The following is an excerpt from Ben Shapiro’s Third Thursday Book Club guide to The Once and Future King.
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is widely considered the most influential fantasy novel ever written. Drawn from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, The Once and Future King’s retelling of the Arthurian legend has been an inspiration for authors ranging from J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series) to Lev Grossman (The Magicians) to Neil Gaiman (American Gods). T.H. White wrote only one great book: The Once and Future King. But that book was written over the course of decades, and really encompasses several smaller novels, fitted together with master craftsmanship. It is a funny novel, a political novel, a novel of romance and adventure — but most of all, it is a novel about the relationships between human beings, and how they reconcile those relationships with eternal, meaningful values … or whether the struggle and failure to do so is both the great human tragedy, and the source of man’s inherent dignity.
A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
T.H. White was born on May 29, 1906, in British-occupied India; his father worked with the Indian police, and his mother was allegedly “psychopathic,” according to biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner. He attended Cheltenham College in England and then Queen’s College at Cambridge University, where he graduated with first-class honors, having written extensively on Malory. He wrote novels during summer vacations, but it wasn’t until 1936 that he re-embraced the Malory legend. He wrote in his notes, “The whole Arthurian story is a regular Greek doom, comparable to that of Orestes.” He began work on the book that would become The Sword in the Stone. That book was chosen in 1939 for the Book-of-the-Month Club, making him an overnight success.
As World War II approached, he wrote the second book, The Witch in the Wood — which would later be re-edited and retitled The Queen of Air and Darkness, and then The Ill-Made Knight. Finally, in 1939, he completed The Candle In The Wind. He did write a fifth volume, The Book of Merlyn, but his publisher essentially rejected it; some editions of The Once and Future King now include it. In 1958, for the first time, the compendium known as The Once and Future King, which includes all volumes but The Book of Merlyn, was published. Two years later, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, creators of My Fair Lady, tried to turn the last three books into Camelot, a musical that contains a multiplicity of beautiful songs (How to Handle a Woman and If Ever I Would Leave You among them) but little of the magic of the book.
White was widely characterized as peculiar. He lived alone, pursued hobbies including hunting and fishing with alacrity, and was rumored to be a homosexual and a sado-masochist in his personal life. He devoted himself to learning what Warner called “techniques,” adding “it was part of his theory about the Renaissance or polytechnic man who could shoot and hunt a hare in the morning, fell a tree in the afternoon, and write a sonnet in the evening. If he saw an implement—plough or paintbrush—he wanted to use it; if he watched a skill, to practice it, and having got what he wanted, went on to something else.”
He died at the age of 57, with The New York Times obituary quoting one reviewer who called White “a modern exile in time longing for the past. If he had lived in his beloved past, he might well have been hanged as a warlock.”
THE SWORD IN THE STONE: LEARNING TO BE HUMAN
The Sword in the Stone, which brought White to international prominence, has little connection to Malory; Malory’s epic does not cover Arthur’s youth. The Sword In The Stone posits Merlyn as a guide for a young bastard named Wart, treated well by his guardian, Sir Ector, but increasingly badly by his quasi-adopted brother Kay. Merlyn takes Wart under his wing and teaches him what he will need to know to become King of England, and the hero of legend. Merlyn doesn’t bother versing Wart in religion or politics directly; he understands that the best teacher is experience — and he understands that children must be allowed to take risks so that they may grow. Merlyn is no helicopter parent. “I will come,” he tells Wart on his first foray into the natural world. “But in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
White describes the process of Wart’s education in romantic, exciting terms: “The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.”
As part of his education, Merlyn turns Wart into various types of animals and then allows Wart to learn of the benefits and drawbacks of each. He first turns him into a fish; Wart is confronted with the grave threat of absolute monarchy by the pike: “The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch — by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains.” The King of the Moat speaks only a few words:
There is nothing … except the power which you pretend to seek: power to grind and power to digest, power to seek and power to find, power to await and power to claim, all power and pitilessness springing from the nape of the neck … Love is a trick paid on us by the forces of evolution. Pleasure is the bit laid down by the same. There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.8
The pike’s slogan, of course, will become everything Wart fights as King Arthur.
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