Thursday, January 04, 2007

Review: The Once and Future King

I recently re-read The Once And Future King, by T.H. White. I first read it way, way back in 1986 --- indeed, the volume I just completed is the same physical one I had back then --- and as I was only 15 in 1985, I didn’t understand quite a lot of it.

The book is divided into four parts, each published separately: The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (1958). Altogether, they make up an amazing tome of adventure and philosophy, two things requisite to any fantasy work. There is a strong case to be made that this is the richest and deepest fantasy book of all (as I've said before elsewhere on this blog, I'm utterly indifferent to the Lord of the Rings series).

The first book is most akin to children’s literature. It's almost a parody of the Arthurian legends, with plenty of anachronisms and humor at the expense of the bumbling Merlyn. Disney made an animated movie from this section, and it was good one, but it could be remade better today, using advances in animation and special effects techniques as well as taking advantage of the darker tone of children's adventure in general these days. This section is written as if for children (albeit very well-informed children), but even this early, White uses the young Arthur’s adventures in animal form to make points about human political structures. In fact, the scene in the ant colony is amazingly evocative of Orwell's (later) 1984.

The second book, which is less humorous, deals with the Orkneys, the wild northern clan who with their heritage of blood allegiances and feuds, will prove to be the Round Table’s undoing, and Arthur’s accidental liaison with his aunt.

The third book is quite serious, and deal with how Lancelot, the ugly but invincible knight, is torn between guilt and desire --- the conflicting desires to be true to his God, to give in to his lust for Guenever, to remain loyal to his friend and lord Arthur; and the guilt he feels about his abandoned wife Elaine and son Galahad, as well as for what he's done to Arthur. White maneuvers the principals expertly, showing all the tragic results of what is not a love triangle, but actually a love pentagon (if you include God). This is the part of the epic that makes the characters seem the most human. In fact, a few passages hit rather close my own humble home. Viz: "Lancelot never believed he was good or nice. Under the grotesque, magnificent shell with a face like Quasimodo's, there was shame and self-loathing which had been planted there when he was tiny, by something which it is now too late to trace. It is so fatally easy to make young children believe that they are horrible."

Hey! T.H. White knew me personally!

The fourth book is absolutely grim: Mordred, Arthur's twisted and evil child by his aunt, is presented as a proto-Hitler whose lust for power is abetted by his canny manipulation of Arthur’s ideals of Justice and Right. The final pages, in which the now elderly and soon to be defeated Arthur ruminates on why men fight wars, is as apt and insightful today as it was in 1958, and I suppose will be as long as humans cannot fly over national boundaries.

(The line in the X-Men 2 movie, in which Magneto says to himself, "When will these people learn how to fly?", is actually a reference to this allegory.)

1 comment:

SamuraiFrog said...

Oh, boy, do I love that book. I think I've read it eight or nine times. If you haven't, look for The Book of Merlyn, a sort of "lost" fifth book, where Merlyn comes to Arthur before the final battle and once again uses the animals to teach him lessons about what he's done wrong. It was also by White, of course.