‘The Once and Future King’, by T. H. White, is described by many as the fantasy novel to – essentially – rule them all.
It tells the story of King Arthur; his education as a young boy of no known nobility, the extraction of the sword Excalibur, and the establishment of the Round Table in a bid to bring chivalry to a world where the prevalent attitude has always been “might makes right”.
The title comes from what is reportedly inscribed on the tomb of King Arthur: hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus, meaning “Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be”.
The cast of characters includes all those you probably will have heard of (such as Queen Guenevere, Merlyn, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad and Morgan le Fay), but White has reinvented many of them since the early legends.
Traditionally, Lancelot is portrayed as a handsome knight, but White has made him hideously ugly. He’s still portrayed as the greatest knight of the Round Table, but he’s also given an edge that makes him sadistic, devoted to God, and almost self-loathing. His affair with the Queen is long-lasting but tumultuous, and he struggles with the idea that he can perform “miracles” (as God’s vessel) while still committing adultery.
The wizard, Merlyn, lives backwards in time, and therefore gets younger each year. He is wise, but absent-minded; he makes reference to future events, and gets confused when Arthur doesn’t know what he is talking about. He makes references to World War II (the novel was written over a number of years during and after the war), and at one point mentions an “Austrian who.…plunged the…world into misery and chaos”, obviously referring Hitler.
Sir Galahad is portrayed as perfect, and is therefore not liked by many of his fellow knights. He’s seen as almost godly or inhuman, and dies after finding the Holy Grail, which doesn’t sit well with his contemporaries as they are jealous of his “heavenly” quest.
After a slow start, which saw me skimming, glassy-eyed, over some tedious descriptive passages, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this novel. Towards the end, I was compulsively turning page after page, desperate to get to the end, to see whether the story played out the way it traditionally had.
White’s style is descriptive, evocative and humourous; he uses cricketing analogies at sporadic moments which amused me immensely, and many of his passages had me chuckling out loud.
An enjoyable read, if you can get past the first section without being bored to tears.