The Once And Future King by T.H. White

Once_future_king_cover An Arthurian epic in four books, written largely in the 1930s and 1940s, shot through with the very real threat and consequences of war and of what it means to be a human being, The Once And Future King is irresistible. T.H. White treats Camelot and all the rest of it as though they could best be understood through the prism of what was then modern upper-middle class life: the great dining halls are more like the high tables of Oxford colleges, with a bit of London gentleman’s club thrown in, while jousting is constantly compared to cricket. It’s ridiculous and marvellous at the same time: Lancelot, the greatest knight in the world, is described as ‘a sort of Bradman, top of the battling averages’. But he was much more graceful than the Don, we learn: ‘He was more like Woolley.’ Unlike Lancelot, neither of those great batsmen cuckolded a king, as far as we know. White leaves Thomas Malory – the man of the Middle Ages who is largely responsible for popularising the myth of Camelot – to fill in the tournament scores and descriptions of battles. He is far more interested in what drives the key players, their personal dramas. We meet Arthur in the first book, The Sword In The Stone, being instructed by Merlyn and prepared for the destiny of which he has no inkling. The wizard and mentor lives his life backwards and therefore knows how Arthur’s sad, great drama is going to end, and much else besides. This sounds a bit Harry Potter – or what it would be like if J.K. Rowling’s prose sparked and sang off the page. Merlyn knows all about Hitler – ‘an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work’ – and about why it probably would be a good idea to stop fighting these ridiculous, bloody wars that the knights are all so fond of. By the end of the final book, The Candle In The Wind, Arthur has lost his wife and his best friend to political machinations which are in part the result of the perfect society he was trying to create, and is soon to lose his life. Nothing lasts, of course.

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