Friday, October 06, 2017

38. The Once and Future King by T. H. White

This book is a bit above my pay grade.  I grabbed it free somewhere because it was one of those so comfortable Fontana paperbacks from the '80s and the title struck some distant chord in my memory.  I thought I was getting into a filled-out retelling of the Arthurian myth, which is exactly what it is, except not at all in the style that I expected.  I understand now that this book was a pretty huge hit when it came out and possibly one of the more important contributors to our contemporary understanding of the Knights of the Round Table.

What really threw me is that right from the beginning, the writing style is irreverent, almost flippant.  It reminded me of the British tradition of taking the piss out of things.  White makes a real effort to make Merlyn seem muddled (though still powerful) and there are long sections devoted to making questing knights seems like the twits of Monty Python.  It is also anachronistic, both in the story itself, because Merlyn is going backwards in time and makes constant references to things that haven't happened yet, especially the rise of fascism and in the meta-text because the narrator uses modern factors to build metaphors, like knights as cricket stars.  It's very jarring but then becomes quite fun.  The portrayal of magic is really cool as well, both utterly fantastic (Merlyn transforms Arthur into various animals as part of his education) and grounded (the hunting birds are rigorously mannered).

It's actually 4 books that later got put together into this single volume.  The first part is about Arthur's upbringing leading up to him pulling the sword out of the stone (which is a deliberate anti-climax).  The second, almost an interlude, introduces the secondary characters like Gawaine and his brothers, at a young age.  The third book is all about Lancelot, the love triangle between him Arthur and Guinevere and ultimately about Arthur's attempt to impose the rule of Right rather than Might on Britain.  The fourth book is it all coming undone.

And that is the main theme of the book.  It takes the piss out of the weight of the middle ages and then ultimately raises Arthur up as this deeply heroic figure not because of wars won but because of an extremist idealism to make England and ultimately the Christian world into a place that was ruled by justice, a modernized code of chivalry.  In effect, he reinforces the idea of the myth of Arthur as the father of Britain and takes it to an even greater level.  All the books were written around World War II and the spectre of fascism and Hitler's rise to power is explicit, especially in the last book.  White philosophizes deeply via Arthur's thoughts as an old king, failing to maintain his ethos in his kingdom about why man must constantly fall back into Might.

So it's a deep book, but along the way a lot of fun.  Another theme here is that White clearly loves the middle ages and he takes pains to show how rich and complex life was back then.  He doesn't shy from its brutality (and it gets brutal at points), but he does enrichen the culture, industry, crafting and thinking of the time that definitely worked on this reader.

Good stuff, definitely should be read by every nerd.

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