T.H. White's retelling of the "Matter of England", the King Arthur story. White used Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur as his primary source, which is a great idea from a poetic standpoint but godawful in historical terms. There's a lot to be said about the historical King Arthur, but none of it is said in The Once and Future King. White makes Arthur a Norman in conflict with Saxons and such, which makes him two invasions late. White made no bones about this; at one point he gives dates for the reign of Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon: It's about two and a half centuries. White was trying to manage both some rudiments of real history, and also a great mass of addlepated material that Mallory stole in the fifteenth (?) century from earlier wildly fictionalized French sources. Mallory massaged the stuff himself. White's solution was Alexandrian: To hell with it, stick with the logic of fiction, myth, and tragedy; hang history. White cared about Arthur and England and all that jazz, but the novel he wanted to write was a long and ultimately very bleak meditation on human nature, war, power, corruption, the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons, and the impossibility of redemption. It's a literary freak, a mass of anachronism and idiosyncracy and the odd rant about fox hunting.

Due to the Disney and Broadway crap with The Sword and the Stone, The Once and Future King has been mistaken for a "fun kids' book". It is, but don't hand your kids The Once and Future King if you don't feel they're ready to learn about incest, despair, murder, evil, despair, adultery, despair, war, betrayal, evil, and despair. The Sword and the Stone is conventionally "fit for children", but he's going somewhere with it.

The Once and Future King is divided up into four novels:
  1. The Sword and the Stone (whence a Disney movie and a Broadway musical) concerns the youth of Arthur, and his accession to the throne.

  2. The Queen of Air and Darkness concerns the youth of Sir Gawaine and his three brothers Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris in the Orkney islands; it also concerns their mother, Morgause. This is where things begin to turn dark; we start finding out about Arthur's family history, which is bloody and terrible and which will ultimately come back to haunt everybody.

  3. The Ill-Made Knight begins with the young Sir Lancelot, a good man who ends up causing untold harm in later years. Most of it is about the Round Table and the quest for the Holy Grail. Decades pass.

  4. The Candle in the Wind: Decadence followed by civil war. Everything goes to hell, all gains are lost, all losses are compounded, all chickens come home to roost. It's so desperately bleak I can't even read it through to the end any more.
There's another volume, The Book of Merlyn, which is talky and didactic and tries to sum up the whole thing. There is also an alternate version of The Sword and the Stone, which is significantly different. Omnibus editions of the initial tetralogy always have one version, but there's a stand-alone edition of The Sword and the Stone which is the other. The omnibus one is less child-oriented; the parts of it which differ are mostly reproduced in The Book of Merlyn. It's worth reading both versions of The Sword and the Stone.

kanon42: True, and nicely put. For those (if any) who missed it, there's a legend that King Arthur is on the isle of Avalon, not dead but sleeping, and that he'll return when England is in danger.

Another thing that occurred to me this morning is that The Once and Future King is also about what it means to be an adult, mainly compromise: Living with sin and imperfection and finding that you can live with sin and imperfection. Yeah, he more or less just says that, but it's worth mentioning because we've said that he's discussing this and that, but what does he conclude? Pretty much just that: Compromise. Accept a certain amount of evil because trying to eradicate evil turns out to be a greater evil, and it won't work anyway . . .
The Once and Future King is yet another example of how, when a crisis faces the world, the Arthur legend will resurface. White wrote OFK right before WWII when an ominous cloud was shadowing Europe. He was attempting to offer hope in a world that seemed beyond its grasp. This hope was signified by "the candle in the wind," something so fragile it would only take a breeze to extinquish it.

White understood that until mankind was willing to let go of arbitrary boundaries, there would never be peace. He felt that only through education did humankind ever have a chance at survival. The book is a parable of parables, told in such a way that it will touch even the most cynical.

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