The Once and Future King by T. H. White may be a retelling of Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur, but it’s more than that; It is a reaction to war; a deliberation upon mankind’s flaws recurring in history; It’s a good story. T. H. White tells the tale of King Arthur’s life from childhood to death, Lancelot’s “eternal quadrangle”, and Morgause’s revenge. It is set in the dark ages, in “Merry England of the middle ages, when they were not so dark.” But is also a parallel to the time period when it was written, before and during the Second World War.
A third of the book was about Arthur’s childhood. This sets The Once and Future king apart from other retellings; you actually get to know the characters. They are individuals, more than little pawns on tiny horses, moving back and forth for no discernible human reason. They’re alive, which is something you miss in other books about King Arthur. Gawaine is a flame haired giant, but he’s also fiercely loyal to his family and has a thick Celtic accent. Besides being an idealized figure of justice, King Arthur is quiet and gentle, a remnant of the young boy Wart present until the end. The characters have chivalry and glory, but they also have friendships and betrayals beyond the simple knight in shining armor.
T. H. White’s sarcasm towards knighthood and chivalry is abundant in the first part of the book. The author’s disdain of war is obvious throughout the entirety of the book, but only in the Sword in the Stone does his sarcasm towards it become annoying. Many scenes border on the ridiculous, such as the joust between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore, and King Pellinore’s Beast Glatisant. In fact this ironic humor often seems bizarre and lends a somewhat eccentric feel to the book at first, but eccentric like the little old man who you learn to love in a movie.
The Once and Future King is powerful. It’s unconventional and sometimes confusing, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read. Even as you ponder the great problems of the world with King Arthur, and charge off on an adventure with Sir Lancelot, sweeping knights off of their horses and rescuing damsels in distress, you’re also witnessing a juxtaposed inner battle with war, morals and humanity set in the 20th century. Read it. Not because you want to hear about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Read it for the sake of a good story.