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The Once and Future King Mass Market Paperback – July 15, 1987
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“A fierce and damaged man, T. H. White wrote about fierce and damaged people—and children, and animals—with a brilliant, painful innocence that has no equal in literature. He is so good at hurt and shame—how did he also manage to be so funny? I have laughed at his great Arthurian novel and cried over it and loved it all my life.”—Ursula K. Le Guin
“Certain books offer pleasures so rich and enduring, they become part of what defines us. The Once and Future King is like that for me. It manages—by some miracle—to be about its own time, and a distant, legendary time, and about today. It mingles wisdom, wonderful, laugh-out-loud humor and deep sorrow—while telling one of the great tales of the Western world. I envy the reader coming to it for the first time.”—Guy Gavriel Kay
“White took hold of the ultimate English epic and recast it in modern literary language, sacrificing none of its grandeur or its strangeness in the process, and adding in all the humor and passion that we expect from a novel. What was once as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry becomes rich and real and devastatingly sad.”—Lev Grossman
“Touching, profound, funny and tragic.”—Los Angeles Times
“Richly imagined and unfailingly eloquent and entertaining, its appeal is timeless and universal. If a reader reads only one Arthurian tale, let this be it.”—Booklist
“The Once and Future King is full of insights, scenes and flourishes that are really quite astonishing.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
About the Author
T. H. White is the author of the classic Arthurian fantasy The Once and Future King, among other works.
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"The Queen of Air and Darkness": A bit better but not great.
"The Ill-Made Knight": Made the previous two books worth it. Absolutely incredible. It has a strong claim to be the second best fantasy (to Tolkien's masterpiece) ever. White is a genius when it comes to characterization, and his portrayal of Lancelot is full of incredible nuance. He makes the ill-made knight more human than I've ever even seen somebody attempt to do. The previous two books are important as set-up, though.
"The Candle in the Wind": One of the greatest tragedies I've ever seen, on par with Shakespeare. Once again, every single character feels alive. Even Mordred is presented with more sympathy than I thought possible. The ending is moving and heartbreaking.
Conclusion: Despite a slow start, the book is a masterpiece.
Anyway, the story itself. It begins when the young man who will become King Arthur meets Merlin, goes through his life, all the legends come to life, the sword in the stone, Arthur's eventually fatal misalliance with his sister, Lancelot and Guenevere's betrayal, the Knights of the Round Table, all told with wit, humor, compassion and sensitivity by the great T.H.White. My favorite parts will always be in the first part of the book, when Merlin tutors the young Arthur, or Wart, as he is nicknamed, in the ways of the world by changing him into a beast or a bird or a fish or an insect. Those little vignettes are so charming. Well, I am only halfway through this re-reading, Lancelot just met Guenevere, and, while I know how it will end, I am still absorbed and enthralled, all over again.
There is a certain irony in the fact that perhaps the three most influential authors of modern fantasy lived about the same time an in the same area. Indeed, two of them were colleagues and friends, T.H. White died in 1964, and C.S. Lewis passed in 1963 to be followed by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1973. And all called England home. The impact of the tales of Arthur and Merlyn, Narnia, and Middle Earth are undeniable, all are well cherished by their followers and all resulted in significant film adaptations. Indeed, thanks to Peter Jackson in far off New Zealand no less than six epic films have been created to relate the tales of Middle Earth. Lewis and Tolkien lectured at Oxford University and regularly met in local pubs with pipes in hand. White was more of a solitary and quite troubled individual whose personal grappling with the immorality of war caused him to find some kind of refuge in neutral Ireland. All three were products of their time the turbulent first half of the twentieth century and the two World Wars. And all three proved masters of their craft. Aside from the common thread of fantasy in general, all three were singularly affected by the legends of Arthur and Camelot, principally from Mallory who is not only referred to constantly in White but actually takes the stage as a very important character to end The Once and Future King, young Tom of Warwick.
Coming from this perspective, I think that White is one of the only modern writers whose approach to Camelot mirrors that of the original Arthurian authors. Chretien de Troyes and Mallory were not writing about Arthur, they were writing about their own times -- the places and fashions that mattered, the people and manners that they experienced, reflected in the idealized mirror of Arthur.
The Once and Future King is about White's experiences with war and tragedy -- these are mirrored in the childish foolishness and aged grief of the Wart, and muddled into the tragedy of Lancelot and Guenever. It is not always an easy book. It is very obviously a product of its own peculiar place and time, as all good Arthurian stories should be. It is my favourite book.