The Once and Future King has all the ingredients of a rousing epic, though T.H. White’s particular depiction of King Arthur’s legend had its highs and lows. For me it teetered between tear-inducing poignant in substance but tedious in style.
You might be locked into the Meryln’s worldly teachings one minute along with Arthur’s ongoing debates on civilization and morality yet tuned out of the pacing at which quests, battles, and conflicts are told. You might be locked into the drama of Arthur’s secret affairs with the former queen, and the sordid relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere yet less interested in Gareth, Gawaine, Pellinore, Pallomides, Grummore, and the lot of them. Yet in its richness of characters, the book also offers something special. It offers the chance for the reader to go back and revisit the side stories, analyze, and decide which one is their favorite. For me it was the Questing Beast, because that was such a fun imaginative, mysterious creature that was never quite described the same way – a barking, reptilian, cat-like-but-huge monster (with feelings!)
There is a great deal of literary value in reading this book. This epic lies the foundation for many types of stories – stories of star-crossed lovers, stories of the underdog turned hero, revenge stories, tropes you find in fantasy novels. If you aren’t into reading the entire book, there is still value in flagging sections to read and discuss in a book club or a classroom. There is a great deal of symbolism, ethics, and history to dissect.
In its style, the book goes in and out of being self-aware. Not in the modern sense of breaking the forth wall, but rather it will go off on tangential opinions on Medieval Europe’s customs, its geography, its architecture in relation to the story. The writer also makes anachronistic conceits, but that can be the best thing about telling a story set in the past. You can use the historical context to craft a cautionary tale or the historical context can provide inspiration for the reader to seize their future. Arthur’s goal as a king – or his most epic quest – became shaping what we now would call “civilization” which readers can reflect on in the present and think, of course he was right in wanting to move away from brutality of Middle Age warfare to something new. But he had to be willing to be brave and bold to try new things. That seems to be the most enduring quality of the heroes we love – they learn and they do differently, because in learning and applying new ideas, the world can become a better place.
A modern reader can still get value out of this book. If you want to learn more about Arthur’s legend, love Medieval England, or are an English teacher who wants to dig down deep into the hero’s journey, it’s worth a read. Beyond the hero’s journey, it will leave you thinking about the morality of war, and what it means to be civilized and just. Here is a lovely quote to leave you with on the last few pages of the novel:
“There would be a day…with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.”– T.H. White
Overall – 3/5