Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus (Here lies Arthur, king once and king to be) – those are the words allegedly inscribed on the tomb of the legendary King Arthur, according to Sir Thomas Malory who compiled medieval stories about King Arthur in Le Morte d’Arthur.
Sir Malory collected English and French stories about the legendary king and put them all together in one King Arthur resource book, which T.H. White draws from in his modern-day re-telling, The Once and Future King.
The Once and Future King is a compilation of 4 different novellas written by T.H. White at different times of his life, about the life and times of King Arthur, as a boy, in the care of Sir Ector of Forest Sauvage, to his early days as king, establishing the Round Table, to the glory days of Camelot, up to the eventual fall of chivalry in the Dark Ages.
Book 1 of The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, recounts Arthur’s childhood days as “Wart,” in the castle of foster father, or guardian, Sir Ector or Forest Sauvage. Wart, as he was called by his foster-brother, Kay, spent his days learning the art of jousting, and other court sports of the time – aspiring one day to be Kay’s squire. The Sword in the Stone is also when Wart meets Merlyn (not spelled Merlin) for the first time – Merlyn, the backward aging wizard from the future who takes it upon himself to educate Wart in the ways of the world by turning him into different animals and other creatures. As the title suggests, The Sword in the Stone also tells the tale of how Arthur, by successfully pulling the sword, Excalibur, out of the stone (more like an anvil on a stone) in a churchyard, eventually became the fated king of England. (Of course he really was the son of the king, Uther Pendragon, and the rightful heir to the throne, but at this point in the novel, he did not know it yet).
The Sword in the Stone is much like its animated Walt Disney counterpart of the same name. In the Disney cartoon, Wart is turned by Merlyn into different animals, such as a squirrel, a fish, and a bird in order to show him different perspectives in life and to encourage him to think for himself. Unlike the cartoons, which portrayed Kay and Sir Ector as ignorant barbarians who constantly abused Wart, Sir Ector in the novel was a kind, concerned father figure who treated Wart like his own son, and Kay was a loyal companion and friend to the young Arthur.
The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness takes place a few years after Arthur had pulled out Excalibur from the stone and was crowned the King of England (or Gramarye, the name used by T.H. White). The second book recounts King Arthur’s activities as a young ruler, including the creation of the Round Table, and his marriage to the (in)famous Guenever (T.H. White does use the more conventional spelling, “Guinevere”). As Arthur’s mentor, Merlyn encourages him to think for himself and to break free from the medieval idea of “might is right,” thus prompting the creation of the Round Table, wherein its members would fight for the weak and defend the honor of damsels in distress.
It is also in the second book that King Arthur learns of his family’s history, and of Morgause, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and her children, Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth, who will later play important parts in Arthur’s life.
Book 2 recounts the glory days of chivalry in Camelot, which extends to the third book in the novel, The Ill-Made Knight. The Ill-Made Knight, the longest part of the novel, deals mostly with the famous Sir Lancelot Du Lac – his dreams of becoming one of Arthur’s knights, his career as the best knight of the Round Table, his insecurities, his friendship with the King, and of course, his love affair with the Queen of England, Guenever.
Unlike Sir Malory’s (and popular) portrayal of Sir Lancelot as a handsome, dashing, confident knight, T.H. White describes him as an ugly, insecure fanatic with a somewhat weak character. Indeed, anyone who had no idea who Lancelot was before reading The Once and Future King, would not find him (and Guenever, for that matter), a very admirable and likeable character.
Book 3 describes the different adventures and quests Sir Lancelot imposes on himself in the hopes of avoiding Camelot and the temptation that lies within (aka Guenever). Despite King Arthur’s knowledge of Lancelot’s and Guenever’s love affair (Merlyn warned him about it even before he married Guenever), his love for both his best knight and friend and beloved wife has forced him to turn a blind eye on their obvious relationship.
Book 3 also recounts the different warring factions among the Round Table Knights, and the slow destruction of the codes of chivalry. Disturbed the turn of events, King Arthur first decides to channel his knights’ violence into doing something good and holy – to go on a quest for the Holy Grail. Alas, when even that failed, in order to solve eventual destruction of the existing code, Arthur creates Civil Law, where justice is not based on might and force, but on written and established rules and evidence.
The fourth and final book, The Candle in the Wind, presents us with a tired and aging King Arthur, reminiscent of the days that were and cautious of the days to come (thanks in part to Merlyn, who, by the way, disappeared long ago, sometime during the second book). This book focuses on the fall of Camelot and Arthur’s battle with his son, Mordred (whose mother was Morgause, mother of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. Morgause also happens to be Arthur’s half-sister, by the way. Did I forget to mention that??), and the fate of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever. Also included in this book are the revelation of Lancelot’s and Guenever’s relationship to the King (thanks to Mordred and Agravaine), the attempted burning of Guenever at the stake, her rescue by Sir Lancelot (who was later banished from Camelot for life), and her eventual return to Camelot as proclaimed by the Pope.
Before the finale, the book recounts Mordred’s betrayal to his father by announcing that Arthur had died (in battle against Lancelot in France), and declaring himself King of England (and even trying to marry Guenever). Though the ending is a bit vague, it is implied that King Arthur won the war with the help of Lancelot and spent the rest of his old age in Avalon, while Lancelot and Guenever spent their days in a monastery and a convent, respectively (and separately, I hope).
The novel is rather lengthy and covers a lot of ground, though T.H. White does not go into very detailed accounts of events or people. Despite having a lot of Old English words and medieval terms describing medieval things and processes that most people would not be familiar with, the novel has a surprisingly light and casual tone. T.H. White somewhat breaks conventions in portraying his characters, describing Arthur as a somewhat simple individual – simple in that he has no hang-ups in life and has a straight-forward way of thinking, without complications, and prone to denials. He also portrays Lancelot as a man who is ugly, insecure and over-zealous. Guenever, on the other hand, was described as a great beauty in her youth, who eventually wilted in later years (prone to wearing garish clothes and make-up to hide her true age).
I apologize (rather late) if my post is full of spoilers. I am assuming that most readers in the western world who are fantasy or historical literature enthusiasts are familiar with King Arthur and some version of his legend. In his novel, T.H. White also assumes that readers who will read The Once and Future King already have some knowledge about Arthurian legend. In fact, he admits that his version of the story is mostly from Sir Malory, and even points readers to Malory’s direction for more detailed descriptions of certain events mentioned in The Once and Future King.
There really is nothing new in the stories in The Once and Future King, (which T.H. White also admits in his book), but it is a good source for anyone who wants to familiarize or re-acquaint himself with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – without having to read a metered poem filled with obscure old English words with strange spelling.
The Once and Future King (1958) – T.H. White
Ace – 638 pages
Personal rating: 3/5