by Michael Niewodowski
#57 Revisited The Once and Future King by T. H. White (#477 on The List)
Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rex que futurus (Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be) – inscribed on King Arthur’s tomb.
‘Magical’ is not nearly a strong enough term for T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This re-telling of the classic King Arthur legend is set in antiquity, but told in a modern style. From the magician Merlyn’s training of young Arthur (the Wart) to the Knights of the Round Table to the Quest for the Holy Grail to Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair to the tragic ending, one episode is more enchanting than the other.
The Arthurian legends have been told and retold throughout the centuries, setting the scene for Britain’s rich history of fantasy literature, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Narnia series, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The Once and Future King has become a part of our culture; it inspired the Disney film “The Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot”, and J.K. Rowling cited it as a major inspiration for her novels. It seems strange, therefore, that White’s novel is not better known; it certainly deserves as much recognition as the aforementioned works. When I chose the book from my list earlier this year, I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was about.
There is a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from reading The Once and Future King; in fact some of the wisest and most inspirational quotes I know comes from the novel.* For me, however, reading this book is all about experiencing childlike wonder and joy. Turning the pages of this novel is like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. Consider the following passage in which Merlyn becomes frustrated with the Wart’s training:
Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet.
‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!’ he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar.
The Wart was still staring at his tutor’s chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared. He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane. He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.
‘Why did you do that?’ asked the Wart.
‘I did not do it on purpose.’
‘Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?’
‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ replied Merlyn, ‘not to swear…’
(…a lesson I might have done well to learn earlier in life.)
When I was in a graduate English class studying Shakespeare and Marlowe, our professor talked about how much she enjoyed reading Macbeth for the witches. In the midst of hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of intensive literary criticism, our brilliant PhD professor spoke about the childlike joy she got out of reading about mystical characters. How refreshing!
We read for a myriad of reasons: to learn, to escape, to change, and to grow. One of the best reasons to read is for the sheer joy of it. Personally, I’ve found no novel that has given me more joy than The Once and Future King. I can hardly wait until my son is a little bit older so that I can read it to him. What a glorious book!
* “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
Note: No reading of The Once and Future King is complete without the posthumously published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, as White intended. The Book of Merlyn itself has an interesting story as a “casualty of war.”