The tale of Arthur, Merlyn, Lancelot, Guenever, and the round table is immortal and The Once and Future King by T.H. White, first published in 1958, is arguably the most respected modern version of these events and a widely acknowledged classic of fantasy. White loosely bases his retelling of this famous legend from the text of Le Morte D'arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, dating to the 15th century. He tells the tale in four parts: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind, with a fifth part published separately as The Book of Merlyn.
The Sword in the Stone covers the life of Arthur as a child, when Merlyn comes to him as his teacher and provides inspiration for the Disney movie of the same name. Arthur has no knowledge of his birthright and believes he is destined to be merely a page to his bully-ish foster brother Kay. The Wart, as Arthur is known, has many adventures, including conversations with beasts and outlaws, and an encounter with a sword stuck in a stone.
The Queen of Air and Darkness focuses on the childhood of the Orkney faction, the sons of King Lot and Queen Morgause. We see their troubled childhood and anticipate the trouble it will cause.
The Ill-Made Knight is the tale of the greatest knight in the world – Sir Lancelot Dulac. Lancelot is not the dreamy hero anticipated, but a troubled man of conflicted emotions and loyalty. We see the blossoming love with Guenever, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the trappings of Elaine.
The Candle in the Wind concludes The Once and Future King with the story of Arthur’s downfall, the love quadrangle of Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and God, and the tragedy of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son of Queen Morgause.
The voice of The Once and Future King sets it apart from the usual re-telling of the myth of Arthur and his round table. White takes a conversational tone at times, jumping in and out of the time and point of view of his subject with commentary on Malory’s original telling. This tone is both a curse and blessing on the tale, sometimes annoying, sometimes amusing.
One suffering of White’s telling is the lack of that extra something that makes the reader truly care for the characters. This is a tragic tale, yet I never felt sorry for the characters, I never connected with them as I should have. Perhaps it’s due to the conversational voice I mention above, but whatever its origin, the story never overcomes this.
The Candle in the Wind sets itself apart from the rest of book as the best written installment. White finally manages to get me to care about the characters, and it ends well. The tone become much more serious and reflections of ‘modern’ times shine through as Europe repairs from WWII and the Cold War takes over.
The Once and Future King is a classic of fantasy (it says it right on the cover), one of the best known versions of the story of King Arthur, and therefore, a must read in the pantheon of Arthur, but not a book without flaws. On my 10-point rating scale, The Once and Future King rates a 6, not as high as anticipated, but still a decent read.