Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Once and Future King (T. H. White)

The Once and Future King
T. H. White
Ace
Fiction, YA? Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Raised by Sir Ector in a castle in lawless England's Forest Sauvage, the bastard child known as Wart never dreamed he'd amount to more than a squire. Then the strange old wizard Merlyn arrives to be his tutor, using ancient and unreliable magicks. When Wart pulls a peculiar blade from an anvil set before a church, his origins as the son of the late King Uther Pendragon are revealed. Young Arthur devotes himself to civilizing England, quelling the petty feuds and brutal lords that plague the land and championing the forgotten codes of chivalry... but best intentions cannot overcome secret shames, nor can justice alone tame the monsters within the hearts of men.

REVIEW: To tell the truth, I'm not quite sure how to review this book, long considered a classic work of Arthurian lore. It is not so much a retelling of the King Arthur tragedy as it is a companion piece, often referring the readers to Thomas Malory's famous epic Le Morte d'Arthur for further elaboration. Not having read it, I'm sure I missed some important details, though cultural osmosis filled in a few blank spaces. The narrative is often annoyingly modern (or modern for 1939, when it was released), referencing famous cricket players and other anachronisms. For that matter, White's vision of Arthur's England is riddled with anachronisms such as full plate armor - which would not have appeared until long after Arthur's age - that transform the whole into an imagined fairy tale age that never was. (But, then, there were also griffins and dragons and the famed Questing Beast, so even the original tale might be better considered alternate history.) There's also an odd mix of sexism (which is to be expected) and racism, with the peculiar stance that prejudice against dark-skinned people and Jews falls under the Evil heading, yet casual belittling of Native Americans (by the narrator) is acceptable. But such was the era in which White wrote. Many of the situations and characters, especially in the early parts, come across as silly caricatures, particularly young Wart's experiences in animal form under Merlyn's enchantments. As the story goes on, things grow more nuanced and complex with some memorable imagery, which tends to bog down the story but paints some nice mental pictures. The ending feels a little unfinished, largely because White once again seems to be writing a companion piece to Malory rather than a stand-alone work; it is more a footnote than a conclusion, a little aside as the curtain closes before the final days of Arthur's reign.
Taken all together, it made for an interesting take on the Arthurian cycle. In reading it, I can see its influence on many of today's fantasy tales. Ultimately, though, I found myself too annoyed by the long-winded narrative and its refusal to stand on its own without constantly referring me to Malory's work to give it a solid Good rating.

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The Lost Years of Merlin (T. A. Barron) - My Review
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Excalibur - Amazon DVD link

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