When I was a student, discovering world literature, I neglected my work to read books not on any syllabus. I skipped “Rocks for Jocks” (geology) to peruse Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson (out-of- print then, but at the library), Trollope, Thomas Mann, Ovid, and, bizarrely, Le Morte d’Arthur. I read widely…and decided eventually what to study.
During my down time, I read one of the sweetest, most whimsical of novels, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This luminous retelling of the King Arthur legend is unlike any other, and there are many. It has the charm of a buoyant fantasy, tied together with world history, philosophy, chivalry, and Arthur’s creation of the Round Table to do away with hierarchy. White also explores the tragedy of broken ideals.
What if it’s passé, I wondered when I decided to reread it. But never fear: it is brilliant from beginning to end, and has much to say about the present as well as the past. The narrative seems both faraway and yet contemporary. Yes, we are lucky to have narrative of friendship, idealism, and loss, interwoven with White’s sadness, loneliness, and experience of war.
The Once and Future King, published in 1958, was hugely popular, partly because of the 1960 Broadway musical, Camelot, based on White’s book. In 1967 the movie version, with Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere, was released. The film is a bit long, but the soundtrack is wonderful and the actors are splendid.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part, The Sword in the Stone, which was adapted as a Disney movie in the ’60s, tells the story of Arthur’s coming-of-age. As a child he is known as the Wart, a nickname for Arthur. He lives a life devoted to sports, falconry, and learning to joust with brawny Kay, the son of Sir Ector, Wart’s guardian. Merlyn, the magician who becomes their tutor, lives backwards in time, and can’t always remember where and when he is. In a humorous early scene, when Arthur first comes across Merlyn in the woods, Merlyn fumes about having to draw water from a well with a crank and bucket. “‘By this and that,’ added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, ‘why can’t they get us the electric light and company’s water?'”
Merlyn teaches Wart, a very ordinary boy, to think outside the limits of his time. And he teaches him natural history by turning him into a fish, an ant, an owl, and a falcon, and more–charming fantastic scenes. Later, Wart, a squire to Kay, now a knight, pulls a magical sword from a stone to replace the sword Kay lost. Only the king of England can pull the sword from the stone, though Wart hadn’t the faintest idea that this was that sword. And now he is King Arthur.
The second book, “The Queen of Light and Darkness,” is much darker, though still whimsical. We meet the witch, Queen Morgause of Orkney, and her four sons, Gawaine, etc., who kill a unicorn in a desperate bid for her love, and grow up to be hothead knights who cause a lot of trouble to Arthur. Meanwhile, the thoroughly evil, powerful Morgause seduces Arthur, who does not realize she is his half-sister (Merlyn never told him his mother’s identity). Their illegitimate child, Mordred, is Arthur’s great sin and downfall.
But there are many inspiring, joyful things in his life as a young king. Arthur loves jousting and swordplay. But Merlyn says that is not enough. Arthur develops the Round Table of Knights, after musing on Merlyn’s advice that might is not right. Merlyn also lectures him on a powerful tyrant in the future (Hitler) who used might and almost destroyed the world. Might is not right, and right cannot be achieved by it.
In Part Three, “The Ill-Made Knight,” White spins the tale of Lancelot, aFrench boy who wants to be the best knight in the world after falling in love with Arthur at court. He spends all his time lifting weights and doing exercises. He is also a sado-masochist. And when he finally grows up and comes to Camelot, he becomes the best knight of the Round Table, but unfortunately falls in love with Guenever. Both are much younger than Arthur, and simply adore each other on sight. But one wonders if Lancelot is really homosexual, and if the love for Gueever is displacement. But that’s old-fashioned psychology, probably not right.
There are quests. So many quests. So many knights. The Holy Grail. But White keeps it light. There is King Pellinore, who spends his life in the forest seeking the questing-beast, which in one very silly scene falls in love with two knights wearing the costume of a questing-beast.
The last book, “The Candle in the Wind,” has unbearable moments. And yet I love the description of lifelong love, from youth to old age, from beauty to gray hair and old bones, illicitly experienced by Guenever and Lancelot, and to a certain extent shared with Arthur, who loves them both. White wistfully writes that this kind of love has been ruined in the 20th century, by divorce and psychiatry. No one anymore wants to be in love with someone for life, he says.
And here’s a clip from Camelot, with Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris singing “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”