Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

You know what?  It's hard to review this work for what it really is.  What it is - four books written over two decades - is overshadowed by its status as the "ultimate" Arthurian novel, the definitive fantasy novel instrumental to the characterisations in everything from Excalibur to Doctor Who and Harry Potter (but everything has influenced both Who and Potter).

Each book of the quadrilogy is markedly different both in tone and style to its brethren.  The first sees King Arthur as a boy, the second as a young leader and introduces the Orkney clan, the third almost entirely deals with Lancelot and the final with the war which eventually rent Camelot in two.

As White moves from the optimism of youth into the darkness of a young leader, it's obvious that this chapter of the narrative was penned during the early years of World War II.  As he ages - to all accounts, becoming quite a bitter older man - he retains the uncanny ability to dispense chunks of wisdom in bite size pieces; this allows the reader discomfiting glances at the state of the world during that war and it's chilly successor.  On the other hand, however, the tale of friends Lancelot, Arthur and Guinevere in wrapped in a sadness not felt in almost any Arthurian sequences.

As is now the norm - but TOAFK begets - only the man whose ambition destroys all that Arthur - who in the end loses faith in justice - had judicially achieved, is portrayed as evil and motivated by hate.  His brothers - a few of them co-conspirators - are unlikeable or selfish, but none so evil as Mordred.

White's obvious gift was in taking an idea and running with it - The Sword in the Stone could praecied as two hundred pages of one boy's experiences as a pike, hawk, goose and frog.  That Merlyn, a proto-Who/Dumbledore, lives backwards in time only serves to highlight an almost futile existence.

It's certainly languid, expansive and a little self-indulgent, but enjoyable nonetheless.  It'll take you a fair amount to get through, but this isn't a typical light-hearted swords-n-sorcery epic.  This is big, sad and will always be theArthurian novel against which all are judged.  Footballs - but I preferred The Winter King.

1 comment:

  1. Really liked your review of T.H. White's work. I hope you'll have time and agree to review the latest King Arthur novel. Mine. Future King is set in the day after tomorrow and brings to life the legend that Arthur will return from Avalon when England needs him. The website is If you'd like a copy, my email address is