Off the Shelf
The Once and Future King
By Marcus Pan
The Round Table. Chivalry.
Sir Launcelot DuLac. These are things that have been so infused into elements
of writing, media, and in some cases pop culture. The story of King Arthur, as
told by Malory in Le Morte De Arthur (The Death of Arthur) has been told
and retold for centuries. And a beautiful story it is, too. T.H. White has done
a superb job taking the mythology (history?) further into the realm of fantasy,
infusing the history as told by Malory and others with wonderful magical energy
and moralistic charm.
At first start, the reading of The Once and Future
King went kind of slow. I fear my head was filled with pulp reading of the
modern day that I stumbled over Olde English references, spellings and Latin
crossovers. But, like riding a bike, I was into it quite well after only a
small portion of the book. Admittedly, White's writing style is unique and
difficult compared to most other writers in the modern genres. I wouldn't
suggest it for anyone who's not gone beyond Poppy Z. Brite or Stephen King.
They write for the masses - White writes for the scholar.
T.H. White takes the story of King Arthur a step further
into fiction. He spends much ground covering the life of The Wart - King Arthur
at a young age. We follow Arthur in his studies with Merlyn as the old and
perky mage changes him into various animals, teaches him kindness and civility
and arms him with the weapons to change the world. Merlyn's character is indeed
a lot of fun. Imbued with a unique senselessness, as he fumbles over spells and
embarrassing situations. T.H. White's picture of Merlyn is a comfortable and
fun combination of Gandalf* and Fizban**.
One of the greatest properties of this book is White's sense
of moralistic ideals. He feeds them willingly into the lessons of Merlyn and
Arthur does the best he can do to follow the principles of his mentor. Using
these teachings White explains how the idea of a round table got settled like a
seed in Arthur's mind to grow into one of the greatest bastions of chivalry and
civility the world has ever known. All of Arthur's life is covered - but White
doesn't spend too much time discussing the facets of the Holy Grail quest, or
the taking of Merlyn by Nimue. Instead he concentrates on adding as much flesh
and blood realism the characters can take. King Arthur, Launcelot, and
Guenevere especially are covered in personal detail. Feelings, love and honor
at the forefront of the story, White takes us into the hearts and minds of the
people of and around the Round Table.
Arthur's fight against the old baron's code of Might Makes
Right, he uses the teachings of Merlyn to do his best to instead put forth and
help grow the idea of Might For Right. The Round Table of knights are to be out
to protect the people of his kingdom - not to further the idiosyncrasies of a
single house. And in doing so Chivalry is born, flourishes and, in the end,
passes. The anguish White puts through Arthur's final days against Mordred, his
own son, are real and felt by anyone reading the story. As a final act of
abjuration, Arthur sends forth Tom, a boy of twelve, from his battle camp to
keep the "candle" of chivalry and justice burning. Moments later he leaves his
pavilion to fight to the death with the armies of Mordred.
The Once And Future King is a charming rendition of
the life, feelings and wishes of King Arthur of Camelot. The characters of his
story have more flesh and blood than most people I've shook hands with. If
you're looking for a clashing adventure of men at arms and knights in armor,
this isn't it. This is more a moralistic journey into the heart of chivalry and
justice. One man's dreams and the attempt of an old man to set right as much as
he could before he left our world behind.
"The Once And Future King" by T.H. White
Published by Ace Books by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons
Copyright © 1939, 1940 & 1958 by T. H. White
* Of The Hobbit fame.
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