Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Once and Future King

Certain subjects of legend and myth are mined over and over again by writers, and none more so than the cycle of tales referred to as the "Matter of Britai"n, or more commonly the Legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, of which countless works have been written. I've read many of them over the years (a large portion of them are books for younger audiences, a field in which I read heavily), and many are excellent. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and Jane Yolen's short trilogy about Merlin comprising Hobby, Passager and Merlin come especially to mind.

I've just finished reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and I feel somewhat stunned in its wake. It has been a long time since I've been quite so enraptured and rewarded by a book, by something so pleasurable yet so challenging and full of riches of all kinds (possibly not since Moby Dick). It certainly stands as one of the greatest works in the Arthurian vein, and one of the great fantasy novels, if not one of the great novels, period. It is full of high and low humor, a startling variety of language, wonderful passages of natural history, unpredictably anachronistic references in future and past directions, endless insights into human and social nature, and finally, timeless storytelling of legends made real, sometimes painfully so. I often found myself amazed that so many different approaches to the narrative were so effective and seamless; one would have thought the effect somewhat disorienting or jarring.

The full work is made up of four shorter novels that are usually published together. The first one, The Sword in the Stone, is about young Arthur's boyhood and education at the hands of Merlyn the wizard. This book is the easiest to read and the most engaging, and certainly the most comical, but it is no farce nor simple fantasy. It is an episodic bildungsroman; if nothing else just read it with an ear for language and an imaginative eye on natural history. The book is full of old english words having to do with ancient sports such as falconry and jousting, and my head rings with them even if I barely understand what they mean. And the series of captivating passages where Arthur (or young Wart as he is called) is changed into a perch, a merlin, an ant, a goose (a particularly beautiful scene) and a badger as part of his education are richly poetic, the characterizaton of the animals he interacts with imaginative, moving, perfect.

The following three books follow the more 'mature' part of the legend, and are definitely grimmer and more serious works, though not mirthless by any stretch. The Queen of Air and Darkness is about Arthur's early years building his new society and the troubled Orkney brothers (Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine) and their mother Morgause, who is also Arthur's half-sister and seduces him to bear his only child Mordred. The Ill-Made Knight is about Lancelot and Guenever and their troubled romance. Lancelot here is a remarkably complex and fleshed out character, mercilessly portrayed yet with great compassion, and the passage depicting his ultimately aborted attempt to remake his life with Elaine and their child Galahad is especially moving. Finally, Candle in the Wind is the shortest book, and brings about the inevitable conclusion set in motion by Arthur's seduction by Morgause and the affair between Lancelot and Guenever, and is also a surprisingly successful evaluation of the human troubles with government and violence.

The entire series makes a work of deep and complicated layers of all the stuff of human experience, ultimately troubled and difficult yet leavened with beauty and compassion and kindness and humor and the grand spectacle of the world; an illuminating, comprehensive and puzzling novel that I will return to again. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

Sounds perfect for my holiday reading. Great review.