The first time I came across this book was when Magneto read it in prison in the second X-men movie from 2003. I don’t remember if the book functioned in the rest of the movie, but I have a weakness for both X-men and evil characters with a twisted past, dubious motivations and a sliver of goodness, so I had to read this book. To my great delight characters like that are also present plenty in this book (Mordred for example!). So I was overjoyed with the opportunity to revisit this book when it was requested.
This book is actually a compilation of four shorter books each telling a part of the story. Since the four books were published in one book I’ll review them as a whole. There is also a fifth instalment, but that one was published posthumously and is not part of the book I own, so I will not include that in my review. The four books are: ‘the sword in the stone’ in which Arthur grows up; ‘the witch in the wood’ where the round table is born; ‘the ill-made knight’ which surrounds mainly around Lancelot and Guenever and ‘the candle in the wind’ which is the last sad book where everything ends and Arthur ponders right and wrong. The fifth non-reviewed book is the book of Merlyn.
The books focus on explaining the reasoning and rationality behind the people instead of focusing on the actual events in the myth. This means that the books are not full of epic swordfights, knights who are always leaving their wives to go on quests and tales of undying love or betrayal. All those things are still present of course, because this IS a re-telling of King Arthur’s myth, but it is not the main focus. In this way this book is a very interesting read for everybody who wants to understand the ‘people behind the myth’ as human being with all their faults and complexities.
Because this book focuses more on explaining the people than telling the actual story it felt very strange to me at first. Especially because my first expectation of the book was a fun, adventurous re-telling of the legend of King Arthur, Merlyn and his knights. It took me a while to see how the different four books came together. Only in the last one, the candle in the wind, does White tie all the different storylines together. This is because the four books separately each tell a very different kind of story which have to be seen together to make fully sense.
The first book for example consists mainly of many disjointed scenes of a boy named ‘the wart’ being transformed into various animals. This is done by Merlyn as part of his education for when he will be king. All the loose scenes made it difficult for me to get into the book initially, because I had no clue what White was trying to do. Only at the end of book one it becomes clear that ‘the wart’ is actually Arthur and that he learned how to be ‘a good king’ through the transformations. This makes book one not a very interesting book in itself in my opinion.
In the remaining three books things really become interesting, especially when Arthur starts to set up the round table to bring back some peace and morality to England. This is very difficult because most times his own knights do not even keep true to the knightly morals of the round table. This ties in nicely with the idea that king Arthur will return to England once more when he is most needed, because in these books he was also a king when the country most needed him. At times Arthur’s efforts to improve the morality of the land becomes woeful because it is very clear he is raised to have a certain set of standards nobody around him seems to find important. It is also sad when Arthur starts to fear the round table and all of its ideas were doomed from the start. Let it be clear: this is not a cheerful book, but I suppose King Arthur’s legend is not a cheerful one as well. This is made even more abundantly clear because of the attention Lancelot, Guenever and Mordred get in this book.
The writing style of this book is quite old-fashioned and at some points difficult to understand. That is because this is quite an old book (the first book is published in 1938). This makes it not a book you can easily read through in a lazy afternoon. This fits very well with the nature of the book because the slowness of the prose forces you to think about everything that is said, giving the reader ample time to make up their own mind about every character. For example there is one character explanation in this book I have always remember because it feels so true and understanding of humanity and its constant debate of what is good and bad. It is how White explains Lancelot: “But the curious thing was that under the king-post of keeping faith with himself and with others, he had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. His word (his oath towards the round table) was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is bad people who need to have principles to restrain them.” This quote also shows the superb job White does with giving depth to characters everyone knows from the myths, which makes this re-telling original and gives even the most knowledgeable king Arthur-fanatic something new to read.
A book recommended for everyone who either reads everything King Arthur related or who is interested in books trying to explain the Human psyche behind persons.
Honourable knight award for a story about humanity told with sadness which will make everyone pity poor Arthur.
T. H. White, the once and future king (New York 1939)
Bella G. Bear