the contextual life

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The Once and Future King by T.H. White

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Serious or satire, on the page, on screen, or on-stage, the legend of King Arthur has inspired many artistic variations. With little knowledge of the original story, I set out to read T.H. White’s adaptation, The Once and Future King.

Hailed as “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic,” The Once and Future King was published in full in 1958, with the first three of four sections published separately beginning in the late 1930s. White opens his story with a young Arthur living under the care of Sir Ector, raised alongside Ector’s biological son, Kay.

Arthur, the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, the less-than-noble Norman King of England, and Lady Igraine, the once wife of the Duke of Cornwall, was conceived through deceit. In exchange for a roll in the hay with another man’s wife, Pendragon agreed to the wizard Merlyn’s demands of handing over the offspring that would come from the tryst.

One day, still a young boy living on Sir Ector’s land, Arthur set out on a hunting trip. He soon finds himself lost in the woods and is forced to sleep in a tree for the night. The next morning, hungry, he comes across a cottage and notices a man drawing water from a nearby well.

He was dressed in a flowing gown with fur tippets which had the signs of the zodiac embroidered over it, with various cabalistic signs, such as triangles with eyes in them, queer crosses, leaves of trees, bones of birds and animals, and a planetarium whose stars shone like bits of looking-glass with the sun on them. He had a pointed hat like a dunce’s cap, or like the headgear worn by ladies of that time . . . He also had a wand of lignum vitae, which he had laid down in the grass beside him, and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, being without ear pieces, but shaped rather like scissors or like the antennae of the tarantula wasp.


Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair.

The wizard invites Arthur in for breakfast before taking him back home. “Are you really coming all the way home with me?” Arthur asks. “Why not? How else can I be your tutor?” replies Merlyn.

Part of Arthur’s study includes shape-shifting into different creatures, allowing him to experience their lives firsthand. His first shift is into a fish: his legs fuse together and his toes and feet become fins; however, it was the lives of birds that Arthur enjoyed the most.

Right at the end of Arthur’s education, word spreads throughout the kingdom of King Pendragon’s death. There is no one to succeed him (only Merlyn knows the identity of Arthur’s father) and a contest is held to see who will be next in line. Knights joust for the chance to pull a sword out of a stone, the famous story of Excalibur: “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England”. By chance, Arthur has forgotten his stepbrother Kay’s sword, which he was tasked to carry as squire, and is forced to find a replacement at the last minute. Coming across the sword in the stone, he thinks to borrow it for the tournament. With ease, he releases the weapon from its fixed place and his royal origins are revealed. Arthur becomes the next king of England.

But alas, life as king is not easy. Pendragon had made a mess of the kingdom through violence and greed and it’s Arthur who is tasked with setting it straight, uniting the warring factions, and civilizing the land as a whole. Also to contend with is his famed right-hand-man Sir Lancelot’s love for his queen, Guinevere, and her mutual admiration for the knight. Internal plots to unseat Arthur and remove Lancelot spin throughout the pages as does White’s humor.

The Once and Future King, and the story of King Arthur itself, is a timeless drama, complete with elements of Greek tragedy: a love triangle, unclaimed children, matricide, and political sabotage. One does not need to be familiar with the original story or to have read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The Once and Future King stands alone as a comprehensive story; one in which you’ll lose yourself and never want to find your way out.

Buy The Once and Future King at IndieBound or find it at your local independent bookstore
Learn more about The Once and Future King at SparkNotes


Written by Gabrielle

February 7, 2012 at 7:06 am

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