The Boy, the Myth, and Everything Between
I knew enough about the King Arthur mythology through cinematic adaptations I've seen growing up, but this is truly the first time that I ever read a novel which tackles this legendary hero, and I thought T.H White's classic masterpiece The Once and Future King is the best place to start as any, considering the raving reviews I've encountered about this one every time I browse the medieval literature section in book-related websites. I was also drawn to this book because of this singular quotation taken from it: 'Perhaps we all give our hearts uncritically to those who hardly think about us in return'. I remember buying a copy of this book once a paperback became available back in 2013 or so, and I started reading last year but had to stop because of my self-imposed Batman comics diet. I was glad to pick this up again last week where I was already halfway through the first of the four segments. Now that I have officially finished the entire thing, I suppose what I can say first and foremost was that it wasn't everything that I hoped or wanted it to be--and that was pretty disappointing, honestly. Nevertheless, there are exemplary aspects to it--particularly on the discussions concerning the ideologies of power and leadership; morality and gray areas--that are thoughtful and provocative. This book has very strong arguments which I immensely appreciated.
"Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance."
The first segment of the book is The Sword in the Stone where a boy deemed "Wart", a warden of Sir Ector and a playmate to his son Kay, meets a mysterious and whimsical wizard named Merlyn who offers to tutor him. Their chance encounter was supposedly destined and Merlyn is very fond of pointing out that he has clairvoyance, often humorously overwhelming Wart with prophesies from his distant future. Their relationship is very unusual, an interpretation and approach that I'm not used to, but it remains nonetheless as my fondest and most favorite part of the entire novel. Wart doesn't feel special in any way and it baffles him why Merlyn has taken such an avid interest him especially when the boy has gotten accustomed to being treated of secondary importance to his more privileged friend, Kay. His journey of self-discovery is an entertaining mix of the extraordinary and poignant where Merlyn forces him to question the social constructs of the era he lives in.
"The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then; TO LEARN."
Throughout The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn accomplishes this by turning Wart into various animals through magic, imparting him indirect lessons pertaining to the nature and roles of community and individuality so that the boy who will become king of Camelot will develop an understanding and compassion of how to best govern his subjects. Wart is a receptive student who eventually does accept that nothing his eccentric mentor is teaching him is inconsequential. Over the course of the first two hundred pages, Merlyn shapes Wart into the fine young man worthy of pulling out that famed sword Excalibur at the end of the first segment, and it's pretty much rewarding for our lead character and the readers to see Wart freely choose and embrace his fate even when he's absolutely terrified of the things Merlyn has warned him about for his future.
Next we have The Queen of Air and Darkness whose tackled events are twofold in scope; the first few years of Arthur Pendragon's reign and the wars he felt obliged to wage; and the curious adolescent misadventures of Queen Morgause's sons Agravaine, Gareth, Gawain and Gaheris whose unquestioning devotion and slightly (if not gravely) Oedipal-worship for their mother are upsetting and pitiful to read. Queen Morgause is, of course, Arthur's half-sister, who will make him unwittingly commit an incestuous affair that will produce an offspring who is to be Arthur's ultimate downfall--Mordred. In this segment, there are noteworthy discussions about "Right" and "Might" between Arthur and Merlyn and his old friend and mentor continues to challenge him to think about every decision he makes as a king and the purpose and motivation behind every course of action he will take.
"You have become the king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt. Unless you do something, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles. That is why I have been asking you to THINK"
The third segment entitled The Ill-Made Knight is the longest one and definitely the part of the novel that ALMOST ruined it for me. We've been following Wart's growth and evolution to King Arthur and his meditative discussions with his mentor Merlyn, and then all of a sudden we've switched central characters midway and they're the most irreconcilably selfish, distressing and unsympathetic pair I have ever encountered. I'm referring to Lancelot and Queen Guenever. I may have more sympathy for the former whose lamentations and struggles of moral judgment against the weakness of earthly desires can be quite moving in some moments during the book, but I absolutely abhorred this version of Guenever. I assert that the writing for the women in this book is so appalling, even in medieval romance literature's standards. We have Guenever who is just vain, oppressive and pathetic and the commoner Elaine who is passive-aggressive yet also submissive and stupid. Both women are Lancelot's love interest and unrequited admirer, and they are respectively the devil and the deep blue sea for him as well. It's like reading the lives of a celebrity couple and a stalker-fan who wants to pull them apart. And it's not even the trashy-fun, tabloid drivel kind of soap opera which was why I almost, ALMOST wanted to give up reading this book entirely. I did like this quote, however:
"They thought they had understood each other once more--but their doubt had been planted. Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were seeds of hatred, and fear and confusion growing at the same time; for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury. "
Though the third segment is heavily focused on the painfully unrealistic and absurd adulterous love affair between "Lance and Jenny" and the involvement of the unwanted second mistress Elaine (who, by the way, tricks Lancelot twice in her own version of modern 'date rape'), there are still gems to be found in this part of the book. This happens when we revert back to Arthur who begins to question and doubt the choices and rules he had imposed on his kingdom. I just don't understand why I should care about Lancelot and Guenever's depressingly bland "love story" when I'm so invested in finding out more about King Arthur as a leader who is supposed to be a champion of the masses but has found himself becoming their oppressor instead and in ways he had been so committed in preventing in the first place. This was the man who argued with Merlyn that ideas should not be imposed on people but rather made available for them to choose or not to--and yet he finds himself doing the exact opposite because the supposedly noble knights in his service have taken advantage of their positions.
"When I started the Table, it was to stop anarchy. It was a channel for brute force, so that the people who had to use force could be made to do it in a useful way. But the whole thing was a mistake. It was a mistake because the Table itself was founded on force. Right must be established by right: it can’t be established by Force. I'm afraid I have sown the whirlwind, and now I shall reap the storm."
Furthermore, there are also interesting sidestories concerning the knights themselves, particularly about the theory and application of "chivalry" back in those times. I recall Jaime Lannister from George R.R Martin's A Song of and Fire series once arguing that there are so many vows that knights take that it's often possible to follow one vow and forsake the other especially when they tend to contradict each other. White does tackle this but not nearly as straightforward as Martin's. His knights are still more inclined to hide under the veneer of moral self-righteousness to justify their machismo and misogyny. Even the bravest and most chivalrous of them all, Lancelot, still mistakes his own intentions but I can actually blame Guenever and Elaine for that. As a central character of The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot is compelling but his inability to reclaim his weaknesses and use them instead to strengthened his convictions is ultimately the reason I stopped rooting for him. The only real lesson I garnered from reading the torturous and unsurprisingly tragic relationship between Lance and Jenny is the fact that passions unchecked and consummated out of blind lust and immaturity are going to destroy you little by little, and Guenever most of all deserved whatever is coming for her. I frankly want to wish away the "Lance and Jenny" disaster from the pages of this novel.
"Morals are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn't get out of. "
The final segment of the book is The Candle in the Wind is probably the most serious part of the entire novel (where as the first one has great humor in it) which is only appropriate since it concludes the story in a way that I actually found shocking yet acceptable. The personal drama between Lancelot and Guenever's revelation about their affair and Arthur's reaction to it is one that really amused me to no end because Arthur has been aware of the affair since it started (thanks to Merlin, the walking spoiler alert) but chooses not to do anything about it as long as it's left unspoken. However, his half-brother/half-son Mordred wants to make sure that Arthur will be forced to punish the adultery of his wife and best friend in accordance to the new laws of his kingdom. What follows over the course of the page is actually rather suspenseful for me. Everyone's dishonor and sin have caught up with them; Guenever's jealousy, Lancelot's pride and betrayal and Arthur's ineffectual stand against these two people and his unwillingness to accept Mordred as a son (as well as a couple of other things I won't spoil here). In the most twisted and ironic twist of fate, these three characters have no other choice but to stay united against the joint forces of Mordred and Agravaine who are determined to end Arthur's reign in Camelot.
Arthur's conflict for me in this last segment is very riveting to watch unfold; all the lessons Merlyn have taught him have lead him to this moment. "Arthur’s laws are the culmination of his conversations with Merlyn about the use of might and right; to abandon his faith in these laws would be to reject everything for which he stands. Mordred and Agravaine are aware of Arthur’s commitment to justice, so they are able to trap him by his own rules and laws. Arthur does not want to unravel the society he has built, but to preserve it, he must sacrifice the two people he loves most." It's Arthur, waiting and dreading for the other shoe to drop.
In summary, The Once and Future King was thought-provoking in ways that I enjoyed and consumed wholeheartedly, but it also fails to establish a well-balanced narrative that allows me to attach myself emotionally to its characters which diluted my investment in their eventual fates. I was very fond of Wart and Merlyn's relationship the most, and I would have liked to see Merlyn still play a role in the final years of Arthur's reign. I think the reason I have to rate this book lower than I initially intended was because I believe trimming The Ill-Made Knight is NECESSARY. I also believe White should have lessened his focus on Lancelot and Guenever and showed us more about Lancelot's relationship with Arthur as oppose to telling us in passing. I think Arthur and Lancelot's relationship is more important than his affair with Guenever and if Guenever was written better then perhaps her role in the story wouldn't have been so wasteful and indigestible to read.
I maintain that this is a remarkable classic as a whole as long as you can select the parts to remember the most fondly. If I ever re-read this, I definitely plan to skip all the Lance-Jenny-Elaine debacle. I caution anyone who plans to read this novel to endure the insufferable length of the third segment because overall, this is a worthwhile read.