Audiobook Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Genre: Fantasy, Mythology
Series: Books 1-5 of The Once and Future King
Publisher: Voyager (1996; first published in 1958)
Tiara’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve been participating in the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge. While mapping out my reads for the challenge, one of the objectives read, “A book by an author who had your same initials.” My initials are T.W. and a quick Google search led me to T.H. White whose literary claim to fame was writing a fantasy book called The Once and Future King. Further investigation revealed this book is actually an omnibus of novels centered around Arthurian legend. The first book is famous for being the foundation of a Disney movie, with which it shared its name, called The Sword in the Stone. This collection of books follow King Arthur’s journey from orphaned squire to legendary king to betrayed lover to his ultimate demise.
I’m a big history nerd and a big myth nerd, so it stands to reason that I’m a big mythic legend nerd. Admittedly, though, Arthurian legend is pretty low on legends I want to read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but King Arthur’s stories are one of those that are done to death, especially the Lancelot and Guinevere aspect of Arthur’s story. I’ve given each book a rating with an overall rating at the end.
I‘m sure EVERYONE knows the story of Arthur, but if you’re not familiar with it and may read this eventually, stop right here! THERE’S NOTHING MENTIONED THAT ISN’T ALREADY COMMON KNOWLEDGE, BUT YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. USE CAUTION!
The Sword in the Stone
Length: 9hrs and 40 minutes
“The King is dead,” he said. “Long live the King.”
Wart (Arthur) lives as the adopted son to a lord named Sir Ector and as an adopted brother to Ector’s son, Kay. Ector raises the children side by side and gives Wart every opportunity that he gives Kay including their “eddication” (education). However, Kay is destined for knighthood while the ambiguous nature of Wart’s background will never allow him to rise above the station of Kay’s squire. After their former tutor is locked away for showing a wound “that was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic by mistake.” Merlyn becomes the boys’ tutor. Merlyn “lives backward” in time and has knowledge about the future, including the tragedy that will become Wart’s story. Merlyn takes special interest in Wart whom he uses his magic to turn into various animals to learn life lessons.
Six years later, King Uther Pendragon has died without an heir. This has plummeted the nation into chaos, but an anvil with a stone in it has appeared in front of a church in England with the insription: “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of the Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.” Men from around the country travel to London to participate in a tournament to attempt to pull the sword from the anvil. Kay forgets his sword for the tilting field and sends Wart (now his squire) to retreive it. Unable to enter the locked in, Arthur pulls the sword from the anvil.
There’s a certain sense of nostalgia here for me since the animated movie The Sword in the Stone is close to my heart. I can remember watching that movie on repeat as a child. I thought this was mostly a cute story, but if you think the story is going to stay this light and fluffy, it’s not.
The Witch in the Wood (Also known as The Queen of Air and Darkness)
Length: 13 hrs and 5 mins (combined with The Ill-Made Knight)
“Indeed, they did love her. Perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically—to those who hardly think about us in return.”
This book is where Arthur’s story starts to take a darker turn, and plays on the ideas that the sins of the father revisit the son. This book follows Arthur as he begins to think of ways to unite the people, which brings about a lot of philosophical debate tinged with humor about war between Arthur, Kay, and Merlyn. This is the story that introduces us to Arthur’s round table and his reasoning for deciding to make it round (to foster camaraderie between his knights by making them all appear equal at a round table rather than at a traditional table where a knight might feel his seat is further away from the head and therefore an insinuation that he wasn’t as good as those before him).
However, largely this book follows Arthur’s Gaelic half-sister–the queen of Orkney, sister to Morgan Le Fay, and a witch herself, Morgeuse–and her sons (eventual knights of the round table), Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravain. Morguese’s husband, King Lot, wages a failed campaign against the young Arthur. Morguese and her sons play a large role in the eventual downfall of Arthur. This book gives a glimpse of the people the young boys will become in time and the dark machinations of their mother whose attention they clamor desperately for. Arthur isn’t aware of who his mother is, even if he’s now aware that his father is the deceased king Uther Pendragon. When he meets Morguese and her sons, he doesn’t know that they share a mother, and well, she is a really beautiful woman. I have such a soft spot for books where characters have so many psychological issues with the loved ones in their lives that shaped them, so my rating of this part is largely due to the Orkney clan.
The Ill-Made Knight
Length: 13 hrs and 5 mins (combined with The Witch in the Wood)
“He would not call himself Sir Lancelot. He would call himself the Chevalier Mal Fet—the Ill-Made Knight.So far as he could see—and he felt that there must be some reason for it somewhere—the boy’s face was as ugly as a monster’s in the King’s menagerie.”
This story begins the downfall of Arthur. Readers learn a great deal about Lancelot the son of a French king who decides from a very young age to dub himself Chevalier mal fet–The Ill-Made Knight because Lancelot is supposedly ugly, looking more like an ape than a man, which is very unusual in Arthurian lore for him not to be some handsome, shining prince like Jaime Lannister. Lancelot trains from a very young age to become one of Arthur’s knights after he begins to hero worship Arthur after a meeting where he’s decided he already loves the King and he will be everything the king wants him to be. He strives to be the best, and he wants Arthur’s attentions for himself (not like that… what kind of book do you think these are?). For this reason, Lancelot loathes Guinevere at first because she commands Arthur’s attention. Arthur seeing that the two people closest to him are unable to get along has Guinevere assist Lancelot in falconing.
Despite his appearance, Guinevere acquiesces that he isn’t attractive in any conventional way, but she see his looks as more interesting than appalling. Lancelot only begins to fall for the Queen after he insults her and sees the real harm he’s done. It’s here where the book explains that Lancelot can’t care about things unless he’s done some grievance. Then, he feels he has to atone for his grievance, which leads to a love affair between the two. Lancelot still loves both his king and now, his queen, which puts in him constantly in odds with himself. He takes on quests to avoid her, but we know how fate goes.
This book didn’t make me like Lancelot at all. Not even a little bit. It’s not even actually like he was a “good” person. It made me despise Gawaine for the most part, too, who is known to fly into rages and harm/kill even women, but somehow he’s still considered chivalrous. I also hated the way that White wrote Guinevere and just women in particular, straddling them with unnecessary pettiness, blaming them for their “downfalls,” which surely was their own fault and worthy of the extreme violence bestowed on them.
The only thing I really liked about this was the obvious conflict in all parties involved in the love triangle. All these characters love one another–Lancelot loves the King and the Queen, and they both love him in turn. They also love each other in their own way. Arthur isn’t blind. Even without knowing what Merlyn has told him, he knows Lancelot loves his wife (and vice versa), but he cares deeply for both. I appreciated that White tried to give this some complexity because it’s not always as simple as “YOU CHEATED ON ME! YOU GOTTA GO!” Sometimes, very complex and conflicting feelings come into play during such situations.
The Candle in the Wind
Length: 10hrs and 15 mins (combined with The Book of Merlyn)
This is where it all comes crashing down. Agravaine hates Lancelot and Mordred hates his father, the King (child of the incest mentioned earlier). The conspire together to tell the king of Lancelot and Guinevere’s transgressions. Everyone knows of the transgressions, but once publicly acknowledged, Arthur will have to have Lancelot killed and Guinevere burned at the stake. Once Mordred has brought their transgressions to public, Lancelot flees and promises to rescue Guinevere.
He does rescue Guinevere from the pyre, but not before accidentally killing Gareth and Gaheris, brothers to Gawaine and Agravain, in the battle. The lovers flee, but their actions continue a course of events that lead to Mordred and Arthur meeting each other in an ill-fated battle. Sadly, their battle could’ve been avoided and would’ve been avoided, but a miscommunication ended in the death of Mordred and Arthur being mortally wounded and sent to Avalon (where he probably died, but could have possibly been healed, as well).
I think I appreciated this book most of all because it just so tragic. And it wasn’t just tragic because of the actions of Arthur having to sentence his closest friend and his wife to death, but the fact that this isn’t something anyone wanted to happen aside from Gawaine wanting revenge for his brothers’ deaths and understandably so. It was just the whole implication of the matter. It was a tragedy that felt avoidable and unavoidable at the same time. Nothing was beautiful and everything hurt in this book.
The Book of Merlyn
Length: 10hrs and 15 mins (combined with The Candle in the Wind)
I’m not going to say a lot about this book because this book was somewhat unnecessary, in my opinion. The 4th book was the perfect ending. This book seems to rehash many things from the earlier books as well as mentioning how Guinevere went on to live and die in a covent. Lancelot lived as a hermit. His last miracle to the world releasing a scent of Heaven upon his death. Mostly, though this book seemed to be a philosophical look at the recurring theme that might isn’t always right as once believed by the kings and lords. If there’s anything that I can praise this book for is that it does take a more philosophical look at war and Arthur’s moral standings.
This series is narrated by Neville Jason who is an excellent narrator and is very accomplished in the narration field. He’s written and read a biographical piece about Marcel Proust after reading Proust’s serial novel Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time). He had a way with emphasizing the humor aspects of the book that I might not have found quite as amusing if I’d only read the book. These books are not Whispersync ready, but I managed to manually keep up between the book and audiobook (I didn’t read much of the book without the narration because it was Jason was such an excellent narrator), which is how I spotted some of the racial slurs used in this book. The narrator substituted those words for different words during his reading, thankfully.
I have some overall issues with these books. Some of that I attribute to reading so late in life and it not being as magical to me as it might’ve been if I were much younger, and some of it I attribute to the fact that I’m just not comfortable with some of these things (such as the the weird way White wrote women which seem to be part amazement and part condescending, and admittedly, the racial slurs used in the book were usually to show how crass a character was, but still kind of took away from the enjoyment of lighthearted parts). However, stating as I have with other books that have some problems, I accept that these books were written in a time when things like this were accepted and were considered comical, but that doesn’t mean that I have to be okay with it and overlook it in this day and age just because the author might not have “known better.”
I see this series is often recommended for children, and I do and don’t agree with that. The Sword in the Stone is largely okay, and I believe there is an abridged version for children. Later books in this series, while still infused with some of the childish humor, contain some themes (not necessarily all detailed) that parents may not want to tackle with their children just yet such as rape, sexual situations, and animal cruelty/torture. I don’t know if the later books have an abridged version for children like The Sword in the Stone, but I’d advised any parent wanting to use this series to introduce Arthur to their kids to be vigilant about it.
I’ve had friends who swear by these books because they read them when they were young, and I can’t take that from them. I have books that I read as a young child that I still love to this day that has made other people who’ve recently read them turn their nose up. This was an interesting take on Arthurian lore, but I was expecting something a bit more. However, I do plan to take a second trip to Camelot with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mist of Avalon.