Book Review: The Once and Future King by T. H. White

I read this book when I was about twelve years old, and thought it was a masterpiece. Recently, I reread it. I was not disappointed at all. This book should be read by everyone. Why? Read on!

All authors inevitably put something of themselves into the books they write. Each book that is written has some aspect of their creator in them, whether it is in the style in which they are written, or the subject matter, or an ideology. A perfect example of this is the book The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. His retelling of the Arthur legend was highly influenced by the time in which he lived, which not only resulted in an original take on a well-known story, but also clearly shows us the author’s view on the Arthurian legend itself.

It comes in handy to have some knowledge of King Arthur and his wife Guenever, Sir Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table, but it is not necessary. White conveniently starts at the very beginning, where the famous King Arthur is a young, ignorant boy, called The Wart. He is brought up by Sir Ector, although he is not his father, and educated by his tutor, Merlyn the magician. Arthur famously lifts the sword Excalibur from the stone, and he becomes the King of England. What follows is an account of the legend we all know: the marriage of Arthur and Guenever, the affair of Guenever with Arthur’s favourite knight, Sir Lancelot, the feud with the Orkney clan including Sir Gawaine and Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred, and the rise and fall of Arthur’s new chivalric Order of the Round Table. The story is divided into five books, although they are closely connected; each book lays out a specific aspect of the eventual outcome of the book, and is closely connected to the other parts.

           The most important person in Arthur’s life must be Merlyn, without whom Arthur would have been a very different person. Living backwards in time, Merlyn possesses wisdom unlike anyone else, and it is Merlyn who teaches Arthur based on the insights he has gained through his long life, including anachronistic references to the Victorian Age, but also to Adolf Hitler and the Second World War. Furthermore, turning Arthur into animals teaches him about humanity, which he later applies into the way in which he rules his kingdom. For Arthur organises the country in a way that was never done before, by having knights, who used to do whatever they pleased, come together at his Round Table, instructing them to use their Might to do Good. Unfortunately, this also becomes his downfall.

           And this is exactly why The Once and Future King is such a unique retelling of the Arthur legend: it is not merely a retelling of the adventures of the famous King and his knights, but it is also a description of how England has changed under his reign, and how England will always continue to change – up until this day and far beyond it. For, so Merlyn argues, even though the world has changed considerably since Arthur’s reign, people have not. Like the animals who took millions of years to evolve, so long will it also take humans to change into a higher form. He knows, of course, having lived through the horrors of the Second World War, that mankind has not improved much in a thousand years.

T. H. White has written a contemporary retelling of the famous Arthur Legend. He incorporates his ideals and philosophies into the book, through Merlyn and personal comments on the narrative. His vivid writing style makes the reader want to continue reading the book, despite its daunting eight-hundred-plus pages. Reading this book will teach you about the Arthurian legends, but also about the importance of having a Quest (with special attention to King Pellinore’s search for the Questing Beast, who must be one of my favourite characters ever put to paper), chivalry, loyalty, romance, warfare, history, and philosophy, and countless others. The Middle Ages, White wants you to know, aren’t the unsophisticated Dark Ages that they’re supposed to be. On the contrary, the people living centuries ago are just as evolved as we are.

Like I said earlier, all authors put part of themselves in the books they write. So do their readers, for that matter. I must have been about twelve years old when I first read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This book has been one of my favourites in the entire world ever since I first read it. I have finally read it a second time, and I have come to some conclusions. Firstly, this is still one of the best books that I have ever read. Secondly, there must have been so many things in this book that I didn’t understand as a twelve-year-old. Reading this book for the second time opened up a whole new world for me to discover, one that I only had a glimpse of the first time around. Like White’s retelling, which was heavily inspired by his own experiences, my own interpretation of this book varied wildly from the first time I read it.

Let’s see what T. H. White’s The Once and Future King will teach me in another sixteen years.


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