The Once and Future King (1958) is a historical fantasy epic by TH White. The titular king is Arthur. A collection of five books, it traces Arthur’s childhood as the orphan Wart to his old age and death. Beginning as a whimsical children’s fantasy, Once and Future King gets progressively darker and more dramatic while maintaining steady humour and anachronisms.
The Once and Future King includes five books individually published between 1938 and 1941:
- The Sword in the Stone (made into a 1963 Disney film)
- The Witch in the Wood
- The Ill-made Knight
- The Candle in the Wind
- The Book of Merlyn
The last book reads more like a philosophical treatise where, through Merlyn, White explores the morality of violence and war. Publishers originally rejected this book which is why parts of it are in the Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn did not reach shelves until 1977, 13 years after White’s death.
White’s primary source was Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory. Once and Future King follows the same plot – the Round Table, Guinevere’s adultery and the final battle with Mordred – but gives greater insight into the minds and motivations of its principal characters. The Grail Quest is brushed over.
Arthur is a well-meaning and thoughtful but naive figure. He knows his wife is sleeping with his best friend but turns a blind eye because publically knowing would compel him to execute them both. He intends on bringing lasting peace to Britain by stifling the violent instincts of its lords and believes in following his own laws.
Merlyn is Arthur’s tutor. In this version of the Arthur story, Merlyn is an absent-minded, quirky magician who lives backwards. Merlyn knows the future – and references it often – but cannot understand where people come from. He tutors Arthur by transforming him into a series of animals to impart valuable lessons. His familiar is a talking owl called Archimedes.
Guinevere is Arthur’s queen. She does not love Arthur but yearns for his knight Lancelot with whom she shares a tempestuous relationship. Guinevere has a touchy pride and is formidable when crossed.
Lancelot, in this version of the story, is brilliant but ugly. He battles his insecurities and self-loathing by becoming the greatest knight alive. He loves both Arthur and Guinevere, but cannot stop himself from betraying his king. The strongest character in the book, Lancelot, is delightfully self-destructive.
White places the Arthurian Myth in the 13th century. Arthur is a Norman King – his father Uther being analogous to William the Conqueror. The real historical kings of England are referred to in this world as legends and myths.
TH White was a troubled soul who lived alone. He was a closet homosexual and a self-admitted sadist who repressed violent urges his whole life. Rather than fight, he spent WW2 in a cabin in Ireland, where he wrote this book. White channels himself into the tortured figure of Lancelot and his futile attempts at doing the right thing.
To this day, critics hail Once and Future King as the greatest adaptation of the Arthur myth. Contrary to fantasies of the time, character supersedes worldbuilding, making it read more like a drama than an adventure novel.
The blurb of my version reads:
This is the tale of King Arthur and his shining Camelot; of Merlyn and Owl and Guinevere; of beasts who talk and men who fly; of knights, wizardry and war.
It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad; the masterpiece of fantasy by which all others are judged.