Monday, August 9, 2010

Not a Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Amazon: The Once and Future King

The whole world knows and love this book. It is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot; of Merlyn and Owl and Guinevere; of beasts who talk and men who fly; of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad. It is the fantasy masterpiece by which all others are judged.

I meant to write this back in June (it now being August). For those unfamiliar with this story, let me point out the wikipedia page, which basically sums up the gist of the novel.

The language is complicated, and the story is filled with anachronisms, of which the author is not only fully aware, but indeed, points them out to the reader throughout the tale. It was a very slow read, for me.

As a reflection of my own narrow view as a reader, I'd only heard of White in the context of the comparisons made of Tolkien to him. Sure, I'd heard the title of this book - I had no idea it was a take on the King Arthur tale.

Recent posts by Larry, on being a good reader, have provided the spark by which I could put my thoughts to words on this work. I respect that this is a classic in its own right, and that my reader background is perhaps not up-to-par to offer a fair and critical eye to the author's intentions.

In short, in a modern dialogue, I am positive that this telling would fail under a critical eye, mine own included.

White runs amok with modern references (for the 1940's and 1950's, which made them difficult to place)(and jarring for a child born in the 1970's), using Merlyn's "reverse agism" as a vehicle to do so. Additionally, throughout the text, he does a theatrical aside to the reader, essentially stating that if you want more detail, you can go read La Morte.

I picked up the story because it's considered a classic. I felt it was my due diligence as an aspiring fantasy author to do so. I finished the story, not regretting the decision. Recommending it to others: you should read it.

Jarring flaws aside, the story is so much more entertaining than any of the modern, romanticized versions of Camelot.

The characters are so tragically flawed as to be endearing. Those flaws complicate the story, time and again, adding tension and complexity that are breezed over in modern retellings. This alone is an element that I think modern storytellers, and readers alike, could either enjoy or benefit from, or both.

Arthur, from the beginning, is good of heart, yes, like all the tales would have you believe. He is also a bit of a simpleton.When he matures and grows and comes to realize his oversights and errors - he still defaults, in his responses and actions, to his basic (simple) world view. It's a tragic consistency of character, to understand the ramifications of allowing certain events to unfold because it fits better with how you think the world should be.

That is the Arthur I wish was portrayed more often in modern stories - and I'm confident the world would think the great King Arthur was little more than a loveable idiot. Let's see Sean Connery in that role.

Guinevere never loves Arthur (though she grows to fear and respect him), and White displays the marriage for what it was, what was more common in the Dark Ages, that of political necessity. She is a girl who never grows up, going from dutifully impassive to gaudily petulant; she's an emotional wreck, torn between her duty as a Queen to her first childhood love. Her essential flaw is wanting her cake and eating it too, to have all the rights and power that comes with her marriage - and the love and passion that every little girl dreams of. At best, she's pitiable, and every decision that she makes that might show character and maturity is later reversed.

At the crux of the conflict, we have Lancelot. For starters, he's not beautiful, he's not charming. Lancelot is misshapen and ugly. When the reader first learns of him, there's a strong, underlying love and admiration between Arthur and Lancelot that borders on homosexuality. They maintain a dedication to each other until the very end.

This is at direct odds, of course, with Lancelot's affair with Guinevere (and Arthur's slow realization and further blindness to the same). The love triangle is so wickedly convoluted as to be frustrating and unimaginable. Indeed, Lancelot loses his mind, more than once in the story, which again (to me) makes him all the more interesting as a tragically flawed character.

What Lancelot does have, what is consistent with modern tellings, is a remarkable ability to win. He is a swordsman without equal, and thus his role as a hero of the realm is even more appropriate (and summarily more complicated).

What is consistent with Arthur, in old tellings and new, is his obsession with Right, with equality, with chivalry and purposefulness for war and battle. The lessons learned by the King in his almost-naive world view, are a brilliant and insightful subtext throughout the tale - no doubt T.H. White infusing his own political beliefs into Arthur's inner conflict over the matter.

If I were back in school and had to critically analyze some of the themes within King, I might go with Arthur's love of country over his own love of self; Lancelot's strengths vs his crippling flaws; Guinevere's duty vs her passions; Arthur's understandings of truth vs his inability to accept them. And so on.

The telling itself was irregular, yes. The premise of the tale, that of the relationships of terribly flawed characters that yet persevere - and even succeed - in achieving greatness in spite of themselves - this is what makes this story a classic.

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