The Once and Future King: a review

Why T. H White’s modern retelling of King Arthur is more relevant now than ever


Image courtesy of Daniel Yu via Piktochart

A timeline of stories about King Arthur

The story of King Arthur seems to be reinvented with each generation: whether it comes in the form of the original myth, the various retellings which stemmed from it, or the fantasy stories which have come to dominate the pop-fiction market, Arthurian legend has found its home in the imaginations of readers and writers across centuries.

The Once and Future King, written and published by T.H White during the 1950s, is a remaster of Malory’s Arthurian saga which sticks close to its roots. While the story still features magic and medieval England, the themes explored throughout the book are anything but fantastical or anachronistic: White manages to blend the magical setting of a world long-gone with a modern allegory on power, love, education, and the tragedy born alongside innocence.

Yes, it’s a tragedy: the narrator outright warns the reader that our dear Arthur is not in for a happy-ever-after ending; but in spite of this grim description, The Once and Future King is hardly a dark wasteland of a story. Although the looming shadow of despair is never far away, sometimes it is forgotten, and all that is left is a witty, bright narrative that leads the reader back to happier thoughts.

Book cover courtesy of Amazon

In a very short summary, The Once and Future King is a book that is split into four distinct parts, all of which center around Arthur, his rise to power, and his inevitable fall. Some readers may be familiar with the first part of the book, titled The Sword and The Stone, bearing the same name as the Disney movie that honored it in 1963. Both book and movie feature a young Arthur (better known by his nickname, Wart) and his education under the eccentric wizard Merlin.

The second part, The Queen of Air and Darkness, introduces the Orkney clan (distant relations of Arthur) and foreshadows the start of the tragedy, the fatal sin which would plague Arthur thereafter.

The third part, The Ill-Made Knight, introduces the knight Lancelot, Queen Guenever, and one of literature’s most infamous love triangles (love pentagon?) between the two and Arthur.

And finally, the last section of the book, The Candle in The Wind, brings all of the previous stories together in one cohesive whole that epitomizes the sorrow, joy, and philosophy which characterize White’s interpretation of Arthur. It might sound vague, but I dare not risk spoiling what I consider to be one of the best works of modern fantasy.

Of course, with the book written all those decades ago, some may take my use of the word “modern” with a grain of salt. How many of us can truly relate to some dead guy who had lived in a place and time so vastly different from our own?

Those boundaries are broken when it comes to art, especially literature, and The Once and Future King is no exception. White’s characters (particularly when it comes to Lancelot, the deuteragonist) are all remarkably human and face unique and personal conflicts. While Arthur deals with more abstract concepts like justice and humanity, Lancelot deals with the normal love, guilt, and shame which all of us feel in our own lives.

Some of White’s more direct allegories focus on education and politics, which are eternally relevant in any society. And of course, his wit and humor serve to draw readers into these themes instead of alienating them with their serious gravity. It’s a bit unfortunate that this book was released so near to The Lord of The Rings, as Tolkien may have overshadowed White in the fantasy genre in some people’s eyes (not mine!).

But in spite of all of the great things that I gush on about The Once And Future King, I’ll admit that there are some quibbles that other readers may not find as enjoyable. For starters, as the book was written during the 1950s and the language is a bit drier than your average child/young adult novel (that, and the fact that this book primarily targets a mostly adult audience). Furthermore, the paperback edition clocks in at over 600 pages, which definitely makes it a book that readers have to commit to. In accordance with its setting, there’s quite a bit of violence (and one particularly gory scene), so those with a faint heart: beware! The novel also deals with adult themes, so don’t go around reading this to kids or younger siblings. In addition, White occasionally breaks the fourth wall and makes references back to the source text (Le Morte D’Arthur) and other bits of knowledge which may either break a reader’s sense of immersion or enhance it. And finally, although I personally find them agreeable, some readers may not agree with White’s views on certain matters.

“Ask every person if he’s heard the story and tell it strong and clear if he has not that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot… ”

— Camelot

The Once And Future King is available in both hardcover and paperback, with the Penguin paperback edition at the relatively low cost of $9-10. For the cost, I consider it to be of excellent value in both quality and quantity. As of the time of writing, it is not available at the Kinnelon Public Library.

If you liked The Lord of The Rings, then I can almost assure you that you will find The Once And Future King equally as enjoyable, if not more so. Even though some of the novel’s allegories are a bit on-the-nose at times, they nonetheless serve to warn and guide readers as any good allegory does. But White’s greatest strength is his ability to create compelling, dynamic characters who pull the readers through any old-fashioned linguistic drudgery they have to endure otherwise. That, the magical setting of medieval England and the moving, overarching story serve to cement this book as one of my favorite novels of all time.