Review of The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I think it’s safe to say that the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is pretty universally known. However, the story varies some from book to book and film to film. T.H. White’s fantasy classic, The Once and Future King, is quite possibly one of the best known versions of the tale—and with good reason. Told in four parts, it chronicles Arthur’s rise from lowly squire to King of England, the noble experiment of the Round Table, and the subsequent downfall of his empire. If you’ve seen Disney’s excellent The Sword in the Stone (1963) and the significantly more depressing Camelot (1967), you’re already pretty familiar with three-quarters of White’s book.
I confess, I’ve always had trouble with the Arthur legend. Not the ‘poor boy gets to turn into fish and birds and learn Important Lessons’ part—that stuff is great, and I eat it up with a spoon. But the later years of Arthur’s life always caused me a certain amount of consternation. I remember watching Camelot as a kid and simply utterly loathing Vanessa Redgrave and her cheekbones and Franco Nero and his … whatever it is people love about Franco Nero. They made DumbledoreRichard Harris cry! I mean, who does that? It’s like kicking a puppy.
All of which to say, I embarked on my recent read-through of The Once and Future King fully expecting to be enraged by Guinevere and Lancelot’s complete and total selfishness. What I was not expecting was a glimpse into Arthur’s own less-than-stellar character. In fact, everyone in the book pretty much sucks. Camelot has come to be associated with ideas of potential, hope, and promise, but in T.H. White’s book, it’s an even more striking picture of the depravity of man. Allow me to summarize:
- Lancelot: “I will go on and on about how much I admire and care about Arthur, then totally sleep with his wife behind his back … on a regular basis. For like 20 years. And I will kill lots of innocent people in defense of the honor of a woman I know jolly well has none. Also, despite being the queen’s lover for decades, I will display an astounding inability to distinguish her from an imposter when the lights are out and/or when I’ve been drinking.”
- Guinevere: “I will also claim to love Arthur and then sleep with his best friend, despite the fact that Arthur’s inevitable discovery of my infidelity will force him to choose between his principles and his affection for his wife and BFF (who, as Arthur’s right hand man and the bestest knight ever, is of great practical importance to the kingdom, and is the metaphorical firepower backing up Arthur’s new order).”
- Arthur: “I will impregnate my half sister (it’s a long story—there was witchcraft) and then ineffectually arrange for the murder of the resulting bastard child. I will also devote my life to becoming a staunch advocate for justice and no respecter of persons, except when the person in question is one of my knights, in which case I’ll totally overlook minor infractions like the slaughter of innocents. Oh, and despite Merlin’s explicit warning about my wife and BFF hooking up (and the resulting downfall of my kingdom), I will turn a blind eye to their affair and instead adopt the tried-and-true ‘La la la I can’t hear you’ approach.”
- Other knights: “We will constantly lose our tempers, go off half-cocked, and/or avenge various wrongs (real or imagined) by murdering women, bystanders, and other knights, then apologize to Arthur, who will pardon us as long as we promise not to let it happen again. Then we will totally let it happen again. Also, the only one of us who is remotely virtuous will act like a sanctimonious and self-righteous jerk who is too busy being ‘holy’ to ever actually care about another human being.”
- Mordred: “I will do my level best to ruin absolutely everything for absolutely everyone and generally be the most loathsome human being imaginable, despite the fact that none of it will ever make me happy and will, in actuality, result in my own demise. Also, I may have been in love with my mother.”
Some utopia you’ve got there, Arthur. Yessirree.
Eventually, Arthur starts to come to grips with the reality that his kingdom is crumbling around him. He even starts to understand why:
He had been taught by Merlin to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good. […] His [Round] Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. […] But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent. (628)
Well! No wonder the whole thing went down in flames! We know from scripture that man is not, in fact, basically decent. Since Adam’s Fall in the Garden of Eden, mankind has been infected by original sin and is totally depraved. (Gen. 6:5) This doesn’t mean that man is as bad as he can possibly be—God in His grace restrains human sin. But every person is tainted by sin in every area of his or her life, and it is only by God’s grace that we’re not worse than we are.
[All] are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
We are, all of us, dead in our trespasses and sins and are, by nature, children of wrath. (Eph. 2:1-3) Every one of us is a dirty, rotten sinner who deserves nothing but eternal damnation. This is the nature of life after the Fall, and any political philosophy or utopian ideal that fails to take this reality into account is doomed to fail.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ […]For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-5, 8-10)
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us! (Rom. 5:8) He took our place on the cross, bearing the penalty we deserved, so that we could be justified, forgiven, and reconciled to the Father. Now, in place of our dead, stony hearts, we’ve been given hearts of flesh (Ez. 11:19-20); we possess both the desire and, by God’s grace, the ability to fight our sin and to pursue true righteousness—to walk in the good works God prepared for us.
King Arthur espoused a system of good works based on human effort and innate human goodness. That’s what he put his faith in. He was bitterly disappointed. Let us put our hope, not in man’s virtue, but the sinless life of Christ and His sacrifice for us, which alone enables us to live holy lives, confident that, despite our (many) failure, we remain clothed in His perfect righteousness.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.