I choose to review The Once and Future King by T.H. White, as I consider it the finest specimen of British Literature that has ever been written. I was 17 the first time I read this novel, and I was clearly too young to fully appreciate it. I worry that perhaps now, at age 23, I am still too young. A book with this much depth reminds you just how young you are, no matter your age. It showed me that there is a range of emotions which can only be felt during one's final days.
When people think about the subject of this book, the legend of King Arthur, very few would realize that it is a tragedy. The book which originally captured this legend in it's fullest is called Le Morte D'Arthur, or "The Death of Arthur". What I mean to say is, even at it's origin, the legend of King Arthur is a tragedy. In that respect, T.H. White brought nothing new to the legend, he just refined it to a level of beauty without measure.
Many readers feel that the first quarter of the book -which deals with the Merlyn's tutoring of young Arthur- is it's finest section. I think it suffices to say that it has the most mass appeal. While we will be moved by tragedy and depth in the later parts of the books; we come to appreciate White's grasp of humor and characterization in the beginning. But, I worry that the style of humor is so unique and subtle that many people just won't see it. But even without humor, there is enough adventure and wonder in the first part to entertain most readers.
The section dealing with Arthur as a child is the only part in which we are allowed to see Arthur's thoughts and feelings. White transitions from a first-person perspective to a third-person perspective in the next 3/4 of the book. We are left to guess Arthur's feelings while he is at his highest and lowest. We can sense his pride as he commands a table of the 150 best knights in the world. He is admirably able to use them to right all of the world's -perceived- wrongs. The stories of the famous knights are simply enthralling; and we read about each conquest and tournament with bright eyes and young souls. Without realizing it, we are transformed into men and women with tremendous courage as we fully buy into Arthur's vision for a better world and a better man. It is a fantastic feeling, I promise you.
Conversely, we can sense Arthur's despair as his innovative idea of justice must be used to prosecute his dear wife Guinevere and his best friend Lancelot for having an affair with each other. In bitter irony, we read about the code of justice that Arthur created to make the world a better place; then we watch helplessly as it is used to bring the tragedy of King Arthur to fruition.
The final fourth of the book is my favorite, although it is the darkest part. I refuse to ruin the plot for you, but it suffices to say that the legend of King Arthur would not be a tragedy if not for the final 4th of the book. It's almost not fair that we should have to read about such an amazing man (our hero!) fall so far from grace. But, this is the beautiful and tragic legend, and White writes about it with a style of writing as grand as the castles contained in the novel.
The Once and Future King has a hold on me that I won't soon shake. It is no wonder that so many people read this voluminous book over and over. It inspires us. It encourages us. Each time we hold on to our integrity in the face of a world without integrity...we honor King Arthur and his innovative code of ethics which you can bring back to life by reading this wonderful story.