The Once and Future King (1939, 1940, 1958)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
T. H. White
Publication Date 1997
Format Leather-bound (230 x 160 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 677
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 8
No. of Reviews 228
Frontispiece/Illustrator David Martin
Original Details
Original Publisher Shaftesbury Publishing Co. Ltd.
Original Publication Year 1939, 1940, 1958
Quartet of novels by T.H. White, published in a single volume in 1958. The quartet comprises The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness--first published as The Witch in the Wood (1939)--The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (published in the composite volume, 1958). The series is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur's birth to the end of his reign, and is based largely on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. After White's death, a conclusion to The Once and Future King was found among his papers; it was published in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn.

Myths, Eric S. Rabkin wrote in Fantastic Worlds, are "the god stories that seem . . . to explain the ways of the world." The reason myths have persisted beyond the time when their explanations were useful, he continued, is because "the narrative shapes of myths, the fantastic worlds which offered an ordered alternative to the real world of our prehistoric ancestors, are narrative shapes which still seem to offer important alternatives to the real worlds we seem to inhabit." And finally, "myths, as the common property of a culture, serve as subjects of art long after the myths have been superseded as explanation."

One of those myths is the Arthurian legend, also called "the matter of Britain," the stories of the great king who symbolized in his life and accomplishments what the British prized in their past. But since the nature of what it means to be a great leader varies from generation to generation, authors periodically re-imagine the story of King Arthur. In the process they sometimes create art.

Arthur is a legend because the body of stories about him has grown far beyond reality; if he ever existed he did not reign in Camelot nor organize knights into a group for righting wrongs. He may have been a general of mixed Roman and British parents who learned the art of war from the Romans and led British forces against invading Saxons. An irony embedded here is that the British are admiring a king who fought against the Saxons that Britons claim as ancestors. The earliest mention of Arthur is by the 8th century Welsh writer Nennius, who recorded in the Historia Britonum that "tunc Arthur pugnabat cum regibus Britonum, sed ipse dux est bellorum." Not a king but a general of the armies.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th century bishop, in his largely fictional Historia Regum Britanniae, raised the Arthurian story to the legendary to satisfy the needs of his time, apparently drawing upon rich oral sources. About the same time French author Wace wrote Roman de Brut and Layamon wrote Brut in Middle English, but more significant contributions to the matter of Britain came from the 12th century French author Chr├Ętien de Troyes and German author Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose Parzzfal was the basis for Wagner's Parszfal. In these stories we see the medieval knight and the culture of knighthood read back to a time in the 5th and 6th centuries when the Germanic Saxons were raiding and finally settling in southeast England, forming Anglo-Saxon communities, and creating the Anglo-Saxon language.

The most significant contribution to the Arthurian legend was by the 15th century knight Sir Thomas Malory, who translated "certeyn bookes of frennshe," according to Caxton, the publisher who printed the first edition of Le Morte D'Arthur in 1485, 14 years after Malory's death. Malory gave the Arthurian cycle shape and style, and included materials that allowed Normans to claim Arthur as well. Guenever, for instance, flees to the Tower of London, whose construction did not begin until a dozen years after the Norman Con quest in 1066.

Since then authors have turned to Arthurian materials again and again. Edmund Spenser based The Faerie Queene upon them; Milton considered writing a national epic about Arthur before he settled on Paradise Lost; and Tennyson wrote The Idylls of the King. Mark Twain commented about his own times, as well as medieval knighthood, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, in The Mists of Avalon, retold the story from the woman's viewpoint. Each of them found in the story something that spoke to the needs of the generation to which they belonged.

It is no surprise, then, that T. H. White transformed the story of Arthur into an epic about the tragic effort of a wise man (Merlyn) and a noble king to create a modern state based on right instead of might, laws instead of men, justice instead of punishment, peace instead of war. Ii the process White created a work of art that the late fantasy editor Lin Carter called "the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written. . . ," and editor and critic John Clute called "among the finest works of fantasy ever written."

The man who wrote The Once and Future King was born Terence Hanbury White in Bombay, India, in 1906. He came from a troubled family (at one time his parents quarreled over his crib about who would shoot the baby and then commit suicide). At the age of five White was sent to live in England with his grandparents. What he considered his emotional crippling was deepened by his experiences at boarding school. His education at Cambridge was interrupted in his third year by a diagnosis of tuberculosis, but he graduated with distinction in 1929 and published a book of poetry. He became a school teacher, learned to fly planes, rode to hounds, and produced books. Among them were Farewell Victoria (1933), Earth Stopped; or, Mr. Marx's Sporting Tour (1934); Gone to Ground (1935), and England Have My Bones (1936), and went into isolation with a favorite Irish setter to write full time.

The Sword and the Stone was published in 1938; The Witch and the Wood (retitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in The Once and Future King), in 1939, and The Ill-Made Knight, in 1940. "The Candle in the Wind," the concluding book of The Once and Future King was published when the complete book came out in 1958. Within two years Alan Jay Lerner had adapted it into the stage musical Camelot, with Richard Burton as King Arthur; Richard Harris played the role in the 1967 film. Walt Disney produced an animated version of The Sword and the Stone in 1963. The play made White's fortune but he didn't have long to enjoy it. He died in 1964 of a heart attack on a ship bound from America to Greece.

White had written Mistress Masham's Repose in 1946, The Elephant and the Kangaroo, in 1947, The Goshawk in 1951, and The Master: An Adventure Story, in 1957. The Maharajah and Other Stories was published posthumously in 1981. The Book of Merlyn, considered a conclusion to The Once and Future King, was rejected during World War II because of its pacifist sentiments; parts were transferred to The Sword and the Stone when it was rewritten for the complete novel, and The Book of Merlyn itself was not published until 1977.

But if he had written only The Once and Future King, White's reputation would be secure. In Arthur's tragic saga, White compressed into fifty years the transformation of brutal armored warriors into knighthood and then the replacement of knights by soldiers with the introduction of gunpowder. In the final chapters White sums it up: "During the earliest days before his marriage he had tried to match [Majeur's] strength - in his battles against the Gaelic confederation - only to find that two wrongs did not make a right. But he had crushed the feudal drams of war successfully. Then, with his Round Table, he had tried to harness Tyranny in lesser forms, so that its power might be used for useful ends. He had sent out the men of might to rescue the oppressed and to straighten evil - to put down the individual might of barons, just as he had put down the might of kings.. . . At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws. He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state."

At the end Mordred uses cannon against the Tower of London where Guenever is besieged. " 'Now that the guns have come,' said Arthur, 'the Table is over.' "He had tried to bring law, to create the modern state, but it had foundered on humanity's appetites, its loves and its hates, its lust for old possessions and its nursing of old injuries that did not allow the new to be born. "If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason," White offers as Arthur's final thought.

But none of this gives the full flavor of the novel, which depends upon White's understanding of the Arthurian tragedy underlain by the hope for new institutions that would allow people to be truly human. White brings to the old story contemporary sensibilities, com paring the old with the new as if to translate it for his modern readers, using Merlyn's process of living backwards in time as a way of introducing future concepts, focusing on the smallest aspects of existence as much as the largest battles as if to say that life is made up of little things whose cumulative total determines the fate of battles.

The gracefulness of the prose is matched only by the turns of wit and comedy, all in contemporary language:

The King put his head in his hands and looked miserably at the table between his elbows. He was a kind, conscientious, peace- loving fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius. Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong. To stop this sort of thing, they had invented the idea of the Table - a vague idea like democracy, or sportsmanship, or morals - and now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to his elbows in blood.... He was one of the first Nordic men who had invented civilization, or who had desired to do otherwise than Attila the Hun had done...

The tragedy of King Arthur is that everyone loses.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
I. The Sword in the Stone Start Page: 1
II. The Queen of Air and Darkness Start Page: 215
III. The Ill-Made Knight Start Page: 325
IV. The Candle in the Wind Start Page: 545