Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (1958), T. H. White. Paperback, 639 pages. 

Summary:  A humorous and poignant retelling of the legend of King Arthur and his knights. The first book, The Sword in the Stone, offers a lighthearted introduction to King Arthur, and was the basis for the Disney movie of the same name. The material grows a bit more adult as Arthur matures and struggles to maintain order in his kingdom, and to negotiate the tricky relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. For a more detailed summary, click here.

     "Testimonials," said Merlyn, holding out his hand.
     Instantly there were some heavy tablets in it, signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and some type-written duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity, who could not remember having met him. All these gave Merlyn an excellent character.
     "He had 'em up his sleeve," said Sir Ector wisely. "Can you do anything else?"
     "Tree," said Merlyn. At once there was an enormous mulberry growing in the middle of the courtyard, with its luscious blue fruits ready to patter down. This was all the more remarkable, since mulberries only became popular in the days of Cromwell.
     "They do it with mirrors," sad Sir Ector.
     "Snow," said Merlyn. "And an umbrella," he added hastily.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 8/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10

Overall Recommendation: 9/10


Writing Quality: 7/10. White writes with a sort of dry, tongue-in-cheek style, one that is easy to recognize in later British authors like Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman (though Pratchett tends a little sillier, and Gaiman can be more poetic, and Rowling a little simpler, writing for a younger audience). The narrative voice is consistent and pleasurable, and offers a sort of aloof counterpoint to a variety of tragic threads in the story, not the least of which involves Lancelot and Guinevere. Of course we care about Arthur and his troubles, but White's voice is very present (with frequent wall-breaking asides), so that we are always aware that we are reading a story, rather than becoming unconsciously immersed in his world. It's a storytelling style that works, and White is both nuanced and witty, if not particularly brilliant, as a writer. Although he is no Melville or Cormac McCarthy, there are wonderful phrases and descriptions in the book that I would be proud to have crafted myself.

Depth of Concept: 7/10.  White's take on the Arthurian legend is unique and thoughtful, though it is mostly driven by the plot-points of the traditional tale. Having said that, it's interesting to read it as a story of inevitability, partly because the Arthur story is so well known. Merlyn is a useful illustration of the concept, in the way he lives backwards, and so already knows the way everything will end. I think there could be an interesting paper looking at the ways that retellings do something very different narratively than original stories, simply because we already know the way things end. By nature, every retelling might be an illustration of fate or determinism. The Arthur story generally offers a useful lens through which to look at power and nation-building, and White offers psychological nuance to that framework.

Rounded Characters: 8/10. Many characters in the book lack depth (Pellinore, for instance), even if they provide humorous interactions and fun side stories (I found the same, on a simpler level, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). But for the principals, including Arthur, Lancelot, and Merlyn, White uses great psychological care. Lancelot's self-hate is tenuously balanced by his great love for his king and his mistress, and Arthur's noble nation-building dream teeters on the edge of his tricky personal relationships. Most of the major characters are conflicted, both in complicated and dramatically powerful ways. 

Well-Developed World: 7/10. There is a lot of useful, and sometimes poetic, description of the Arthurian world, but not with the sort of specificity or scope that Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings, nor with the historical significance or political nuance in something like Rushdie's Midnight's Children. George R. R. Martin presents a Britain-esque world that feels more literal and present in A Game of Thrones; White's Camelot is more fairytale-esque, sort of mysterious and shrouded at its edges, and a bit more episodic in its content. The actual location and setting of many events seems of less importance than the characters involved in the event. There is, for instance, no need for a map to follow the narrative. White's narrative style seems less interested in world-building, and more interested in character interactions, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. 

Page Turner: 7/10. The book is long, and a lot of the story happens in rooms with people talking to each other. With a less capable writer, it would make for a long, dull slog, but it is White's narrative voice that pulls you along, with his clever insights and bite-sized pieces of wisdom. Still, since we mostly know the trajectory of the Arthur story, it can be hard to feel like you really want to know what happens next. I certainly didn't read the thing in one sitting, but I found something of value every time I picked it up.

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10. White is a good writer, and many of his descriptions gave me pause to consider the way that he described something so aptly, whether a physical or psychological description. Nevertheless, I wasn't as existentially or intellectually involved as I was when reading something like Moby Dick, for instance, where many characters are both allegorical and literal, and where so many interpretations are possible. Nor was it quite McCarthy's The Road, where so much fluff is stripped away to leave the reader with no choice but to inhabit a horrific, almost hopeless situation, and desperately work to see the light at the end, long after putting the book down. Still, the Arthurian legend is one of the great, powerful stories in English literature, and that makes this a valuable story, and one that would stand up to comparison both with its Arthurian sources and with other great mythic works. It's more thoughtful, if less well-paced than Martin's A Game of Thrones, which has been compared to it, and its concern with honor, love, and loyalty present substantial conflicts to muse over. 

Overall Recommendation: 9/10. The Once and Future King may not be a perfect novel, but I'm not aware of any other modern retelling of a classic legend that can stand up to it. The source material was already rich with drama and historical and national significance, and White's version does an admirable job of including all of that. It's a pleasurable read, both for youngsters and for intellectuals, something that few stories are able to accomplish. It says something both about myth-making, and about the war years in which White was writing the various sections of the book (a task that lasted decades).

Books To Compare: It almost goes without saying that Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is one of the first places you should go when comparing subject material. There are other Arthur tales, such as in the Lais of Marie de France, but Malory's is both a huge, foundational work, and an exciting read (so long as you're mature enough to get past archaic spellings and the like). If you're an English major, it will be on your required reading list. Of course, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would also be a good comparison, as Tolkien was specifically trying to create a modern mythology to rival the Arthur stories, Beowulf, etc. Although I side (barely) with Tolkien, I think there'd be a good debate about whether Tolkien's or White's work was the better work of art. Both would be excellent to read along with Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I think Rushdie's The Satanic Verses might be an interesting comparison. The Satanic Verses is a strong, intelligent work, and it might be comparable to White's Arthur story, both in quality and in the way it explores and retells a mythology -- that of Muhammad. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Once and Future King on Amazon.

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