What do BBC’s Merlin, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court all share in common? Each of these creative works is steeped in Arthurian legend. One among hundreds of versions of the famous tale, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is a brilliant adaptation of Malory’s epic work. Surrounded by so many similar peers, is it really worth the read? Absolutely. White’s work stands apart as one of the most popular, enduring, Arthurian stories of all time, due in part to the expertise of its author.
White threw himself heart and soul into any topic that sparked his interest and inclined towards erudite tastes, character traits which are shared by his version of the wizard Merlyn. Over the span of several years he became an expert on Arthurian legend and lore, as well as on falconry and social history. Each of these pursuits influences his novel to some degree.
The Once and Future King is divided into four individual books, each of which recounts a different stage of Arthur’s life. The first book, “The Sword in the Stone,” describes Arthur’s childhood and his tutor Merlyn, an eccentric old man who shapes Arthur’s character through magical adventures. The second and third books, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “The Ill-Made Knight,” follow Arthur’s early rule and introduce Lancelot, a man pure in heart and hideous in form, destined to become the greatest knight who ever walked the earth. The fourth and final book, “The Candle in the Wind,” describes Arthur’s inevitable end and establishes his role as England’s once and future king. Arthur is destined to return when England’s need is greatest, just as he was destined to pull the sword from the stone.
White’s style is wildly satirical and distinctly British. Rather than taking an epic or grandiose tone, he writes directly to his audience, much in the style of Wodehouse or Graham. Despite its hilarity, White’s tale is not shallow. White described it best himself when he said, “I have tried to make the seriousness acceptable by getting as much fun as possible out of the comic characters.” His novel conveys a sense of sorrow that is painfully real and remains with his readers long after they turn the final page.
The Once and Future King discusses the concept of might vs. right in a medieval society that views banging some poor soul round the head with the hilt of a sword as the height of nobility. White satirizes the violent, useless actions of Malory’s knights, suggesting that those with great physical or intellectual power ought to use it to protect those who are weaker than themselves.
White also places great emphasis upon the value of learning. As Merlyn informs Arthur in “The Sword in the Stone,” “Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Merlyn applies this maxim to more than just intellectual endeavors, suggesting that one should constantly strive to understand what is right and how to achieve it. Arthur takes this lesson to heart and is often overwhelmed by his own shortcomings. While he recognizes that evil exists, he refuses to admit that human beings are inherently fallen and wrestles with the idea of grace. His idealism is certainly noble and well-meaning, although some might argue rather misplaced. Whatever the reader’s perspective, White utilizes Arthur’s predicament to reflect upon several of the most universal themes in literature.
Does White draw all the right conclusions? Perhaps not. But he leaves his readers with enduring moral propositions which demand serious thought and a memorable story which can be universally enjoyed.