Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


Old comments migrated to Disqus, currently working outtechnical issues

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Book Review, The Once and Future King, T. H. White

This classic is actually a compilation of four stories: The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), The Candle in the Wind (1958).

The first is the most enjoyable, telling of Arthur's boyhood, ending with his fateful encounter with the sword Excalibur that establishes him as the King of England. Merlyn's tutelage of the young Arthur is paramount to the story. The primary lessons involve Arthur being turned into an animal, and all address the issue of Might. He learns of raw predatory power from the fish, rank, protocol and duty from the falcons and hawks, totalitarianism from the ants, cooperative society from the geese, and self-reliance from the badger. This essay touches on these themes.

There is also an adventure in which the boy Arthur and his stepbrother Kay join a quest to rescue several captives from Morgan la fey's enchanted castle, which is made completely of various foodstuffs. The prisoners are lashed to columns made of pork - I'd like to see someone try to pull that off at Guantanamo...

The second recounts several key events. Arthur conceives and implements the Round Table. He defeats the rebellion of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney. Lot's four sons - Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth - become Arthur's knights after their father's defeat. Their mother Queen Morgause (sister of Morgan la Fey) uses sorcery to seduce Arthur - not knowing him to be his half-brother (Arthur was the product of Uther Pendragon's rape of Morgause's mother) - and conceives Mordred.

The third and fourth tales are a depressing and often plodding read; they fall on my list of Stuff To Read Once And Only Once. Amidst Sir Lancelot's falls from and returns to grace, various feuds develop amongst the knights, the worst involving the Orkneys. They feud with Pellinore after the old knight kills their father in combat. Arthur earns several black marks from the brothers; old Pendragon's sin against their grandmother, Arthur's liaison with Morgause (they never learned that she engineered it), his attempt to cover up his indiscretion by having the baby Mordred killed.

Arthur reforms the criminal code by replacing trial-by-combat with jury trial, but this comes back to bite him when the Orkneys expose the affair between Lancelot and Guenevir. The "ill-made knight" escapes capture while the queen is sentenced to deaths; he rescues her from being burned at the stake, and in the ensuing battle Gaheris and Gareth are killed.

This sets up Mordred's plans for Might; as Arthur has Lance under siege in a French castle, Mordred spreads the lie that the two are dead and usurps the throne. Arthur gives up the siege to war with Mordred, and some days afterward Lancelot learns of the events and leaves to join his king in England to fight Mordred. The story ends with Arthur, on the even of battle, instructing a boy (who is supposed to represent Thomas Malory, the authoritative source on Arthurian legend) to return to his home and to keep alive the tale of King Arthur and the Round Table and the ideals they represent.

I have never liked love-triangle plots - all that selfishness and wasted emotional energy. The Lancelot-Guinevere is especially pathetic. It's bad enough that a bored housewife seeks a little excitement with some dude who fulfills fantasies of flash and excitement. But it's even worse that a man who has the code of chivalry drilled into his soul obsesses over his king's wife. Even when I was a teenager I didn't chase after girls who were dating someone else. You're a hundred times the chick magnet than I am, Lance - get a life and look for someone who's actually available.

No surprise, Arthur and Lancelot are the best-developed characters. Guinevere is not a two-dimensional character, but that third dimension could use a little filling out. Morgause and her knightly sons are fascinating characters. Scarcely anything is said of the Grail quest.

The character I like the most is King Pellinore. He embodies the chivalric code more than any of the others, in my opinion. When he finds the Questing Beast injured, he nurses it back to health rather than nabbing the poor creature and declaring the quest fulfilled. This stands in stark contrast to the Orkneys' quest for a unicorn, which ends with Agravaine killing the creature.

For those interested in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, the University of Virginia Library has the entire text online here. No talking owls in that version.


Site Meter