Knowing that this book was the inspiration for the (excellent) Disney movie The Sword in the Stone was deceiving at best. The Disney movie was based on the first part of this four part book, and the rest of the book is quite a departure from the lengthy, introductory first part into what turns out to be, basically, a life biography, not just a childhood snapshot, of several different characters. Once I got over that difficult transition, and once I got over another difficult transition of having lost the book (still haven't found it, and it's got some great, but now lost notes of mine that surely someone else is benefiting from--I finally just went and got another book so I could finish it), I came to the conclusion that T.H. White is one of the great writers from this past century, even though he was someone that I had not even heard of before this book plopped into my path.
Here's what T.H. White does right: He is a fantastically comfortable and magnetic narrator. His voice and tone is just right, he easily skims past non-important moments with just the right amount of summary. He gives an equal balance of seriousness with triviality. White also creates wonderful, sympathetic and endearing characters, as quirky as they are life-like. Beyond that, especially in the first part of the book, White demonstrates a knowledge of medieval lifestyles and history and general atmosphere, that it is uncanny. It's hard to imagine that he did not, in fact, live in that world and that time period. And his explanations, for the most part, are woven into the narrative just enough to not give the offense of a textbook feel, yet--undoubtedly--the type of learning portrayed through his writing seems the kind you would get in an advanced, educational classroom setting. Finally, beyond all of this, White is able to anchor all of this supporting, sideshow talent around the great, rare ability of a story centered on the nature of humanity itself, with a special intent to reflect back on the reading audience in the hope that they will help formulate the final outcome.
That kind of powerful writing is not attained often nor successfully by many authors at all, let alone attempted, but White shows some maturity and insightfulness in that regard and it gives an outer purpose to an already impressively free-standing tale. The only problem with such an aggressive approach is getting the audience to agree with your worldview, and that is where White and I have our differences, slight though they may be.
But before I get to that, I should also mention that I was disappointed in the lack of a strong, protagonist female character in the story. If there would be any, it would have been Guenevere, but for three-fourths of the book, there is really not much to like about the Queen or even to sympathize with her. She is portrayed as a manipulative, underhanded, treacherous character--not openly, of course; she is given her slipshod compliments and justifying explanations, but the overall feel of her character does not garner respect. Only toward the very end is the reader given any real reason to empathize with her, but it is only in a shallow, character-situation sort of way, not any of the philosophical reasons that rescue the characters of Arthur and Lancelot from their obvious flaws.
The other problem I had is that White tries to vindicate the character of Lancelot almost dogmatically, and yet in my mind I can admire Lancelot's innate goodness and innocence and kindness and generosity in general and will happily cede all of those to White, but in spite of all of this, he never repents of his greatest mistake, his affair with Guenevere. He talks about how it is wrong and how it should end, which gives the reader the sense that he is sorry, but he never, ever acts on such feelings. Never. He always gives in to this, his greatest and worst flaw. Similarly, White aptly ignores Arthur's own great sin up until the very end of the story and then hides it under the assertion that it was many years ago in Arthur's life and that he was young. Arthur, granted, wants to repent of this sin (unlike Lancelot), but I feel that something so drastic as that action removes him from his position of authority and any sympathy that he should be given as a well-meaning King. Someone who has done such a thing, no matter what great ideas of the greater good they might have, has no business acting as a ruler over other people.
Perhaps, T.H. White recognized these weaknesses in the characters and didn't want them overlooked by the reader--that is possible, I suppose--but if so, it still undermines his overall worldview, which is reconciled (or at least an attempt is made) within the last couple of pages of the book. But I found his views contradictory throughout. He defends the feudal system at first, but then he later mentions the rampant crime and fear that it espoused. He despises war, and yet Arthur appears to have introduced a very violent and deadly type of war into the world in order to pave the way for the greater good (this contradiction, at least, is partially answered in the reconciliation). Basically, he despairs the human race for its conflicts and wars and brutality, but he glazes over the point of individual decency, even that found within his own characters. Again, these are trifles, and White actually does recognize some of these flaws in thinking right at the very end, but his condescending sense of superiority over the human race tints the greatness that his novel could be. It becomes preachy where it should be humble, considering the insights that he has given. So, as incredible as an author as White demonstrated he could be, I still came away from the book a little bit disempowered by his overarching, despairing tone. But that does not mean that his writing or ideas or insight should be ignored. Any reader would do well having any one of those, but always with a grain of salt when the bemoaning fate of humanity is reprimanded by the narrator at the end.