Nevertheless, it is a serious work, delightful and witty in many ways and yet very sombre overall. The volume published as The Once and Future King is actually four works separately composed over about 20 years. The first, The Sword in the Stone, concerns the lost childhood of Arthur, future king of England, and his education by Merlyn. The second, The Queen of Air and Darkness, tells the story of adolescent sons of Orkney Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth and their mother, Morgause, who, unbeknownst to him, is Arthur's half-sister.
White, born in India in , was a brilliant student at Cambridge in the s, when he was already reading Malory's Morte d'Arthur. He clearly saw in Malory's cycle the British version of the Oresteia - an epic creation myth in which the violation, even the unintentional violation, of a cluster of taboos eventually leads to the disintegration of the nation created, even though, in White's work, almost everyone involved is reasonable, compassionate, and well intentioned.
The outlines of the story are well known: the young Arthur, rushing to find a weapon for his foster brother, Kay, pulls a magic sword from a magic stone, revealing himself as the rightful king of England.
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He then engages in several wars, and during one of these he finds himself in Orkney, where he is seduced by means of a charm into sleeping with his half-sister Morgause. The child of this union is Mordred. He then duly marries Guenever, but she subsequently falls in love with the greatest knight of the Round Table, Lancelot, who has come from France.
The Orkney brothers, including Mordred, repeatedly use Guenever and Lancelot's adultery as an excuse for forwarding their own resentments, until finally all loves and friendships have been sacrificed. Morgause is beheaded by her own sons.
A Once and Future Love by Anne Kelleher
Lancelot mistakenly kills Gareth and Gaheris, Guenever is nearly burned at the stake. Lancelot kills Agravaine during a raid and Gawaine in battle. Arthur is left bereft, only to die at the end, wondering if it is possible to govern at all. The Once and Future King is full of insights, scenes, and flourishes that are really quite astonishing.
No doubt because of the material, for one thing, it is one of the few English novels that are utterly frank about the power of love and sex. Morgause is portrayed as a beautiful but trivial and silly woman, a witch like her sister Morgan le Fay, but not serious enough to do real spells. The harm she does is in the seductive and yet neglectful way she rears her sons, deforming their emotional lives so they are always subject to violent jealousies, outbursts and hatreds.
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At one point they hear that she has gone with a couple of visiting knights to search for a unicorn but hasn't found it not being a virgin of course - and there is the implication that Agravaine has witnessed her seduction of one of the visiting knights that was the real purpose of the hunt. So the brothers persuade the kitchen maid, who is a virgin, to accompany them on a unicorn hunt of their own - they are intent upon winning their mother's attention by presenting her with a unicorn's head.
The unicorn does indeed come to the kitchen maid and lays his head in her lap. Both moved and frenzied by the beauty of the unicorn, the four boys kill it and attempt to take the head as a trophy, creating only pain, grief and mess with their efforts, and then getting in trouble when they return home. White seems to know all there is to know about boys. Arthur and the knights of the Round Table are so many boys grown into manhood, seething with ambitions, conflicting desires, strong emotions and barely recognised motives.
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At one point he writes of the Orkney brothers: "The idea which the children had was to hurt the donkeys. Nobody had told them it was cruel to hurt them, but then, nobody had told the donkeys, either. So the small circus was a unity - the beast reluctant to move and the children vigorous to move them, the two parties bound together by a link of pain to which they had both agreed without question. The pain itself was so much a matter of course that it had vanished out of the picture, as if by a process of cancellation.
The Once and Future King
White's novel is intense and rich. I read all kinds of books, fiction and non, including a decent amount of fantasy. It takes a lot for me to lose steam on a book. My question for those who have read it: can I expect this to turn into a real epic fantasy, or am I in for pages of silly pointless dialogue ie.
I really loved Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire, and Swans War series', but they all had a very dark tone and epic scope, and very deep characters. It's got some major overarching themes and lessons, for sure, but there's a lot of whimsy as well, even later in the book as I recall. It's not really a dark epic. I love The Once and Future King, but I read it for the first time when I was 11, and the last time I did a re-read I think was about 12 years ago, so my memory may be hazy.
I also was 11 when I first read it - and I read it over and over again. However it has also been about 13 years since my last re-read. If I was looking for an epic, I would be sorely disappointed; however, if whimsy is something you can tolerate, I think the book is worthwhile. The whole thing is like that. I wasn't truly hooked in till the 3rd book the Ill Made Knight. That's when it gets into the adventures of Lancelot and the knights of the round table and all the things that you think of when you think about king Arthur.
It feels like Sword in the Stone was written as a stand alone fairy tail, then T. White realized all the other things he would like to do with it so he wrote The Queen of Air and Darkness to bridge the gap.
A Once and Future Love
Keep in mind I have no idea if that's what really happened but after reading though it that was what I felt. QoAaD as all that In-between stuff they go over at the council of Elrond. Can I ask how old you are?
Because I feel that The Once and Future King is one of those books that you won't really appreciate if you read it during your adolescence. You are too old to find whimsical humor and the book's sense of adventure funny and endearing and too young to appreciate the wisdom it tries to impart in later chapters.
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What I can guarantee you however is that if you are expecting it to morph into a Lord of the Rings like story when Arthur is grown up, then you will be sorely disappointed. There isn't any primal struggle between good and evil, there aren't any grand battles, and even though the humor is toned down a lot in later chapters it then turns into musings on human nature and civilization rather than an epic story. I'm I'm a little further in since posting this morning and it's getting a bit more interesting.
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Ultimately I think I'll finish as it's a pretty easy read and I'm going through it quickly, it's just not what I generally expect out of the fantasy genre. The first section is much lighter in tone and more whimsical than the rest of the book.
It gets dark and serious and sad pretty quickly. It is indeed very whimsical and that, for me, is one of the things I love about it. But it gets darker Indeed, by Book 2 it's clear that the humor is masking some deeply messed-up goings-on. This is a story about deeply dysfunctional people, and there are huge hints as to what made them that way.
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