The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, by T.H. White. This five-part series (four of which are included in The Once and Future King) was published as a complete novel, in 1958, and The Book of Merlyn posthumously and largely unedited, in 1977. The Book of Merlyn was always meant to be the fifth part of the series, but White’s publisher thought otherwise.
T. H. White was born Terence Hanbury White to English parents in India in 1906, and was educated in England. “Tim”‘s interests included Malory’s La Morte de Arthur, falconry, natural history, and psychology, which are all obvious in his writing. He has been influential in the development of fantasy writing, from Harry Potter to Neil Gaiman. The Once and Future King remains his most enduring work. He died in the 60s from a heart attack.
I had read The Once and Future King Before. I was given a dog-eared copy by my aunt, who discovered that I was interested in Arthurian legend a number of years ago and cleared out her 1970s yellowed copies and gifted them to me. I have many times since then listed The Once and Future King as one of my favorite books.
I might have been mistaken. Granted, I was reading a number of similar books at the same time–a time during which I was not recording my reading adventures. I assume that I somehow confused aspects of this novel with some of a few others (possibly Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy). Somewhere in the mash, I remembered the quirky writing style of White with occasionally soaring passages (which, I suppose you could claim for White) and a much more compelling plotline. Because yes, while this series shines for its unique narrative style, it also wanders around.
Some of this could be blamed on the way it was written: as stories collected in White’s files over a few years and left to age. When finally accepted for publication as a complete work, the publisher cut the fifth section, so that White had to sneak some of the better, later bits and pieces into the first four. So it is sort of like a Frankenstein, and doesn’t feel quite like a novel or an epic.
First piece of Frankenstein: The Sword in the Stone. Here, I probably diverge from some of the Future King‘s most enthusiastic followers (of which there are many). I don’t love it. There is entirely too much animal in it. I am not an animal person. I don’t want to read 100 pages about a little boy turning into various animals and making observations about them, as an education in kingship or otherwise. But I could see how others would really like this, and I wonder if it wasn’t the inspiration for Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.
The Queen of Air and Darkness was my least favorite of all the sections. It was Pellinore and company: they drove me crazy. I was distracted from the main story and wanted so badly to return. And I’m not at all sure what White would say if I were to ask him, “Why did you let Arthur age while we watched the antics of Pellinore and The Questing Beast?” Blah.
Then comes the The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle In the Wind. The first follows closely the adventures and turmoil of Sir Lancelot, and the fourth ties together the fates of the main characters, finally returning to Arthur and sort of setting up the next generation. Then, if you are lucky enough to get a copy, The Book of Merlyn, which is disappointing because it was printed largely unedited, and the chunks which were pulled for the novel were left in tact, creating repeated sections and disjointed motives.
About as disjointed as this review.
So what do I have to say? Can I justify my proclaimed love of this novel? Many have, to be sure. It is considered by some a “classic,” and as I mentioned, I really enjoy the uniqueness of the narration, including its classicly-1960s self-awareness. You feel like White is right there with you, just telling you some stories, and when the voice in the back of your head interrupts to tell him to stick to a POV or not to be so anachronistic (which is cleverly explained by the backward-aging of Merlin), he smiles and gestures it aside… and then keeps chatting. There were times when I felt that the story was sacrificed on the altars of philosophy and politics. But there were also moments where I bought into that as much as the shiny, lyrical language.
I would like to complain about the characters, which I felt were explained far more than experienced, which creates a lack of depth even as White is telling you all about their great complexity. I also am not a big fan of infidelity plot lines, although this one could have been relatable, if only we had had more empirically complex characters. On the other hand, I think this type of distanced story-telling is a hearkening back to an older and more classic form of story-telling, which does make it appropriate to the legends themselves.
There is another way in which this book is totally worth the read: history. As the back cover credits to David Garnett, “The child who reads [White] will learn far more than all the historians and archaeologists could tell of what England was like in the Middle Ages.” Through the lens of the modern mind (which is what creates his clever anachronistic style of writing), White really places us in the time period and–I would say–is accurate as far as any one else has ever been. It is like receiving an education in Medieval History through osmosis.
I would recommend this book. I just don’t know if I’ll keep calling it my “favorite.”
I could also use a fresh copy, as mine is literally falling apart.
Upon further research, it appears that, yes, The Sword in the Stone (1963) was based on The Once and Future King, as was the musical, Camelot. I would also like to read England Have My Bones and–because I have it on my shelves–Mistress Masham’s Repose. I will be reviewing The Sword in the Stone and Camelot, shortly.
[Upon viewing The Sword in the Stone, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I really enjoyed it, as well did my modern family. It deserves to be a classic.]
(The following pagination is based on my 1958 Berkley Medallion copy of The Once and Future King, and the 1977 (also) Berkeley Medallion of The Book of Merlyn.)
“…the unicorns in the wintry moonlight stamped with their silver feet and snorted their noble breaths of blue upon the frozen air” (p137).
“…and the breath of life steamed away on the north wind sweetly, as each realized how beautiful life was, which a reeking tusk might, in a few seconds, rape away from one or another of them if things went wrong” (p147).
“The moment he had left the earth, the wind had vanished. Its restlessness and brutality had dropped away as if cut off by a knife. He was in it, and at peace” (p166).
“And the Wart looked round the busy kitchen, which was colored by the flames till it looked like hell, with sorrowful affection” (p179).
“You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six” (p183).
“I always say that stupidity is the Sin against the Holy Spirit” (p222).
“So far as he was concerned, as yet, there might never have been such a things as a single particle of sorrow in the gay, sweet surface of the dew-glittering world” (p226).
“‘Wars are never fought for one reason,’ he said. ‘They are fought for dozens of reasons, in a muddle'” (p228).
“‘Racial history is beyond me,’ said Kay. ‘Nobody knows which race is which'” (p228).
“‘It is only a personal reason. Personal reasons are no excuse for war'” (p231).
“There is one fairly good reason for fighting–and that is, if the other man starts it” (p233).
“A murderer, for instance, is not allowed to plead that his victim was rich and oppressing him–so why should a nation be allowed to? Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force” (p233).
“You can always spot a villain, if you keep a fair mind” (p233).
“Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies. That is why I have been asking you to think” (p236).
“…her bare feet twinkling behind her” (p260).
“…they became responsible for spoiling its beauty, so they began to hate it for their guilt” (p261).
“In these circumstances, the only thing to do was to abandon the place in which he was feeling uncomfortable, in the hope of leaving his discomfort behind him” (p262).
“On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people” (p267).
“It is the tragedy …. of sin coming home to roost… He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough” (p312).
“But you have to remember that people can’t be good at cricket unless they teach themselves to be so” (p318).
“It is good to put your life in other people’s hands” (p322).
“The first time you do a thing, it is often exciting. To go alone in an airplane for the first time used to be so exciting that it nearly choked you” (p329).
“In the first moment of the charge, he felt to himself: ‘Well, now I am off. Nothing can help me now'” (p329).
“An ordinary fellow, who did not spend half his life torturing himself by trying to discover what was right so as to conquer his inclination towards what was wrong, might have cut the knot which brought their ruin” (p339).
“They were his struggles to save his honour, not to establish it” (p340).
“The situation became divorced from common sense” (355).
“…and the battle against chaos sometimes did not seem to be worth fighting” (p364).
“At least it would be impossible nowadays, when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please” (p367).
“The four seasons were coloured like the edge of a rose petal…” (p381).
“For her, however, as for all women, the dreads were in advance of the male horizon” (p388).
“…wrecking the present because the future was bound to be a wreck” (p388).
“Women know, far better than men, that God’s laws are not mocked. They have more cause to know it” (p388).
“He did not understand our civilization, and knew no better than to try to be too decent for the degradation of jealousy” (p390).
“Everywhere it had been blood on steel, and smoke on sky, and power unbridled…” (p423).
“In the abbeys all the monks were illuminating the initial letters of their manuscripts with such a riot of invention that it was impossible to read the first page at all” (p424).
“‘Morals,’ said Lionel, ‘are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn’t get out of'” (p443).
“It’s all very well to take up with morals and dogmas, so long as there is only yourself in it: but what are you to do when other people join in the muddle?” (p447).
“They were baffling me with a sort of moral weapon, and I used my own weapon against it” (p447).
“The killing didn’t do any harm to their soul. Perhaps it even helped their souls, to die like that. Perhaps God gave them this good death…” (p449).
“‘If God is supposed to be merciful,’ he retorted, ‘I don’t see why He shouldn’t allow people to stumble into heaven, just as well as climb there'” (p454).
“He saw her as the passionate spirit of innocent youth, now beleaguered by the trick which is played on youth–the trick of treachery in the body, which turns flesh into green bones” 9p458).
“I will defy the enormous army of age” (p459).
“Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt I was going mad? Not from the sea, but from people” (p460).
“…it is a waste of time to have ‘manners'” (p461)
“Do you know, I shall be talking about God a great deal, and this is a word which offends holy people just as badly as words like ‘damn’ and so on offend the holy ones, What shall we have to do about it?” (p461).
“Just assume that we are the holy ones,’ said the King, ‘and go on'” (p462).
“Bors always had instructive scenes with women. He said what he thought, and they said what they thought, and neither of them understood the other a bit” (p492).
“Nobody could have called it a specially happy kind–but people are tenacious of life, and will go on living” (495).
“The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle, ‘And ever,’ says Malory, ‘Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten'” (p514).
“Lovers were not recruited then among the juveniles and adolescents: they were seasoned people, who knew what they were about. In those days people loved each other for their lives, without the conveniences of the divorce court and the psychiatrist” (p529).
“‘Every letter written,’ said a medieval abbot, ‘is a wound inflicted on the devil'” (p533).
“The scientists, although they happened to call them magicians at the time, invented almost as terrible things as we have invented–except that we have become accustomed to them by use” (p534).
“One of them who was called Baptista Porta seems to have invented the cinema–though he sensible decided not to develop it” (p534).
“You have yet to learn that nearly all the ways of giving justice are unfair” (p556).
“So far as I can see, it is a matter of riches: of riches and pure luck, and, of course, there is the will of God” (p557).
“…you are determined to have the law. I suppose it is no good reminding you that there is such a thing as mercy?” (p559).
“Nobody succeeds in thwarting justice, Agravaine” (p559).
“She looked singularly lovely, not like a film star, but like a woman who had grown a soul” (p564).
“War is like a fire, Agnes. One man might start it, but it will spread all over. It is not about any one thing in particular” (p606).
“You keep your pity for yourself, my lady, for you will get none for yourself” (p609).
“‘Mordred has never broken the laws.’ / ‘That is because he is too cunning'” (p609).
“That fairness, madam, it will never come to no good” (p609).
“He had conquered murder, to be faced with war. There were no Laws for that” (p629).
“…and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction” (p630).
“Man had gone on, through age after age, avenging wrong with wrong, slaughter with slaughter. Nobody was the better for it, since both sides always suffered, yet everybody was inextricable” (p631).
“Actions of any sort in one generation might have incalculable consequences in another” (p631).
“If everything one did, or which one’s fathers had done, was an endless series of Doings doomed to break forth bloodily…” (p631).
“Ideal advice, which nobody was meant to follow, is no advice at all” (p633).
“The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing–literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines” (p638).
“For, argal, you can dream of pinches” (p12).
“Everybody knows that children are more intelligent than their parents” (p16).
“But life is not invented for happiness, I do believe. It was meant for something else” (p18).
“For happiness is only a bye-product of function” (p21).
“‘We are looking at it the wrong way round.’ / ‘We generally are'” (p36).
“When will they learn that it takes a million years for a bird to modify a single one of its primary feathers?” (p39).
“Quite regardless of the fact that evolution happens in million-year-cycles, he thinks he has evolved since the Middle Ages” (p39).
“Look at him sniggering at his own progenitors” (p39).
“The sheer, shattering sauce of it! And making God in his own image!” (p39).
“Where is this marvelous superiority which makes the twentieth century superior to the Middle Ages, and the Middle Ages superior to primitive races and to the beasts of the field?” (p40).
“Human beings are no more equal in their merits and abilities, than they are equal in face and stature. You might just as well insist that all the people in the world should wear the same size boot” (p90).
“Slaughter anybody who is better than you are, and then we shall all be equal soon enough. Equally dead” (p90).
“Fortunately there is no such thing in nature as equality of ability, merit, opportunity, or reward” (p93).
He knew suddenly that nobody, living upon the remotest, most barren crag in the ocean, could complain of a dull landscape as long as he would lift his eyes” (p98).
“But they woke him with words, their cruel, bright weapons” (p99).
“It is nationalism, the claims of small communities to parts of the indifferent earth as communal property, that is the scourge of man” (p138).
“He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death” (p155).
“Perhaps the root of war is removable, like an appendix” (p167).
“‘The suggestion,’ he said humbly, ‘was more to provide thought, than to be thought of'” (p168).
3 thoughts on “Series Review: The Once and Future King”
Some of those are absolutely priceless quotes! I can’t say that you sold me on the book until I got to the end!
Well, if you do read it, I hope you enjoy. If you like fantasy and/or Arthurian legend, you should definitely give it a try.
I’d probably enjoy your review much more!