Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Once & Future King by T. H. White

I haven't been idle for the past month, really, but when one only has so much time to read, and when that time is spread between several books, it takes a while to finish anything, especially 677 pages! But at least I finished The Once and Future King before it was due at the library after my second renewal (shameful, isn't it!).

At any rate, I'm glad that I persevered, for the story was worth reading. This modern (mid-twentieth century) retelling of the legends of Arthur by T. H. White is full of wit and charm and interesting characters, though I wish some of the characters had been more fully developed (why not 1,000 pages?). I think some of the adventures could have been balanced out with a bit more introspection, but that may be simply because I like to know how people think, not just what they do.

Book I "The Sword in the Stone" relates Merlyn's education of Arthur, a.k.a. Wart. While some of his methods follow the normal patterns of the day with instruction in logic, etc., Wart's special eduction occurs mainly when Merlyn transforms him into various animals, which provide him many different avenues to reflect upon the ways of man. Merlyn is a lovable character, the epitome of the absent-minded professor since his life is lived backwards, causing him to bring modern ideas to the middle ages and generally leaving him befuddled about which end is up, or forwards or backwards or something like that.

This was my favorite section of the book. It was fanciful, yet philosophical, and full of picturesque language such as "They were in the dark and stilly womb of night" (106) and witty sayings like "The best thing for being to learn something." (185). Arthur's adventures as an animal were delightful and insightful.

Merlyn still features in Book II "The Queen of Air and Darkness," but Arthur is no longer a schoolboy with magical lessons to learn in the animal kingdom. He has a kingdom of men to build and defend, and Merlyn repeatedly challenges him to think about the best way to do that. Arthur conceives the Round Table and knights who will fight with Might for Right. Merlyn also warns him of future events, but forgets the important detail of Arthur's parentage, resulting in a child born of unknown incest, a child who will eventually bring his father to ruin along with the order of his kingdom.

Arthur fades to a background character in Book III "The Ill-Made Knight" while Lancelot and Gwenever take center-stage with a supporting cast of other knights and their adventures and quests. My complaint about character development focuses mainly on this section, for Lancelot and Gwenever seem rather flat until near the end, despite their infamous affair. From what I remember of the epic poems of the knights' adventures, there was more substance to their characters than simply fighting and questing. The story development, however, is well crafted and builds to the disgrace of Lancelot and Gwenever and the tragedy of Arthur in Book IV "The Candle in the Wind."

Final thoughts. . .The musical Camelot was based upon White's retelling of the story of Arthur. I'd like to watch the movie version again, since I'm sure I will be able to follow the story better for having read The Once and Future King. I am still a bit puzzled by the meaning of the title. Merlyn explains that he will be back (but he's living backwards, remember), just as Arthur will return again, but except for a passing reference to Avilion, there is no further explanation of how or when that return will occur. Perhaps it is better explained in The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King, which sounds like a fascinating epilogue as Merlyn returns on the eve of Arthur's last battle with more animal instructions and philosophical reflections, perhaps like these musings of Arthur near the end of this novel:

"He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. . .His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. . .But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent. . .

"Now. . .the king was trying not to realize. For if there was such a thing as original sin, if man was on the whole a villain, if the bible was right in saying that the heart of men was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, the the purpose of his life had been a vain one. Chivalry and justice became a child's illusions. . ." (666-667)

It would indeed be a vain endeavor if humanism were the only basis for judging the meaning of life. But the Bible is right in saying that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, but White (via Arthur) neglected that other foundational knowledge that Calvin identified at the beginning of his Institutes: we must have both the knowledge of God and knowledge of man. With knowledge of God, chivalry and justice find meaning, and more importantly definition, in "Be holy as I am holy" and are no longer illusions but lifelong goals toward which to strive, though with ever faltering steps.

How ironic that a Medieval tale sheds so much light on modern humanism, but then Merlyn was living backwards, after all.


Calon Lan said...

I have this one at home but haven't yet worked up the energy to read it -- I think I'll move it to the front of my reading list, though :)

Thanks for the review.

Page Turner said...

Calon Lan, it certainly wasn't hard reading and I would have finished it much faster were it not for the stuff of life that keeps me busy. Are you more familiar with the "original" versions of the legends? I'd be interested in a comparison when/if you do read it. Thanks for the comment!

OCfreshie09 said...

What page of the book does Merlyn tell Arthur he is the once and future king? i cannot remeber