Image: (Wikipedia): “The Beguiling of Merlin is a painting by the British Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones that was created between 1872 and 1877.”
*from (Wikipedia): “ “Candle in the Wind“, a threnody with music and lyrics by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It was originally written in 1973, in honor of Marilyn Monroe, who had died 11 years earlier.”
“The Once and Future King is a work by T. H. White loosely based upon the 1485 book Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. It was first published in 1958. It collects and revises shorter novels published from 1938 to 1940, with much new material.
Most of the book takes place in “Gramarye”, the name that White gives to Britain, and chronicles the youth and education of King Arthur, his rule as a king, and the romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. Arthur is supposed to have lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, but the book is set around the 14th century. Arthur is portrayed as an Anglo-Norman rather than a Briton; White refers to the actual monarchs of that period as “mythical”. The book ends immediately before Arthur’s final battle against his illegitimate son Mordred. White acknowledged that his book’s source material is loosely derived from Le Morte d’Arthur, although he reinterprets the events of that story from the perspective of a world recovering from World War II.
The book is divided into four parts:
- The Sword in the Stone (1938), detailing the youth of Arthur
- The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), published separately in somewhat different form as The Witch in the Wood
- The Ill-Made Knight (1940), dealing mainly with the character of Lancelot
- The Candle in the Wind, first published in the composite edition, 1958
A final part called The Book of Merlyn (written 1941, published 1977) was published separately following White’s death. It chronicles Arthur’s final lessons from Merlyn before his death, although some parts of it were incorporated into the final editions of the previous books, mostly The Sword in the Stone, after White became aware that the compiled text of The Once and Future King would not include his final volume. The Book of Merlyn was the volume that first contained the adventures with the ants and the geese. However, it still has independent value as the only text in which all Arthur’s animals are brought together, and the final parts of his life are related.
White reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex than or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:
- Arthur grows from a fallible but inquisitive and enthusiastic youth (“the Wart”) to an individualised and psychologically complex man.
- Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romances, but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of Arthur’s knights. He is also intensely introspective and obsessively insecure, traits which lead to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws by becoming Arthur’s greatest knight.
- Merlyn lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger. He makes many anachronistic allusions to future events, including references to World War II, telegraphs, tanks, and “an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos” (i.e., Adolf Hitler).
- Sir Galahad is not well liked by many of the knights, as he is too “perfect”—to the point of being inhuman.
- Sir Bors (whom White labels “Sir Bors the misogynist“) is depicted as so devoted to his religious convictions that he is willing to do harm to others and the world around him rather than risk sacrificing his purity. His holy goodness is juxtaposed with Sir Lancelot’s worldly goodness, with many of the characters favouring Lancelot.
Floyd C. Gale praised The Sword in the Stone as “blithely comic and entirely delightful”, stating that it was “in utter contrast to the mounting tragedy” of the other three volumes of the series. Fantasy historian Lin Carter called it “the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written.” Constance Grady of Vox also praised the novel, stating: “White was writing for a post–World War II audience, but his book has a vigor and clarity that makes it an urgent and important read today.”.”