The Once And Future King (1938-1941)
“Let us now start fresh without remembrance, rather than live forward and backward at the same time. We cannot build the future by avenging the past. Let us sit down as brothers, and accept the Peace Of God.”
Written by: TH White
While World War II was breaking out in Europe, T.H. White was contemplating the idiocy of war. And he decided to do something about it the only way he knew how: write a book.
The book he wrote took on epic proportions and became synonymous with his name and English Pride. It wasn’t particularly original (in fact, the subject matter was centuries old), but his take was new. He took the Arthurian legends of Merry Olde England and Thomas Malory and made it into an anti-war epic that continues to enthrall millions of people over half a century after it was written.
The Once And Future King is actually comprised of four books following King Arthur from conception to just before death.
The first book, The Sword In The Stone, is about young Wart (a nickname for Arthur until he becomes King) and his tutelage under the magician who lives backwards, Merlyn. Merlyn changes Wart into many different animals, including a fish and a couple of different kinds of birds in order to teach him about how nature lives and what humans can learn from the animals around them. Each animal has a different kind of government and each has its good and bad points.
Wart also meets a few historical figures and goes on his first quest with his brother, Kay, learning what it means to be an adventuring man.
We’ve all seen the Disney version of this book, so we know that it ends in Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone and becoming King Of England.
The second book is The Queen Of Air And Darkness. It deals with the children of Queen Morguase and her “accidental” night with her half-brother, Arthur. It’s a story of madness and betrayal and a strange, almost sexual devotion to mother.
The Ill-Made Knight is the story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever and their undying love for each other and for Arthur. Can this betrayal come to a good end? Or will it eventually bring the downfall of Arthur’s dream of Camelot?
The final book, A Candle In The Wind, is about that downfall and the part that Arthur’s son with Morguase, Mordred, plays in bringing it about. It is also about Arthur, as an old man, coming to terms with his worst battle: a battle with his best friend, his wife and himself.
After The Once And Future King was published as a whole novel, White came up with one more chapter. In order for the story to truly become an anti-war triumph, he needed Arthur to come full circle. The Book Of Merlyn was never fully completed by White and it wasn’t until 1977 when it was finally discovered, finished and published. (The original manuscript now sits in a museum on the University Of Texas campus.) It begins the instant that A Candle In The Wind ends and tells of Merlyn’s return to teach Arthur one last thing. It repeats a few chapters from The Sword In The Stone (namely, the ant and goose chapters) because White felt that they fit better at the end of Arthur’s life than at the beginning of it. Personally, I can kind of see where he’s coming from. The discussion of war the way the ants and the geese see it would change the way Arthur saw it as he faced it the next day.
As a whole, The Once And Future King is an amazing story that fits just as well in these uncertain times as it did in the days of WWII. With Mordred and his pseudo-fascist group mirroring at once Nazis and the current Republican regime of American half-wits, we could all learn a thing or two from the adventures of Arthur and his Round Table.
There is a legend that King Arthur will rise again and lead the Britons to a new era of peace and prosperity. While White does not portray Arthur as the genius that many others did, he is certainly a compassionate man who led with a civil mindedness that is sorely lacking today.
White is a contemporary narrator throughout the story often telling us how Malory and Tennyson told the story. Then he goes into how it “really” happened. He will also compare people to cricket captains or army generals of his time. It’s a great way to show how things never really change. He takes us out of the story just long enough to say, “See? We’re still so close to these ‘barbaric’ times. Don’t think so little of these guys when they would think so little of us.” We don’t always get his references (it was, after all, written over 50 years ago), but we get the point. And that’s all that mattered to White.
Another thing that struck me about this version of the story is how much two movies hit it right on the head.
First and most obviously is Excalibur. Yes, it’s an exercise in early 80′s excess, but it’s a very good movie and a nearly perfect version of what it was really like in the middle ages. It was dirty and dark. (Of course, White paints a slightly different picture. He talks about how colorful the castles were and how beautifully white Camelot must have been in its heyday…which is probably true. But outside those walls…think about it.) It was also very violent. Arthur didn’t just come to power and everything was rosy. He had to hack and slash his way to the Round Table. He had to take out quite a few other kings in order to show the people that “might isn’t always right.” There were heads cleaved in twain and guts being spilled on the ground. There was also a lot of sex going on. And not just between Lancelot and Guenevere. The Arthurian Legends weren’t Disney.
The other movie is Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Hey! Don’t laugh! In their inability to spend any money, they managed to make things outside of Camelot (which WAS a silly place) dirty and earthen. And the peasants were dirty and their teeth were bad. This was the England of the days of Camelot. The Pythoners may not have meant for it to look that way originally, but many historians have pointed to their movie as being the most authentic looking of the Arthurian films. Which is kinda crazy.
It’s also a perfect parody of White’s version of the story. (It’s been years since I’ve read Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, so I don’t remember how the story plays out in that. Sue me.) When Lancelot (John Cleese) goes insane in the wedding party, hacking and slashing his way not caring who he is killing, this is the way Lancelot is described by his detractors in White’s version. It’s the exact opposite of his actual demeanor, but Mordred and his half brothers would like for people to believe Cleese’s version.
There’s also a quick mention of a castle full of maidens. “And we all know what goes on within those walls.”
“The oral sex! The oral sex!!”
I knew there was a reason why I love Monty Python. It’s their attention to detail.
If you have never read The Once And Future King, check it out. It took me a LOOOOOONG time to read it for some reason (about six months!), but it was worth every minute of it. I’ve always loved the Arthurian Legends and now I can say that I’ve read the definitive version of them. Fuck Richard Gere and Jerry Bruckheimer. T.H. White and his (possibly) mother-lovin’ ass knew exactly what he was doing. He created an amazing anti-war statement using a known legend of war and justice.
When will Arthur come back to lead us from our current mayhem?