Explorations in Arthurian Legends

A Literature Review

Part 8: T.H. White

T.H. White's The Once and Future King is easily the most accessible Arthurian work of the 20th century. It appeals to audiences of all ages and to readers on many different levels. Its use of humor and anachronistic references help ground the reader in the subject matter in a way that no one before or since has accomplished.

The Once and Future King is a tetralogy consisting of four previously published works: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

Overall, the book has a different feel from other Arthurian tellings. These books have humor, chiefly in the form of Merlyn and of King Pellinore, whose efforts in hunting the Questing Beast and at fighting Sir Grummore Grummersom are shot through with gentle and broad humor.

Finally, there is the theme of war. White, a pacifist, fills his hero, Arthur, with a war-weariness and a determination to do what is right: "Might for Right." From the very beginning, Arthur has to fight to keep what he has earned. He fends off challenges from Lot and from outsiders; he tries to keep his Round Table intact in the face of a serious challenge from Mordred and the sons of Orkney; he tries to keep his kingdom intact by fighting for his very life against Mordred and his growing number of allies. He fights, fights, fights. His tone at the end of the fourth book, in the chat with young Tom, is one of acceptance of his fate. However, even weighed down by the knowledge of certain death, he finds the strength to encourage young Tom to survive the battle and tell the story.

Now, since The Once and Future King ends on the eve of the Battle of Camlann, the book has no mention of what eventually happened to Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Book of Merlyn to tell that story. Left out of the set by the publishers, this book was published in its own right several years later. In it, Merlyn returns to Arthur and returns Arthur to happier days, when he visited the ants and geese and came face to face with the war-crazed ants and the happy-go-lucky geese. Buoyed by this return to the innocence of his youth, Arthur intends to ask Mordred for a truce. But fate intervenes: Echoing Malory, White has a snake cause the fateful, final battle. We see the end of Arthur and of Lancelot and Guinevere. We see the end of an era. But we see the future, too, and it is filled with hope.

This condemnation of the evils of war is a vast departure from the Welsh war songs that began the story of Arthur. As the 20th century winds down, we see many more departures from the common theme. Two of the greatest and most successful departures are written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart.

More about T.H. White

England Have My Bones the definitive T.H. White site

An Essay on The Once and Future King

A Little about The Book of Merlyn

A little more about T.H. White

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