Once and Future King, The
by T.H. White
Having just read The Worm Ouroboros (and being sorely disappointed), I was in the frame of mind for still more medieval high fantasy. This book and its 600-some-odd pages had long been daunting me from my to-read shelf, but I finally had the impetus I needed to pick it up in earnest. They were both written within a couple decades of each other, they both treated some Olde English-y types of stories, they were both similar in length; why not compare the two?
Within pages I was already feeling embarrassed that it had taken me so long to work up the nerve to read TOaFK. It was, in short, everything that Ouroboros was not (see my review) — highly engaging, nuanced, exciting, thought-provoking, funny and heartbreaking. It was, in a word, affecting.
A large part of White’s ability to affect the reader is the subject matter itself. King Arthur, Merlyn, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Galahad are some of the most deeply embedded fictional figures (really almost archetypes) in all of Western culture. So already when starting the first page, the reader is primed with a warm familiarity for the story on which she is about to embark.
But White is not content with relying on our affection for these myths. His genius is to be able to convincingly and deferentially present the human faces of these mythical characters in fascinating detail and complexity. He has gloriously fleshed out the archetypes.
It feels pointless to give examples and plot summaries, because there’s really no way to explain the surprising delight and comfort you get from being in such expert hands as White’s. He clearly inhabited this world he wrote so much about, and that allows him to give the reader what feels like a damn authentic glimpse of inhabiting it yourself.
Perhaps most surprising about the book was its overt political substance. White uses Arthur’s unification of England and struggle to keep it peaceful as a platform for strong anti-war commentary. It makes sense, since the book was essentially written during WWII, but it’s still surprising. It would have felt out of place if White hadn’t been talented enough to seamlessly weave it into the story. I am glad to say that he was.
Still, I have yet to meet the perfect novel (with reluctant apologies to Mr. Orwell, Tolstoy and Steinbeck), and this one suffers from being too long. There were pages of descriptions and setting that — though still more engaging than those in Ouroboros — could have nonetheless been cut drastically in order to keep focus on the story. Also, White appeared somewhat bored with his Guinevere, who has the least to do and comes off as both boring and ignoble.
But these flaws weren’t enough to knock off a star because I loved every minute of the rest. The ending is downright heartbreaking, and of course it has to end that way, because that’s how the legend ends. But I love the hopeful touch that White adds in the form of a certain page-messenger. I love that last flash of Merlyn, and the clarity he brings to Arthur at the very end. It is simply beautiful, and I’m joyed to have experienced it, not only the ending but the entire book. I highly recommend that you do the same.