As I was reading this book, I came to realize that I really don't know much about the legend of King Arthur. Most of what I know is the broad strokes (Arthur, Guenever, Mordred, Merlin, and Lancelot), and the most comprehensive work I've seen of the legend is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which suggests that I really don't know the legends at all. I found this novel to be fascinating, not just because it educated (eddicated?) me further on the legends, but because it turned out to be so good.
I'm usually apprehensive about reading books this old, because the narrative style tends to be so different from what I'm accustomed to with modern fiction, but the writing in The Once and Future King felt very natural. It still felt dated, but not like The Man Who Was Thursday or The King of Elfland's Daughter; it was due more to word choice than anything else (though I'm happy to say that I learned a few new words while reading the book). The themes and characters, though, feel timeless, and the book overall, with its cast of characters, thoughtful analysis, and slapstick sense of humor, winds up being charming.
The book is comprised of four other books, each written and published separately from the 1930s to the 1950s, and each book looks at a different aspect of King Arthur's life. The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is probably the most famous and most discussed of the four books, and for good reason. In the book, Merlyn educates Arthur (known at this time as "The Wart") on various aspects of leadership, war, community, justice, and history by transforming him into a variety of animals. His education also comes in other ways (the way Merlyn dashes Wart's idealism about knighthood was particularly memorable), but the transformations teach him empathy, which winds up being Arthur's most important trait on his way of introducing chivalry to replace the "Might Is Right" way of leadership that had existed for so long. By the time the book reaches its conclusion, with Wart pulling the sword from the stone and becoming King of the Britons, he's had the education necessary to make him the most appropriate leader. Additionally, I was absolutely thrilled to see that White pulled in all of the animal friends he had made during his transformations to accompany him when he pulled the sword from the stone; in fact, they ended up being necessary. They went from serving as lessons to becoming his allies, which I thought was a brilliant thematic summary of all that had taken place in the story. In order for Wart to transform in King Arthur, he had to have his friends there to help him.
The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, saw the further education of Arthur as he's presented with his first war as king. Initially, he looks at the war as being "splendid", which disgusts Merlyn. Through further teachings and introspection, Arthur comes to realize that there is no honor to war, and seeks to eliminate it all together. The irony is that Arthur has to go into battle and defeat the other army in order to bring about that change, but Arthur at least recognizes the irony of the situation. While he's going through this revelation, we're treated to glimpses into the lives of the children of this king Arthur battles, and we find a group of children who are thoughtless, self-centered, and prone to violence. The children are troublesome (and in one case, commit an atrocity that offends even their mother), and represent all that Arthur has to overcome to institute his code of chivalry. The way White presents it, it feels like it will be a lost cause, and he ends the book with a scene that underlines that point, complete with arrows and exclamation points.
The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, is mostly about Lancelot and his ultimate fall from the Round Table. I found his character to be the most interesting, just because he was so conflicted about himself. Arthur is a tragic hero, due to what he represented to Britain, but it's nothing compared to the personal tragedy that Lancelot endured. His love of duty and his love of his king (to say nothing of his love of Guenever) drove him to sacrifice so much, but in the end it was his actions that led to the downfall of Arthur.
But then the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind, shows that, while Lancelot's actions contributed to the fall of Arthur and the Round Table, it was Arthur's adherence to his ideas of Chivalry and justice that were the real cause. Arthur could have easily rid himself of his dilemma by banishing or killing Mordred (who was also a source of Arthur's sins and poor judgment), but his insistence on holding to the code of justice forced him to take actions against his wife and best friend. He was so focused on maintaining that idea that he was willing to give up his own happiness and go to war to defend those ideals. While he was engaged with that, then Mordred stepped in to take the power from Arthur and reinstate the "Might Is Right" rule that Arthur was so desperate to change. And the real tragedy of that tale was that Mordred was Arthur's illegitimate son, and was only wanting to betray Arthur out of spite.
The book ends on a sort of cliffhanger ending, but I understand that a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, published outside of this collection, concludes the saga. Needless to say, it's the next book on my list.
I was surprised to find that I liked this book as much as I did. It had subtlety and charm, good guys and bad guys, comedy and tragedy, and honor and despair. I loved that it flowed with an undercurrent of humor, and loved seeing how White, a modern writer, could add modern history to the story by having Merlyn live backward through time. I thought it was brilliant that White was able to tell a classic tale from a modern perspective, making comparisons between ancient mythology and, say, Einstein and Curie to give it a better frame of reference for readers. Some of the narrative conventions did date the story, but it never pulled me out of the story completely. It was engrossing, engaging, and entertaining. It was everything a good book should be, and the book was, in a word, perfect.