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The Once and Future King

by T.H. White
639 pages, Fantasy
Reviewed by Petraverd

Deep and thought-provoking classic fantasy, with a few snarls.

Plot

This fantasy classic is essentially the story of Arthur in four parts. Drawing on Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and referencing it frequently in-text, White gives his readers a wonderful picture of Arthur from his early years as a squire to the last moments of his reign.

Morality

Good is good and evil is evil. A good portion of the latter parts of the book involve attempting to let virtue for its own sake shine through, the idea of replacing the old 'Might makes Right' to 'Right makes Right.' Arthur strives throughout to do what is best for his people, and to do the right thing, however difficult that may be. This is sometimes very reluctant, but he does his best to stand for the right thing anyway, even if it is not particularly what he wants to do.

Spiritual Content

Perhaps the biggest issue in this section is Merlin, the somewhat curmudgeonly and yet still entirely loveable magician that teaches and advises Arthur in his early years and as he comes to power. Living 'backwards in time' so that he remembers the future and is oblivious to the past, Merlin's magic is used fairly extensively in the early parts of the book, mostly to transform Arthur into various creatures to learn what he can from their ways.

On the flip side, the later parts of the book provide some very striking glimpses into the Christian faith - despite the fact the author was a proclaimed agnostic. Lancelot in particular gives a stunning description of his experience in questing for the Holy Grail near the end of the third section, in which he talks about God stripping him of everything he thought defined him, and realizing that his actions as a knight should not be about himself or his own glory, but that anything he has been given has been through God's own gift.

Violence

This will likely be overbearing for some readers. Battles occur, as this is the tale of Arthur, and so some scenes can be fairly violent, though not overly gory. However, one scene in the second part involves Gawain and his three younger brothers killing a unicorn, and describes the messy process of cutting off its head and bringing it back with them. This section in particular will likely make some readers quite uncomfortable.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Alcohol is consumed, and it is not too hard to gather that some characters are drunk at certain points. This is usually portrayed in a negative light to varying degrees.

Sexual Content

This is a retelling of Arthurian legends, so scholars of Arthur will not be surprised to hear of the sexual content. Incest occurs between a man and his half-sister, though this is portrayed as a negative thing throughout. There is also the rather well known affair between Lancelot and Gueniver, though again this is portrayed as a negative thing all through the book.

In 'The Queen of Air and Darkness,' Gawain and his three brothers, boys at this point in the story, coerce a servant girl of their mother's to serve as bait for a unicorn, as she is a virgin. She is not treated particularly well by any of the four save Gareth.

Lancelot, in 'The Ill Made Knight', also rescues a woman who has been trapped in an enchanted boiling bath. Though he does attempt to remain chaste in the situation, the woman also attempts to seduce him later.

Most of these situations are handled delicately and without too much language, it is simply implied, or the act is mentioned in retrospect. Still, it is something for a reader to be aware of.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Some swearing here and there, d*** being the one that I remember. However, it is rather sparse.

In the opening chapter Kay's governess is described as having a 'mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige' which is 'believed to be where she sat down.'

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely. Being somewhat of an Arthurian scholar myself, I thought that several of the tales which could prove to be overly problematic were handled delicately and expertly. Though the first part, 'The Sword in the Stone,' is lighthearted and bouncy enough to be considered aimed at children, the rest of the book deals with some heavy issues, and parents should likely give the book a read first.

All in all, I found the book an enjoyable read, a book that left me with a lot to ponder, and something I will certainly be reading again in the future. One of those books that deserves a second reading, because you cannot possibly extract everything from it in a single reading.

Fun Score: 5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: adult

Review Rating:

Average rating: 5 stars
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