The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King  
Once future king cover.jpg
1st edition
Author(s) T. H. White
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Fantasy, Novel
Publisher Collins
Publication date 1958
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-441-00383-4 (paperback edition)
OCLC Number 35661057
Dewey Decimal 823/.912 21
LC Classification PR6045.H2 O5 1996

The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy novel written by T. H. White. It was first published in 1958 and is mostly a composite of earlier works written in a period between 1938 and 1941.

The title comes from the inscription that, according to Le Morte d'Arthur, was said by "many men" to be written upon King Arthur's tomb: the internally rhymed hexameter Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus — "Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be".[1]


Plot introduction

T. H. White uses The Once and Future King as his own personal view of the ideal society[citation needed]. The book, most of which "takes place on the isle of Gramarye," chronicles the raising and educating of King Arthur, his rule as a king, and the romance between his best knight Sir Lancelot and his Queen Guinevere (which he spells Guenever). It ends immediately before Arthur's final battle against his illegitimate son Mordred. Though White admits his book's source material is loosely derived from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), he reinterprets the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world enduring the Second World War.

The book is divided into 4 parts:

A final part called The Book of Merlyn (written 1941, published 1971) was published separately (ISBN 0-292-70769-X) following White's death. It chronicles Arthur's final lessons from Merlyn before his death, although some parts of it were incorporated into the final editions of the previous books.

An often quoted passage from the book is the story that the badger calls his "dissertation," a retelling of the Creation story from Genesis.

Plot summary

The story starts in the last years of the rule of king Uther Pendragon. The first part, The Sword in the Stone, chronicles Arthur's raising by his foster father Sir Ector, his rivalry and friendship with his foster brother Kay, and his initial training by Merlin, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlin, knowing the boy's destiny, teaches Arthur (known as "Wart") what it means to be a good king by turning him into various kinds of animals: fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger. Each of the transformations is meant to teach Wart a lesson, which will prepare him for his future life.

In fact, Merlin instills in Arthur the concept that the only justifiable reason for war is to prevent another from going to war, and that contemporary human governments and powerful people exemplify the worst aspects of the rule of Might.

Note that neither the ant nor goose episodes were in the original Sword in the Stone when it was published as a stand-alone book. The original novel also contains a battle between Merlin and sorceress Madam Mim that was not included in The Once and Future King but that was included in the Disney film.

In part two, The Queen of Air and Darkness, White sets the stage for Arthur's demise by introducing the Orkney clan and detailing Arthur's seduction by their mother, his half-sister Morgause. While the young king suppresses initial rebellions, Merlyn leads him to envision a means of harnessing potentially destructive Might for the cause of Right: the Round Table.

The third part, The Ill-Made Knight, shifts focus from King Arthur to the story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever's forbidden love, the means they go through to hide their affair from the King, and its effect on Elaine, Lancelot's sometime lover and the mother of his son Galahad.

The Candle in the Wind unites these narrative threads by telling how Mordred's hatred of his father and Agravaine's hatred of Sir Lancelot caused the eventual downfall of King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Lancelot, and the entire ideal kingdom of Camelot.

The book begins as a quite light-hearted account of the young Arthur's adventures, Merlin's incompetence at magic, and King Pellinore's interminable search for the Questing Beast. Parts of The Sword in the Stone read almost as a parody of the traditional Arthurian legend by virtue of White's prose style, which relies heavily on anachronisms. However, the tale gradually changes tone until Ill-Made Knight becomes more meditative and The Candle in the Wind finds Arthur brooding over death and his legacy.

Characterization in the work

Perhaps most striking about White's work is how he reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:

  • Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of that lot. He is also a sadist, a trait he represses, but which leads to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight.
  • Merlyn lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger.
  • Sir Galahad is not well liked by many of the Knights as he is truly perfect - to the point of being 'inhuman'.

White allows Thomas Malory to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Also of note is his treatment of historical characters and kings as mythological within the world that he creates. In addition, due to his living backwards, Merlyn makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times; of note are references to the Second World War, telegraphs, tanks, and "an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos" (i.e. Hitler).[2]


Fantasy historian Lin Carter wrote, "...the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written, is, must be, by any conceivable standard, T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I can hardly imagine that any mature, literate person who has read the book would disagree with this estimate. White is a great writer."[3]

Film, television and theatrical adaptations

Although they initially purchased the film rights to The Ill-Made Knight in 1944,[4] when Walt Disney eventually produced an adaptation it was of The Sword in the Stone, released in 1963. This movie reflects more the sense of humour of Disney's team of animators than White's. The movie adds a more comical side to the original story, including song and dance, as in most Walt Disney films. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical Camelot (which was made into a movie in 1967) is based mostly on the last two books of The Once and Future King, and features White's idea of having Thomas Malory make a cameo appearance at the end, again as "Tom of Warwick".

Other references to The Once and Future King

  • The X-Men comics mention The Once and Future King several times, notably in the first issue of "The X-Tinction Agenda" story arc, which mentions that the book is Professor Charles Xavier's favorite, and that Xavier always saw himself as Merlyn, the teacher guiding the hero(es), rather than as a hero himself. In the Ultimate X-Men comics, the book is a metaphor for Magneto, an extremely powerful mutant terrorist. This is carried over into the 2003 film X2: X-Men United, which begins one scene with Magneto reading an old copy of The Once and Future King in his prison cell. At the end of the film, Xavier is using the book as a teaching tool.
  • The television series One Tree Hill quotes the book in episode 202. The main character, Lucas, in a voiceover says, "T. H. White said perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically, to those who hardly think about us in return."
  • The Once and Future King featured prominently in the film adaptation of Rodman Philbrick's "Freak the Mighty." Max Kane and Kevin Dillon bond through the book, and inspired by Dillon's fits of fancy, the two embark on a quest to embody the heroic qualities of King Arthur.
  • This book is referred to in the 2006 film Bobby. Edward Robinson, played by Laurence Fishburne, relates the novels depiction of King Arthur to the selfless and chivalrous qualities of Jose Rojas, as played by Freddy Rodriguez.
  • Lev Grossman's book The Magicians includes a long sequence where magicians-in-training are transformed into geese, a "direct and loving homage" to Wart's transformation in The Sword in the Stone.[5]
  • The George Romero film Knightriders references The Once and Future King as the inspiration for a traveling Camelot of motorcycle riding knights aspiring to the code of chivalry.

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal

Reference List

  1. ^ Sir Thomas Malory (1485). Le Morte d'Arthur. William Caxton. "And many men say that there ys wrytten uppon the thumbe thys: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS."
  2. ^ (White 266-267)
  3. ^ Carter, Lin (1973). Imaginary Worlds. Ballantine Books. p. 125. ISBN 0345033094. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Strange Horizons magazine, November 2009

External links

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