Andrew's Reviews > The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
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's review
Jun 30, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy
Read in June, 2008

It is easy to forget that the fantasy genre does have other giants besides Tolkien. T.H. White is such a person. If you want a literary step up from the popcorn fantasy out there give this book a try.

This book is divided into four books. They all go together but they are also all different in focus and have a growing change in mood. White is using Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur as the outline for his story. He writes in a very anachronistic and witty manner. He also vaguely dates the story as taking place shortly after William the Conqueror (even claiming Uther to have accomplished what William did) while still acknowledging the true history in his asides. Basically White is copying Malory's complete abandoning of anything remotely historic in his Arthur story. But White uses this with irony and a little comedy. However he still makes well known that he knows his nation's history quite well. Anyways I'll talk about the books separately.

Sword and the Stone
The most famous of his writings mostly for the Disney cartoon that was based upon it. Do not judge this book by the cartoon, for either ill or benefit. It would be incorrect to say the movie was loosely based on the book, but it would also be a crime to say it was a very strict translations. They are two different things, and are to be judged separately. Anyways, I think this is the best part of the book. It is a well-painted story of the raising of a boy who would become one of the most famous legends of our world. And this is where White's writing really shines. What also helps this book do well is White has a lot more freedom as it is a time that Malory does not elaborate on. So White is free to wander wherever he will. His take on Merlin (or in this case Merlyn) is probably the most memorable take on the character in literature. He is something you must experience. This book is wide ranging and just well crafted. If you read no other part of The Once and Future King this part at the very least is worth a read.

The Queen of Air and Darkness
This book still contains a lot of the humor and wit of the first book. It introduces you to the Orkney clan who are an essential lot in the Arthurian legend. White's take on the brothers and their mother, as with all the characters in this book, are well adapted from Malory and profound in their own right. I do wish that he would exposit less on them as he shows their character well enough to not tell you outright. This book still has the freedom of the first, in that the events told with in are not especially bound up in Malory's tale. So he can do as he wishes. It also contains my favorite scene of the novel, the unicorn scene. Overall this book is very entertaining, but it is first and foremost a bridge. It is taking you to where you need to end up and does not stand on its own.

(A little aside)
And now we get into the part that didn't feel as fresh as the first two books. The reason being that all the major events are straight out of Malory. White fills in the cracks with his original take on the characters and events but it does not strike me in the same way as the first two books. That is not to say the final two books are bad. Far from it. They are just more restricted. They feel more like an essay on Malory then a tale.

The Ill-Made Knight
This is the tale of Lancelot. White's version of the knight is quite interesting. As is the love affair with Guenever. His ironic humor on some of the more ridiculous happenings in Malory are quite enjoyable as well. But again there is a part of this that feels like an essay about these characters. A very interesting and informative essay, but an essay regardless. It should be noted he somewhat sidesteps the courtly love tradition. He comments on the fake loves of the court especially point out Tristram, but does not really lump Lancelot and Guenever in that lot. He makes them out to be something else entirely.

The Candle in the Wind
And now to unravel everything. I love the conflict between Arthur and Mordred in this book. Not of the physical kind, but... well you'll just have to see for yourself. The final scene of this book is also a great great scene. I don't feel like talking to much as this is just stuff you'll have to experience if you get this far.

In conclusion
I can not say how one would react to this who has not read Malory or a couple of his derivatives. However this is a worthy modernization of the work. Having read Malory strongly effected my reading of the final two books for both good and ill. And I think it may effect someone who hasn't read Malory for both ill and good. All told, it is great to read another gifted writer write fantasy besides Tolkien.
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blakeR I had never read Mallory and absolutely loved this. . . Books 1 & 3 were my favorites, but the ending is unforgettable as well. Nice review.

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