Posted in Fantasy

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

This book is probably the definitive work on Arthurian legend. It seems that White has taken all the King Arthur legends and integrated them into one work. This epic is four stories: The Sword in Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind.

The Sword in Stone chronicles the life of Arthur as a child. He is known as Wart, and he has grown up in the castle of Sir Ector and his son Kay. Wart is brought up unaware of his parentage. He lives during a time of great turmoil in England. King Uther Pendragon is a bloody tyrant who lives out the maxim “Might makes right.” Enter Merlyn who is a powerful wizard who lives backwards through time. Meaning that he knows the end result but doesn’t know how things started to create the end result. Merlyn becomes Wart’s teacher. Wart has the most interesting education that one could ever imagine. Because Merlyn knows that Wart will become king, he sets out teaching him the ideal of justice in the form of turning him into various animals- fish, ant, merlin, badger and an owl. Finally Merlyn sends Wart and Kay on an adventure with Robin Wood (Wood his is proper last name not Hood) to rescue several people from the clutches of the sorceress Morgan Le Fey. By the end of the first book, Wart is in his late teens and serves as squire to Kay. Here the story of Sword in Stone is first mentioned. Wart pulls the sword out of the stone in the following way. Kay goes to town for his first tournament. As his squire Wart accompanied him. As the time for Kay’s first match drew near he realizes that he has left his sword at the inn and sends Wart back to get it. Unfortunately the inn is locked. As Wart looks around desperately for a sword he notices that in a church graveyard there is a sword stuck in an anvil. Wart pulls the sword and rushes back to Kay completely unaware of what he has done. At first Kay claims that he has pulled the sword himself, but when questioned by Sir Ector he admits that Wart pulled the sword. Wart had to replace and pull the sword from the stone many times before everyone could be convinced that he was the King of England. At the end of the story, Wart is no more. He becomes King Arthur of England.

The Queen of Air and Darkness introduces us to the Round Table and Queen Morgause- the beginning of Arthur’s doom. Arthur’s father and mother were Uther Pendragon and Countess Igraine of Cornwall. Uther called for the Earl and Countess of Cornall to stay with him at his house in the Tower of London. Uther fell in love with Igraine and asked her to leave her husband to become his wife. The Earl and Countess fled in the night. This started a war between the Earl and the King. Uther managed to kill the Earl. As a result he gained the castle and was able to impregnate Igraine with his child. It seems as though Uther did eventually marry Igraine; but because Arthur was born too soon for the customs of the “grieving period” he was sent away. No one knew of Arthur’s parentage and whereabouts except Uther and Merlyn. The Earl and Countess of Cornwall had three children: Morgan Le Fey, Morgause, and Elaine (there are several in this story). Morgause was married to King Lot and had four sons- Gawaine, Garethm Gaheris and Agravaine- whom she neglected. Theses boys upbringing was quite a contrast from Arthur. Where he had the kindly Merlyn as his teacher, these boys had St. Toirdealbhach, an abusive drunk.
After Arthur took the throne the land became more turmoiled. You see no one knew Uther had a son. And many felt that Arthur did not have the proper pedigree. So everyone was after the throne. Due to Merlyn’s tutelage, Arthur did not enjoy the war viewing as a necessary means to end the bloodshed. It is at this point that he realizes that two wrongs don’t make a right and that there should be justice. He starts the Round Table in hopes of bringing up a new generation of Knights who will fight Might with Right. In this book he meets Lancelot as a child and eventually marries Guenever. It is Guinevere’s father who owns a round table that inspires Arthur’s notions of equality. In this book, one truly sees the problems with Merlyn living backwards through time. Throughout the second book, Merlyn constantly warns Arthur about things such as the infamous affair between Lancelot and Guenever. But he forgets to tell Arthur that his mother is Igraine and that he has three half-sisters. Prior to marrying Guenever, Arthur does succeed in uniting England. On the night of his triumph, his half-sister used magic to seduce Arthur. As a result a son Mordred was born.

The Ill-Made Knight chronicles the life of Lancelot and the beginning of his infamous affair with Guenever. Lancelot was the son of the French King Ban of Benwick. He met Arthur while he was conquering England and admired him greatly. Arthur recognizing Lancelot’s physical prowess at that early age asked him to be one of his Knights when he became older. Contrary to all the movies we have all seen about King Arthur, Lancelot was not an attractive man. In fact his face is described looking like a gargoyle and an African Ape. Due to his lack of attractive appearance Lancelot decided that whenever he was Knight he would be called the Chevalier Mal Fet or the Ill-Made Knight. Lancelot made his way to Arthur’s court and ended up becoming the best knight in the land. He didn’t fall in love with Guenever in a traditional way. He didn’t like her at first because he was jealous; he felt she would come between he and Arthur. He ended up falling for her because he hurt her feeling when she was trying to be kind to him. They ended up falling madly for one another but did not consummate their relationship for year. Lancelot had a conscience, and it did not sit well with him that he loved his friend’s wife. Arthur knowing of Merlyn’s warning about his wife and friend resolved to trust them and hope that his trust would prevent them from falling into folly. Thus started the infamous triangle. Lancelot went on several quests in order to help himself forget Guenever. It was on one of these quests that he met Elaine (no not one of the Cornwall sisters) who tricked him into bed by telling him that the Queen was waiting. As a result of her trickery, Galahad, the most pure of all the Knights, was born. After this quest Lancelot and Guenever consummated their affair. During this book Mordred comes to court and is looked after by Arthur. As it turned out when Arthur found out about his half-sister and son, he tried to have the child drowned. His kindness towards Mordred was mostly out of guilt. Also during this book, one sees the beginning of the breakdown of the Round Table. Arthur really didn’t replace Might with Right in people’s minds; he merely channeled men’s aggression into a different direction. Once Camelot was established the Knights becamse restless because there was no Might to challenge. Arthur began to realize that he had neglected to care for the Knights’ spiritual needs. As a result the Knights were sent on the Quest for the Holy Grail. The only Knight pure of heart enough to find it was Galahad who died shortly therefore and it is supposed ascended into heaven.

The Candle in the Wind details the fall of Arthur. Camelot fell from within. The instigator was Mordred. By this point, most of the court was well aware of the relationship that Lancelot and Guenever had including Arthur. However due to notions of chivalry no one would speak of it. Mordred who had never gotten over his father trying to kill him as a baby decided to make a bid for the throne. He did so in a very democratic way- he became the leader of his own party. He decided that in order to secure his position he needed to expose Lancelot and Guenever as committing treason. He convinced his brother Agravaine to go along with him. Mordred forced Arthur’s hand by claiming his actions were necessary for Justice, which is the concept Arthur had been trying to instill in his people. Arthur tried to warn the two of what would happen. Gareth, Mordred’s half-brother, warned Lancelot the day of the plot. However, the lovers would not heed reason and were caught. Lancelot escaped the trap killing Agravaine in the process. Guenever was tried and was to be burned at the stake. However, Lancelot rescued her but accidentally killed Gareth and Gaheris who were unarmed in the process. The lovers fled to Lancelot’s castle Joyous Guard and were besieged by Arthur and Gawaine, who swore a feud for the death of his brothers Gareth and Gaheris. The siege ended when Lancelot sent an envoy to the Pope who issued a religious edict for Arthur to take Guenever back as his wife. Lancelot was banished from the kingdom after restoring Guenever’s honor, but Gawaine still continued the feud. While Arthur and Gawaine were away at battle, Arthur left Mordred as Lord Protector. Finally, Mordred got his revenge. He announce to the country that Arthur and Gawaine had died in battle, proclaimed himself king, and in revenge of his mother, decided to marry Guenever. Guenever locked herself in London Tower and got word to Arthur and Gawaine. By this point Gawaine was ready to give up the feud and recalled Lancelot to England. In their efforts to take back the country Gawaine was killed. Arthur in weariness was taken to Avilion. But Mordred met his just dessert in Lancelot. Both the infamous lovers took orders.
The book ends with the phrase:


Which I suppose means Here lies the once and future king.

I liked the book. It was good but very long- 677 pages. But it did clear up a few discrepancies about the Arthurian legend. This is another one for those who love epic tales.


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