Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

This book terrified me, on many levels. It's 667 pages long, to begin with. It's been a while since I read a serious chunkster like that (besides Harry Potter, which someone in my mind doesn't really count...).

Besides that, I am just not a fan of "Authur" stories, despite my deep love of the Disney movie The Sword and the Stone, of course. Even since I saw the musical "Camelot" in the theater when I was in high school, the story just didn't appeal to me. Then my book club chose this as our monthly selection and I finally decided it was time to tackle this monster.

Was it worth reading? Absolutely. This book is so much more than just Arthur and Camelot. The first section of the book is essentially the Disney movie, and that part does grab you and you love Wart so much that you keep reading just to find out how it ends for him (although, it got harder and harder to keep reading for a while there, in the middle - it got a bit slow).

White, our beloved author, is a genius, really. He's like your friend or fellow book club member, who just happened to be there, in the middle ages, and he's telling you the story with his own language and always using references to modern day concerns and people. He sometimes appears to mock them and their ways (oh, especially those blundering old knights...), other times he pities them, but mostly, I felt as though he was trying to understand them and why they made the choices they did.

The book is, to me, chiefly three different things.

First, it is a the "historical" study of England at the time, which is interesting and confusing at the same time, with many Lords and Kings and battles etc. Obviously this is a fantasy book and it's based on legend, but either way, we read a lot of political and historical stuff.

Second, much of the book is devoted to a character study of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. Arthur, the imperfect, naive, thoughtful and above all, forgiving king. Guinevere, the stubborn and difficult to understand queen/mistress - White often just tells us straight out that he doesn't know why she made the choices she did. And Lancelot - the ill-made knight, the self-loathing hero of the round table who made a lot of mistakes and yet always tried his best to be moral (except where Guinevere was concerned, of course).

Thirdly, I felt like this was a very moral and philosophical book. White asks difficult questions, usually through Arthur, trying to figure out questions like: Is man inherently good? Why do we have wars and what causes them? Which do we owe more loyalty to, our family (clan) or our country? Is it better to get revenge or to forgive? How do we best create peace: through worship, through wars or through civil justice?

This book is truly a work of art. I must admit however, that as soon as the "Sword in the Stone" section of the book is over, the story was completely depressing, in every way imaginable. Nearly everyone is either deceived, deceitful, or unhappy. Bad things are constantly happening to good people and even the good people seem to be constantly making bad choices. I must also admit, that it was still insanely interesting and worthwhile - and, even amid the depressing things, I found myself laughing out loud. Often I found myself pondering the idea of actions and consequences and how often our actions can lead to things in our future that we never could've imagined. My heart ached for Arthur, for what he had and for what he lost.

But, you should read it. Read it for Arthur and Sir Pellinore and for White's use of the word "chuckle-head." I'd be surprised if you regret it.

4 comments:

holly said...

this was interesting, corinne. prob too long for me to pick up anytime soon, but that era of history has always baffled me in a "is it really real?" mythical sort of way. stories v. history, does that make sense??

holly said...

ps I do regular read/skim this blog, but usually from google reader! :}

Cami said...

Way to go!! I didn't read the post because I'm going to read the book, but I am proud of you and have hope for myself now.

erin sheely said...

i just read the sword in the stone part of this in 10th grade english and i liked it. i honestly didn't know there was so much more to it

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