The Once and Future King

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:

  1. The Sword in the Stone (made into a 1963 Disney film)
  2. The Witch in the Wood
  3. The Ill-made Knight
  4. The Candle in the Wind
  5. 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.

Why Did King’s Landing Burn?

Flipboard: These Memes About Daenerys Burning King’s Landing On 'Game Of Thrones' Show How The ...

Yes, I am weighing in on Game of Thrones. In a polarising final season, the penultimate episode has proven especially divisive. Critics have derided it. An online petition to remake Season 8 has 900,000 signatures and counting. Personally I liked it. Here’s why.

*Spoilers will follow*

Criticism for Season 8’s ‘The Bells’, the longest Game of Thrones episode to air, and the second-to-last of all time, is laid most heavily on Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing, and the fate of Jaime Lannister. Conversely few can deny its cinematic weight.

Since last episode the Dragon Queen has flipped from slave-freeing heroine to mass murderer without rhyme or reason. Game of Thrones prides itself on its unpredictability. Viewers sit on the edge of their seat, not knowing whether their favorite character will live or die. Eddard Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, however, were believable and consistent with character motivation. The burning of King’s Landing, meanwhile, seemed less because of an authentic and foreshadowed shift in Daenerys’s character but because the story demanded it.

This all-powerful plot, which defies character or sense, has plagued the show since Season 5. How did Danaerys reach Beyond the Wall in Season 7 all the way from Dragonstone in time to save Jon and friends from the White Walkers? Why did no one important die in the crypts in Season 8’s Battle for Winterfell? How did Jaime, the Hound, Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm and Ghost survive the army of the dead? How did Cersei and her minions identify Missandei? Not because it was credible, but because the plot demanded it.

Critiques of Daenerys’s murder spree follows similar reasoning. The Targaryen Queen spends half of ‘A Dance with Dragons’ mourning an unnamed child scorched by her dragon. Why could she destroy an entire city, just because a few of her friends had died? Why did Jaime, after all he had been through, still go back to Cersei and die in her arms?

Though I concede Season 8’s character arcs are rushed and haphazard, the burning of King’s Landing is not unexpected.

A million people live in King’s Landing, according to Tyrion Lannister. That would equate Danaerys’s slaughter with the Rwandan Genocide if she killed half. By sheer body count, it is leagues worse than anything Joffrey, Cersei, Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King ever did. Despite vowing to never be like him, Daenerys ends up fulfilling her father’s last wish: Burn them all.

It is a fallacy to think great leaders hold themselves to a high moral standard. Alexander the Great crucified 10,000 outside Tyre and burned Pasargadae to the ground. Julius Caesar perpetrated genocide in Gaul and Genghis Khan killed 5% of the world’s population. Burning King’s Landing resembles the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden, two acts committed by the ‘good guys’ of WW2. It is not always madness or bloodlust which demand the death of innocents, sometimes and it is cold and calculated strategy.

Daenerys knows the people of Westeros will never love her. She therefore opts to instill the fear of God in anyone who would cross her by turning King’s Landing, its surrendered defenders, and innocent inhabitants to ash. It signals that anyone else who defies her will meet a similar fate. Now her advisors who cautioned forbearance have either betrayed her or are dead. In Daenerys’s mind only unquestioned obedience will guarantee peace and her right to rule. The ends justify the means.

Season 8 has alluded to this.  Though it was handled somewhat clumsily, I appreciated the paradigm shift. As our heroine burned the innocents to death and Jon’s soldiers murdered and raped, it became clear good and bad are relative concepts, a cornerstone of Game of Thrones’s moral lens. What’s more, pitting Jon and Daenaerys against each other makes for a higher stakes game than if Cersei Lannister remained ‘the big bad’. I pray the finale will satisfy.

Update 19/05/9: finale did not satisfy.
Update 27/05/19: petition has over 1,500,000 signatures.