Greetings from a first-time Cannonballer! How fitting that my first dive into this challenge coincided with my every 3 years or so re-readings of one of my favorite books: T.H. White’s Arthurian masterpiece, The Once and Future King (which is also one of Professor X’s favorite books, so I am in good company).
What makes this book so wonderful is that it is perfect for both those who love Arthurian legends and who are well versed in Thomas Malory’s and others’ versions and for those who prefer a less antiquated tone. Indeed, he often skips over certain longer tales of Lancelot’s adventures or lengthy tournaments, noting that “Malory covers them in depth”, focusing instead of stories that would tie the narrative themes together. Instead of using a medieval gaze, White frames the story’s themes from the perspective of a post WWII world and offers timeless meditations on power and the nature of war.
His chief device for this modern interpretation is the character of Merlyn. This version of Merlyn lives backwards through time, remembering the future as he lived through the “past” (the present for everyone else). This results in an often comic bumbling mentor, who is frequently unable to give Arthur advice in the right order as he can’t remember if things have happened yet. However, there is an undeniable element of pathos to most of his interactions with the naive and youthful Arthur, as he can forsee the tragic end that the King and his Round Table come to. In addition, Merlyn is constantly dropping anachronisms from White’s era, providing a modern take on many of chivalry’s quirks, especially it’s often futile struggle against human nature. He references the rise of Hitler as an example of the doctrine “Might Makes Right”, and warns Arthur of the dangers of building a regime based on force, even with the best of intentions.
The whole saga is written almost as a cautionary tale of trying to fight against human nature. Even the relatively light-hearted The Sword and the Stone where a young Arthur is transformed into various animals is meant to show the inherent selfish and destructive impulses present only in humans. This leads to his life’s goal of creating a nation based on chivalry, where Might is harnessed only to protect Right for the weak, poor, and commonplace people. Each ongoing section becomes more melancholy, as the court’s chivalry breaks down and Arthur’s Round Table slowly succumbs to corruption and betrayal.
These modern twists extend to many other characters, such as making Lancelot a self-loathing sadist whose constant attempts to become the world’s best knight are rooted in his self-hatred, and Galahad, a knight so absolutely perfect and righteous that he is utterly inhuman and utterly insufferable to the rest of the Round Table.
Don’t be turned off by the 600+ pages- the language is similarly modern, and there are tons of jokes, despite the pessimistic and tragic tone! It truly is a one-size-fits-all novel- perfect for Arthurian newbies and scholars alike.