This summer, my parents and I went on holiday to Cornwall and visited Tintagel Castle, which was supposedly the place where King Arthur was conceived. It’s a popular tourist attraction, surrounded by gift shops where you can buy your kids a toy Excalibur or Merlin’s pointy hat. Since I love to buy books in the place where they are set or were written, I decided to buy a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (and a beautiful hardcover edition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). I knew that it told the story of King Arthur, that it was on every single list of best fantasy books, and that my sister-in-law, who is an avid fan of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Goodkind, had been begging me to read it for years. I figured that it would be an epic fantasy story with lots of drama and violence – which it is. It is also nothing like that at all.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive collection of Arthurian tales, this is not that book. White barely touches upon the quest for the Holy Grail and tends to skip over anything Galahad does out of sheer dislike for the character; instead, he mostly focuses on Arthur’s coming of age, the Orkney clan, and Lancelot’s affair with Guenever. His version is greatly inspired by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; White even wrote Malory into the book (he has a small cameo towards the end of the novel).
The first part of the book, The Sword in the Stone, chronicles Arthur’s childhood and education. It is a strange combination of Pratchett and Monty Python, ranging from philosophical life lessons to slapstick comedy worthy of Monty Python. The overall tone is lighthearted and it is a ton of fun to read, but there are serious moments too as Merlyn tries to teach his pupil about justice, might, and violence. Since Merlyn goes through life backwards, he has lived through World War Two when he and Arthur meet. He is clearly shaken by the experience and directly refers to it in a conversation with Kay:
‘A good reason for starting a war is simply to have a good reason! For instance, there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings – you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way of saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests, by the sword.’
The magician clenched his fists, twisted his gown into screws, and began to shake all over. ‘Very interesting,’ he said in a trembling voice. ‘Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young – an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos.’
In the following parts, the mood turns much more sober as White delves even further into his thoughts on war. In 1939, he wrote: “I don’t like war, I don’t want war, and I didn’t start it. I think I could just bear life as a coward, but I couldn’t bear it as a hero.” This sentiment reverberates through the novel – the Arthurian knights use violence to make the world a better place, but is this really the right way to go about it? Or should he choose a different path? At the end of the novel, Arthur awaits his final battle with Mordred and wonders if all of his hard work has been worth it; has he actually made a difference or was it all for nothing? Is there just no fighting violence?
So what about the actual characters? Arthur and Merlyn are great creations and work off each other really well, but it seems clear that White has truly put his heart and soul into the figure of Sir Lancelot, who is ugly, cruel, sensitive, serious, and extremely self-critical – exactly how White saw himself. In his notes for the character, White wrote:
People he was like:
1. Lawrence of Arabia,
2. A nice captain of the cricket,
4. Sir W Raleigh,
White struggled with his own sexuality all his life, trying to cure himself through psychotherapy and heterosexual affairs, but failing miserably. When contemplating how he would tackle Lancelot’s sexuality, he noted:
17. Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual – bisexual or whatever? His treatment of young boys like Gareth and Cote Male Tale is very tender and his feeling for Arthur profound. Yet I do so want not to have to write a ‘modern’ novel about him. I could only bring myself to mention this trait, if it is a trait, in the most oblique way. [...] I don’t understand about bisexuality, so can’t write about it. There was definitely something ‘wrong’ with Lancelot, in the common sense, and this was what turned him into a genius. It is very troublesome.
However, there was one personal issue that affected White’s writing even more: his misogyny. He had serious issues with women and did not enjoy writing them. You can tell that he put a lot of effort into Guenever (considering how essential she is to Lancelot’s story) and tried to flesh her out the best he could, but one look at poor Elaine reveals that White could not wrap his head around the opposite sex. The evil temptress Morgause was inspired by his own mother, with whom he had a deeply troubled relationship. At one point, White wrote:
Women accuse men of selfishness because they can escape women (and themselves) by getting out of themselves a little. No woman has ever got out of herself. They are raving egoists. And as for saying that a woman is unselfish towards her children, that is the maddest thing of all. My existence at home, as far as my mother was concerned, was solely as an extension or attribute of herself. She was the centre, I the circumference. She has not yet discovered my existence.
Now read this paragraph from The Once and Future King:
People write tragedies in which fatal blondes betray their paramours to ruin, in which Cressidas, Cleopatras, Delilahs, and sometimes even naughty daughters like Jessica bring their lovers or their parents to distress; but these are not the heart of the tragedy. They are fripperies to the soul of man. What does it matter if Anthony did fall upon his sword? It only killed him. It is the mother’s not the lover’s lust that rots the mind. It is that which condemns the tragic character to his walking death. It is Jocasta, not Juliet, who dwells in the inner chamber. It is Gertrude, not the silly Ophelia, who sends Hamlet to his madness. The heart of tragedy does not lie in stealing or taking away. Any feather-pated girl can steal a heart. It lies in giving, in putting on, in adding, in smothering without the pillows.
Desdemona robbed of life or honour is nothing to a Mordred, robbed of himself – his soul stolen, overlaid, wizened, while the mother-character lives in triumph, superfluously and with stifling love endowed on him, seemingly innocent of ill-intention. Mordred was the only son of Orkney who never married. He, while his brothers fled to England, was the one who stayed alone with her for twenty years – her living larder. Now that she was dead, he had become her grave. She existed in him like the vampire.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book for the most part. Some readers may get frustrated by the strange start-and-stop pace; White occasionally goes on long tangents in an attempt to find an answer to the war questions (plot? What plot?), and the conversations between Arthur and Merlyn can be downright socratic. Personally, I greatly appreciated these essay-like discussions of might and justice. However, every time I stumbled upon another fierce bit of woman-hating, it took me right out of the story. The most hilarious example by far is when White is talking about Sir Bors: “unfortunately he was a misogynist, and, like most people of that sort, he had the female failing of indiscretion.” Wow. Wow.
The pearls of wisdom may outnumber these moments of utter bewilderment, and I definitely think The Once and Future King deserves its place as a classic in the fantasy genre, but it also has some serious problems that need to be addressed, not ignored. I always try to judge a work on its own merit, but in this case, the author’s personal issues are so clearly reflected in the narrative that I feel like I have to talk about them. Reading his diary entries and letters, White emerges as a man who is downright difficult to like at times. He was a heavy drinker, a sadomasochist, agonised over falling in love with a young boy, loved animals more than people (just think of how lovingly he describes Arthur’s animal mentors in The Sword in the Stone), and generally struggled to form close relationships, especially with women… And it shows. To me, it seems very telling that Lancelot’s great love affair with Queen Guenever starts with a moment of pain:
One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes.
N.B. I was torn between three and four stars for a long time, but decided on four stars in the end because of my love for certain passages, especially in The Sword in the Stone. This book was both really really great and really really frustrating.