You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Once and Future King

I had read part of T. H. White's The Once and Future King years ago, and decided to read the whole thing. It's a retelling of King Arthur and the Round Table, told in four parts.

Part One, "The Sword in the Stone," is the story of young Arthur, nicknamed Wart, in his education under the magician Merlyn and his foster father, Sir Ector. He lives with his foster brother, Sir Kay, in the castle. They have adventures in the forest and learn about falconry and jousting and other knightly activities. When Merlyn arrives, he turns Wart into different animals so he can learn lessons. He turns into a fish and learns about power; turns into an ant and learns about communism; and turns into a swan and learns about peace and living among different people. When King Uther dies, they go to the tournament and Wart pulls the sword from the stone, proving himself the king of England.

"The Queen of Air and Darkness" tells the story of the family of King Lot of Orkney, specifically Queen Morgause. Their sons are cruel and spiteful, though Gawaine has a good heart and tends to get carried away with his emotions. Agravaine in particular is a foul person. They kill a unicorn for their mother, who beats them for it. Meanwhile, she is flirting with Arthur's friend King Pellinore, and her children are jealous. Arthur and Merlyn are planning how to defeat King Lot and the rest of the Celtic rebels. After they do, Morgause seduces him with her magic. Arthur does not realize at first that Morgause is his half sister. Mordred is born and lives with his mother while his brothers go to join Arthur at the Round Table.

"The Ill-Made Knight" tells the story of Lancelot, and ugly but powerful knight who becomes Arthur's commander in chief. At first he doesn't like Guenever, but soon they fall in love. They fight it, and Lancelot runs away in a fit of madness for years. He does not sleep with Guenever until he is seduced through more magic (and wine) by Elaine, a young woman whom he saves from a boiling cauldron. They carry on their affair for decades, even through gossip in the court. With Merlyn gone, King Arthur tries to turn the strength and aggression of his knight to chivalry and courtly manners. When that is not fully successful, he send them out to find the Holy Grail. Many of the knights do not return. The king and queen hear stories from the knights who return. Percivale and Galahad, Lancelot's son with Elaine, as well as Bors make it to the grail, never to return. Lancelot goes through a confession and an ordeal to be able to get close to the grail.

"The Candle in the Wind" is the final part. It is the story of the falling apart of the Round Table; the exposure of Lancelot and Guenever; Agravaine and Mordred's forcing Arthur to condemn his wife and best friend under the law as traitors; Lancelot's rescue of Guenever and murder of Gaheris and Gareth, Gawaine's brothers; and Lancelot's retreat to France. Gawaine pushes Arthur to fight Lancelot, and Mordred seizes the throne and Guenever while he is out of the country.

White builds on Malory, and in fact mentions Malory and La Morte d'Arthur several times. There is a strong theme of actions and consequences. Arthur builds his doom when he sleeps with his half sister, albeit unwittingly. And Arthur's troubles tem from his father's behavior. There is also the thread of Normans conquering the Saxons, who conquered the Celts, and the old feelings that fuel new wars. There is resonance in White's time (the 1930's) as well as today.

White touches on many other themes, such as communism and the lot of the serfs. Arthur and Merlyn talk a lot about the use of force and try to tame it for good instead of chaos. War starts off as a sport for the nobles, where only the commoners are harmed, and Arthur tries to make it a serious affair, so that it will not be so popular. His efforts are thwarted by Mordred and others.

The women in the story are either weak (Guenever), deceitful (Morgause), or both (Elaine). Guenever starts off as a crazed harpy, driving Lancelot away in a jealous rage. She tempers her moods in the later years. It is her unwillingness to let Lancelot go, when he has a woman and son, and later when he finds God, that drives the biggest conflict in the story.

I felt that the middle of the story got a little bogged down while reading about Lancelot's and Guenever's long affair, but it got more interesting before the end of the third book. The big themes of the story, the Orkney's and their old grudges, Arthur's son Mordred returning to haunt him, the queen's affair, and Arthur's attempt to make a peaceful kingdom by imposing rule of law instead of rule by force, all come together in the end to bring down his kingdom. Merlyn, the wise counselor, has disappeared, leaving Arthur and the Round Table to make their own mistakes. Lancelot is a central tragic figure. He is torn between his love for the queen, his love for his friend Arthur, and his duty to the kingdom and the Round Table. In many ways it is more his story and Arthur's, for the king is on the sidelines often. Lancelot is more human, with human concerns about his appearance and honor, and human failings. Even when he returns from the grail quest he can't avoid the queen forever. In part the book is an affirmation of fate, of the unavoidable consequences of history. A-.


Post a Comment

<< Home