Karla News

T. H. White and the Sword in the Stone

Arthurian Legend, King Arthur, Tennyson

One of the most remarkable things I have encountered in my time in school is the incredible endurance of legends and myths. King Arthur, the mysterious king from the early Middle-Ages, carries with him still the compelling legend of a great and good warrior uniting the people of his war-torn nation under a single banner of equality, the undying king who will one day return from Avalon and reclaim his throne in Britain. Though the ancient texts that concern him may seem stilted to a modern reader, the legend still resonates in an awe-inspiring way.

As a life-long voracious reader, I set goals and make lists of the books I intend to read every year, depending on my mood, friends’ recommendations and the like. A couple years ago I took a course in Arthurian Legend and Film and was told that the source for many films and most people’s understanding of the legend of King Arthur was a series of books by T.H. White called The Once and Future King. The class was incredibly enjoyable and that series made the list. Two years later I finally got around to reading it. I’m a musician and had focused on other things in the meantime, but White’s name stuck in my head until I finally had an excuse (a paper on Arthurian literature) to get my greedy paws on these books.

So far I have only read the first book The Sword in the Stone, but after reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, as well as various poems by Tennyson and Scott, it was a surprise and even a relief to read something so casual and modern. The aforementioned works are all quite old – Malory’s and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s both are pre-Shakespeare – but The Once and Future King is a modern novel. The edition I currently hold in my hand was copyrighted in 1939, 1940 and 1958, compared to the most recent Tennyson work published between the 1850s and the 1880s.

See also  Why Superhero Animation on TV Beats Live Action

While maintaining the tradition, the history and the legend of Arthur (White has the eponymous sword through both a sword and an anvil, unifying conflicting accounts), T.H. White instills a bright, vivacious humor into his characters. Merlin’s lines are filled with anachronisms, as he is living his life “backwards. He is a terrible wizard, accidentally blowing himself to Bermuda with a thoughtless curse, and the voice of modernity in the legend.

Each retelling of a legend reflects in some way its modern time. As many, many people have said, art is not created in a vacuum. White instills his novels with the confusion of the the 30s and 40s, between World Wars and in a multi-national depression. The young Arthur, affectionately referred to as “Wart”, is enamored by war, chivalry and knighthood but Merlin preaches a surprisingly calm, modern, peaceful stance. Hidden in the many adventures of Wart becoming a fish, an ant or a falcon are themes that are equally pressing to a 20th (and 21st) century audience. Humility, wisdom, patience and generosity are all attributes that are not preached but tucked away in favorite characters.

The great King Arthur, legendary hero, comes down to earth in this new (though now old to us) retelling of the Arthurian story with the laughs, sighs and tears of a great story, the readability of a modern novel and the immortal glory of the perfect myth.

White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958. Print