Of all the books I was tasked with reading in high school, The Once and Future King by T.H. White is the one that stuck with me most. It is from this novel that I gained a great appreciation for knights, swords, kings, wizards and other key elements of the fantasy genre. This book led me to read the much older work by Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, on which The Once and Future King is based. It also led me to enjoy the 2004 film King Arthur, which attempted to connect the mythical Arthur to his assumed historic inspiration. You probably hated that movie, but I loved it, and that’s all we’re going to say about it.
While there can be little doubt that interest in the Arthurian legend, with backwards-living Merlyn the wizard and mythical exploits of great Knights of the Round Table, contributes to my enjoyment of other works of fantasy, I think it’s actually the book’s reality that makes it so compelling. Intertwined in tales of true heroes and villains, we see an accurate representation of human nature.
Part of this reality comes from the way White crafted the book. Written in the 1950s, the text includes intentional anachronisms thanks to Merlyn’s unique timeline – he has already seen modern technology because he’s living in reverse of the rest of the characters – as well as allusions directly from White about things that would’ve been common to modern readers yet foreign to the characters. But the most important realism comes from the characters themselves, most notably the story’s key figures.
What we know about Arthur from pop culture and the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone – based on the first segment, or book, of The Once and Future King – is certainly the stuff of legend. A young boy pulls a magical sword from a stone to become the King of all England. But what we learn from this novel is that Arthur’s ascent to the throne is much more reality-based.
Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon, the king of Britain, and Igraine, the wife of another noble he had slain in battle. To hide the scandalous timing of his birth, Arthur is sent to live with another noble, where he is educated by Merlyn. He is literally the heir to the throne, and the sword is just an eye-catching way to find him.
“Arthur was not one of those interesting characters whose subtle moves can be dissected. He was only a simple and affectionate man, because Merlyn had believed that love and simplicity were worth having.”
This is how Arthur is described as the scandal that will be his undoing unfolds. His best friend, Lancelot, has an ongoing love affair with Arthur’s wife, Guenever. Arthur knows about it, and yet he chooses not to act because he cares for both of them. The choice is that simple for Arthur for most of his life: What’s best for his lifestyle and the health of his kingdom is to ignore adultery and treason that really only affects him.
Even his greatness as a leader is not based on any inherent greatness. Instead, his upbringing as an adopted son, educated by a wizard through the workings of the natural world, give him a sense for what is just and right that dictates his entire life. While Merlyn’s magical presence in his life is certainly fantastical – as are his experiences being transformed into various woodland creatures – the resulting effects on his personality are very real and logical.
Lancelot is exposed to Arthur’s ideals at a young age, and he immediately becomes defined by them. He loves Arthur for what the king represents, and he wants badly to be a Knight of the Round Table. But he is equally motivated by a desire to achieve perfection, based on his own religious upbringing and his perceived physical imperfection.
As young men do, Lancelot falls in love with the beautiful young queen. He truly battles this attraction, but because it is mutual, he eventually succumbs. And while it initially comes off as illogical, the characterization of Lancelot as someone that loves and respects Arthur yet also sleeps with Arthur’s wife is very reality-based. We know these things happen in real life, we know they don’t make sense and the fact that we get to see into Lancelot’s thought processes and shortcomings allow the reader to sympathize with a man who consistently commits adultery with his best friend’s spouse.
When described simply, Guenever might be hard to like. She’s the Queen of all England, married to a man driven by justice, love and fairness, and yet she has an affair with his best friend. But like the rest of the book’s major characters, things are much more complex than that.
And White doesn’t have to tell us that we should feel compassion for the queen; he simply tells her story and lets us see where that need for compassion lies. Guenever doesn’t marry Arthur because they love each other. In fact, there’s no real account of their meeting, courtship or wedding. Instead, the reader is introduced to Guenever as the daughter of a nobleman who owns a type of table that matches Arthur’s description of his Round Table that will be key to his idea of chivalry. Their marriage is an arranged marriage of mutual benefit, and Arthur is a good bit older than Guenever.
Lancelot, meanwhile, is closer to the queen’s age, and they get to know each other before they ever consider any sort of romantic relationship. Their love is a natural one, and like Lancelot, Guenever fights against her urges because she does love Arthur. She just loves the two men differently.
Mordred is the polar opposite of Arthur’s purity and love, which is ironic since he is revealed to be Arthur’s son. Born of a tryst between Arthur and his half-sister Morgause – a witch who uses her powers to seduce the king without his knowledge of their family ties – Mordred is evil incarnate.
But why wouldn’t he be? Arthur and White both recognize the circumstances of his upbringing that have made him so inclined. A young King Arthur, frightened by prophecies about Mordred’s future, helps bring those prophecies to life by killing a boatload of babies in an effort to kill off Mordred. The boy survives, and his mother uses that and her own dislike of Arthur to poison his mind. While his brothers – Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth – go off to the Round Table, Mordred remains home with his mother.
In the same way Arthur was indoctrinated with values of truth, justice and love, Mordred was raised with revenge, hatred and dark magic at the core of his upbringing. He had little choice but to become the villain. And he has a legitimate gripe. His last connection to his father was Arthur’s very real plan to kill Mordred. That mistake, more than any other factor, is what led to the king’s eventual downfall, just another tie to the real world, where there are no magical fixes and actions have consequences.
So for all the supernatural elements of the King Arthur legend, it is the natural that makes The Once and Future King stand out as a classic. The otherworldly skill, evil and purity are no match for the ways we can see ourselves and our experiences in the characters White brings to life.