familiar story of King Arthur, one that underpins much of English literature, and treats it, initially, as a comedy, before gradually sliding into tragedy with liberal lubrication of black humor. It is, in many ways, a despondent work, though it ends with a glimmer of hope as summed up in the final two words: “The Beginning.” Of course that glimmer is right there in the title. 

This isn’t the sort of gung-ho adventure novel of the kind that makes up the plurality of my reading. But I want you to note the following passage, which suggest to me that White had the chops to take the story in an entirely different direction, had he so chosen:

“…and a single knight in full armour blundered through the gap…Lancelot slammed the door behind him, shot the bar, took the figure’s sword by the pommel in his padded left hand, jerked him forward, tripped him up, bashed him on the head with the stool as he was falling, and was sitting on his chest in a trice — as limber as he had ever been. All was done with what seemed to be ease and leisure, as if it were the armed man who was powerless. The great turret of a fellow, who had entered in the height and breadth of armour…he seemed to have come in, and to have handed his sword to Lancelot, and to have thrown himself upon the ground. Now the iron hulk lay…while the bare-legged man pressed its own swordpoint through the ventail of the visor. It made a few protesting shudders, as he pressed down with both hands on the pommel of the sword.”

See what I mean? You could almost replace “Lancelot” with “Conan.” 

It surprises me that it wasn’t until after I rounded fifty and began my steady pace toward the century mark (and beyond? Fingers crossed.) that I finally got around to Once and Future. But perhaps that was for the best. I might not have gleaned as much from it as a younger man.

Recommended. Now, if you’re in the mood for something more along the lines of a gung-ho adventure novel, why not this one?