Bryan's Reviews > The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
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Dec 02, 2009

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bookshelves: mythology, mythopoeia, fiction
Recommended to Bryan by: My high school english program
Read from January 17 to March 20, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: 1

****New review added at bottom November 2, 2011

I love the story of King Arthur and I think T.H. White has remarkable storytelling skills, but the author's viewpoint so strongly irritated me that I could not finish the book.

Throughout the first two and a half books (The Sword and the Stone, The Witch in the Wood, and The Ill-made Knight) I was completely spellbound. Each chapter was better than the one before, the characters were unique and charming, and the story events were powerful and engaging.

Then I fell out of love completely in one foul swoop. I won't say where or how, as I wouldn't want to ruin the books for someone else, but I simply began to realize that I wholly, completely, and thoroughly disagree with T.H. White's point of view and how he was portraying the overall theme.

The problem starts just beyond his frequent statement 'The story of King Arthur is a story of sin.' There is some truth in that statement, and it would not bother me as it is useful to comprehend evil--so that we may more clearly see ourselves and know how to improve. Even Christ, as Christians believe, comprehended all things, including the viewpoints of we "sinners." However, T.H. White goes so far as to start making excuses for sin, and for making it seem even acceptable, normal, and becoming of a "real person" to blatantly disregard spirituality. It irritated me so strongly that I essentially threw down the book and was not able to pick it up again.

I'm no Arthurian scholar, but I can't seem to believe that Sir Thomas Mallory ever intended the story of King Arthur to be a pray of consolation for the vices. Indeed, I'm reading his version now and the very intro states something to the effect of "The intent of this story is to examine the consequences of sin and to profit thereby." That's a seemingly subtle, but actually grand difference in Mallory's point of view.

I may someday come back and skim through the rest of the story. Perhaps it gets better, and perhaps I am holding T.H. White to a standard that I myself cannot meet. But for now, there are many other books I'd rather read.

* November 2, 2011
I decided to finish the book. It's been over a year since I last read it and I had some time to think over my previous impressions. I gave it one more chance and it somewhat redeemed itself.

What bothered me about it before was that the author became heavy handed a few times when he felt a need to justify a particular sin or tragic flaw of a character. It still irritates me, but when I consider the fact that an author's challenge is to get into a character's mind to understand him without getting stuck inside him, and when I consider the size of the book, I come to the conclusion that T.H. White did a really good job.

The storytelling is superb. Certain scenes, such as Lancelot explaining to Guinevere why Tristram was a cad for cheating on the king's wife, or when Mordred announces to Guinevere his plans to overthrow his father's kingdom just for the fun of creating anarchy, were so thought provoking and delicate that I couldn't help smacking myself in the face.

However, in the end, I didn't like T.H. White's point of view. It's lacking. One theme in particular bothered me, and that was that intellectualism is the solution to the world's problems. If that were true, I wonder why professors at ivy league colleges around the world write disparaging books about people who don't worship science. Those professors don't seem very happy to me, and they don't look like they'll get happy until everyone else is as unhappy as themselves.

For anyone who's interested, I'll present a my solution to the short-ended theme. I'm a Christian, so you can expect a Christian answer. I don't have the book directly on hand, so I'll repeat from memory.

In the last two or three pages of the book—book IV, that is; I'm not including the additional book of Merlin that was published thirty years later—King Arthur has an internal soliloquy in which he contemplates how his original idea of changing 'might makes right' into 'might for right,' and thus creating the round table, has caused the world around him to completely collapse. The unity the idea created seemed only to have brought man together long enough for it to destroy itself in larger numbers than ever. The more he contemplates, the more frustrated he becomes.

When he comes to the idea of "he who would save his life must lose it," he starts to believe that's true, that only those who lost their lives in some cause had saved it. He recognizes also that it's a concept that the bishops and the priests are constantly repeating. Then, however, he says to himself that it can't make sense, for what's the good of curing the cancer of a womb by getting rid of the womb altogether.

This interpretation of that idea is where I think the theme comes up short. I can understand that the concept of giving up yourself for some cause is difficult to comprehend, and it certainly is foolish if you pick the wrong one. I can understand the fear of giving away all your future (metaphorically speaking, 'the womb,' of which King Arthur speaks) and worrying that once you give it up you'll not have another future—thus no womb with which to continue.

The answer is to give up your whole self to the cause of Christ. It does work. We do find happiness—real happiness—when we do so. The only way you'll ever figure it out is if you try, but you'll have to do that for yourself. For those intellectuals out there who want some type of logic to go with it, first let me say that you'll never fully get your head around it unless you do it—otherwise you'll only end up shaking your head and walking away from it in fear, like King Arthur. Here's some of my feeble logic to go with it anyway:

Christ gave up everything, too. When you give yourself up to Christ—the one perfect man, the man who gave up everything for everyone else in the name of his father—you suddenly find that God the Father gives you something in return that's far better: himself. Though you've lost this temporal, limited future (i.e. the womb) which you were so afraid of surrendering, God connected you with a new womb, a perfect womb, an eternal womb, and you don't have to be afraid anymore.

That's my solution to the theme.
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message 6: by Momatella (new)

Momatella While I have not read these, I completely understand what you are saying. My only addition would be that at least once (ie. not as a repeated "diet") it is, I feel, important to comprehend the great love and compassion a parental, even perhaps, seemingly God-like leader may have for those he deeply loved---even once they have sinned quite seriously.
This, I believe, can become a temptation to pulling a tender-hearted person's feelings beyond the pale. This could go to the accepting that you talk about.

I feel that is why it is for God and Jesus to make the final judgments, not us. It can also explain the agony they feel when beloved children of God fall into serious error.

This same element of extending mercy precipitously was thoroughly discussed by director/professor Dr. Metten at BYU in the drama dept. using "Dr. Zhivago", the film, as an example. If we do not understand this, we are not as well prepared to handle it as we live our time here. And to remember that there IS repentence and forgiveness even beyond this life. (Example: we have great reverence for the Founding Fathers, and their inspiration, yet several of them were serious sinners in this life.)

I support your opinion as carefully thought out and fair and true by your standards for personal reading. However, I would rather err in having compassion and choosing not to judge others, than go in the direction of so much today in society that is full of bigotry, hatred, violence, etc. (In some societies, women are still stoned to death for adultery, or even murdered for being raped).

It is not possible to get through High School literature, much less University, without reading literature that presents "problems". In our choices of personal reading, it is different, and I support your actions and thoughtfulness, even though I do not always make the same choice.


message 5: by Bryan (last edited Aug 24, 2010 03:20PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bryan I pretty much agree with you on everything you said.

Here's where I need to clarify what I'm saying:
What made me stop reading here was it was not the _characters_ who were trying to rationalize their indiscretion, but _the author and/or narrator_. When a character rationalizes to him/herself why it's o.k. to do something that everyone knows goes against a natural conscience, that's often simply good writing. We all do that.
But when the author/narrator starts rationalizing for _their characters_ mistakes, I have to withdraw. It destroys "the suspension of disbelief." If someone were to talk to me like that in real life, I couldn't believe them. I still would be obligated to love and serve them, but I wouldn't throw my ability to reason (or sense of disbelief etc.) out during the conversation.

Thanks for the comments. I'm going to look up Dr. Metten's speech on the Dr. Zhivago film. I'd be curious to hear what he'd have to say. I'm interested in reading Anna Karennina, and it'd be good to hear how he approaches stories of that nature.


message 4: by Momatella (new)

Momatella Just to clarify: Dr. Metten gave this "lecture" in a theater class I took from him--so I doubt if there is a record of it. However he gave us a copy, and if I still have it, I will try to scan and send it to you.

However I have tons of files, and may not be able to find it, or even may have passed it on to someone else. The main idea is that people talk about not knowing where to draw the line, or there was just this "one part", but the rest was so good.

His point was that assuming one is active LDS, we have been given a 100% sure way to tell: and then Dr. Metten refers us to Moroni 7:15-18. However, I have frequently had people and even lessons that try to take that discernment away from the individual and decide for them. For example: from an older Relief Society lesson manual we were told the guidelines to apply personally to ourselves and families on books, movies, television & art of all kinds: NO nudity, swearing, sex or violence.
Almost every woman in the room nodded their heads supportively. I was sitting with Genene Hill--a good, ethical woman and former well-respected English teacher for many years at Davis High school. She & I looked at each other questioningly. After the lesson we compared thoughts. Such a standard would not only rule out Michelangelo, Shakespeare and many great works of art and literature, but at least 3 of the 4 Standard Works.
I was frankly embarrassed, when BYU was honored to obtain an exhibition of the works of Rodin, and the statue: "The Kiss", drew complaints, was not only moved to a fairly hidden place, but covered for the remainder of the exhibit. In my opinion, that was ignorant and unappreciative. Anyone who would be involved in obtaining those pieces of art would know what was coming, and what it looked like. I feel it is wrong to shield children from great art and/or demand something be removed like that. They should just have not had the exhibit.

That was in reference to Dr. Metten's lecture. I appreciate your clarification on your comment, because I can certainly see the difference! (Dr. Metten chose to direct a production of the musical "1776" and removed the word "damn" everywhere it appeared in the play. A bit silly, in my opinion. But the sticky part was he did not ask for permission to do that, and it was a breach of the copyright agreement.)

So my feelings are that banning books, etc. gets into pretty dodgy territory, and I would not, for example, attend Syracuse University Professional School of Theater Arts for 2 years, if I had Dr. Metten's point-of-view. Yet I was never in a play there that I felt was against my standards.

As a writer and actor, as well as a person of ethics, I do understand now the difference in what you meant and support that.


Bryan Thanks for the tips. Those are excellent comments and I appreciate you taking the time to share them.

Being in the arts leads to many questions on "where do we draw our personal line."

I find that my personal line wavers constantly, but stays generally in the same area.

It's difficult to predetermine--i.e. before you have actually seen the movie or read the book--whether or not the level of violence, profanity, etc. is too much. You pretty much know after you've seen a part of a film, heard a scene of profanity, or read a part of a book that makes your stomach squench that you'd rather you hadn't seen it. But hindsight is always 20/20. So, we just have to narrow it down by whatever factors stand out to us.

Also, limiting which movies, books, etc. I'm willing to read or watch has been a really good thing for opening up reading lists. It's as if now that I have a feel for what draws me in or what brings the spirit into my life, I find that there are actually more books and stories that I want to read. One book I love always leads to another, and that's been the really fun part.


message 2: by Momatella (new)

Momatella I absolutely cannot handle nor approve of anything that makes me feel a dark feeling. I do not read horror books or see horror movies. I have been very sensitive to light and dark since at least age 3, and I did not become LDS until age 20.

I especially cannot deal with that which is satanic or demonic! I personally had no problem with, for example, the Harry Potter Books and movies, yet I knew members of the LDS faith that forbade them. I did not feel real darkness, as repeatedly light overcame dark, so to speak. There was nothing that misled the reader into a "slippery slope situation".

One thing I would like to have your view on--some movies, like "Schindler's List", for example, contain harrowing scenes of evil from real life, as does the Holocaust Museum. I am just too tender-hearted to watch such films, but I applaud the fact that they tell the truth about times in history that must not be forgotten, justified, or minimalized.

I have a fairly good knowledge of what went on there, and just don't want to know every gory detail. The same thing with documentaries on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the slave ships, etc. But I don't want to know every detail or watch it. So I try to find a level where I know the basics, and understand what happened and why, but I don't let the acute evil acts into my life to the point where they haunt me. What do you think?

As I add to my book list, you will see that I have read some pretty heavy-duty books about child abuse, autistic victims of abuse, mental illness, etc. I volunteered as a child and rape victims' advocate for
over 15 years, and these books, when added to my training, enable me to understand what it is like to be from that background. I specialize in sub. teaching the kids from these backgrounds. I would not recommend these books to just anyone, but they help me to be a better teacher.

Thanks for listening--since I make choices like these every day, it is something I often contemplate.


Bryan I agree with you on the true-to-the-horrors-of-life stories. I am o.k. with watching them, as long as it is related in a way that is respectful to those who suffered.

I find that when those types of films/documentaries exploit the fear of the audience (like when a documentary presents a terrifying real-life event, then lays blame and incites the audience member to fear or revile against some group or organization) then I have to back out. Facts are facts and we have to deal with those. But when one manipulates the oppression of the poor and destitute for one's own agenda, then in my opinion it's going to far.

Thank you for sharing! It's a relevant topic.


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