"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White

The story of King Arthur is one of my favorites, dating back from when I was first introduced to Disney's The Sword in the Stone and then later, one of my mother's favorite musicals, Camelot.  I tend to forget that this story is based largely on folklore and legend, and even King Arthur's existence is often debated.  Still, it makes for a good story, even if most of it may not be true.

I'd been long meaning to read The Once and Future King, and finally got around to wade my way through it.  And I don't mean wading, as in slogging slowly in druggery, but it is not an easy book to read and certainly not one that is a quick read on any level.  T.H. White is a master storyteller, and his details are rich and full and complicated.  So it takes some time but I enjoyed a lot of it.

The book is divided into 4 parts, and the first one is by far my favorite.  It tells of Arthur's childhood when is known only as Wart and is educated by the wizard Merlyn.  I loved the details of his experiences being turned into animals, which is to teach him to think differently about the world around him.  The other parts go into his early years as the King as he learns to lead and when he meets Guinevere.  Then enters Lancelot into the picture and his story, which is much different than other versions of the story led me to believe.  In fact, in the book he is not considered particularly handsome or desirable, only that he is determined in being the best because he has issues with his own self-image.  And finally, the last section details how the empire falls apart little by little, because of their own nature, but also because of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Such a happy, funny book at the beginning, and it ends on such a sad note, although the last few pages brings you back to a little bit of a hopeful note.  King Arthur represents someone who tried to changes a way of life that was brutal, dark, and at times ridiculous.  He is a flawed man, a man who makes mistakes, but a man who nevertheless tried to do what he thought was right.  He tried to see the world from other points of view, and was forgiving of even those closest to him that hurt him the most. 

That is where the tragedy for me lies.  Not in the book itself, but in the story it tells.  Arthur had a vision of a greater world that he could work towards.  He put his own desires aside for the greater good.  Guinevere and Lancelot had good intentions to do this, but they didn't resist the temptation and instead caused a situation that lead to the breaking up of the round-table and ultimately war.  Now, I realize that this is a simplified way of looking at the story and that there were many other factors that caused the dream to fall apart, but it nevertheless felt like a real tragedy.  So, I enjoyed reading the story and getting a lot more details and depth than the Disney or musical versions, but it was a little heartbreaking at the end.

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