Contrary to the claims of the back flap of the book, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is not “the fantasy masterpiece by which all others are judged.” It is an excellent book, no doubt. And if you’ve not read it, you should set aside whatever else you’re reading now and go do so. If nothing else it is the source material for the greatest animated Disney film. But it is not the definitive fantasy work–that particular honor belongs to Lord of the Rings. It is not even my favorite Arthur story (I’m partial to Jack Whyte’s series, though they get a bit ‘Harlequin’ for my tastes at times). Nor is it exactly fantasy in the commonly understood sense. I mean, yes, there is some magic in it–especially in the first book. And we hear of dragons and ogres and giants. But that’s not really the point. It is only fantasy in that it, like much fantasy, is about an imaginary past (as opposed to science fiction, which tends to be about a possible future). What it is, is a gripping version of the Arthur story interlaced with worthwhile reflection on life, the universe, and everything.
We begin with the story of Wart–a story familiar to all of us who grew up with the Disney VHS collection–and his tutor Merlin. Wart learns about the world both through his instruction as his foster-brother Kay’s page/squire (I forget which–maybe both?) and through being turned into various and sundry kinds of animals. And while there are definitely some darker aspects in the book than there were in the movie version, by and large if you’ve seen the film you’ve gotten a respectable introduction to the book, up to and including the removal of the Sword from the stone. From there… the book gets a lot grimmer.
Once he is an adult, Arthur goes about inventing civilization as an alternative to the backwards barbarism of his youth. His primary concern as the King of England is to dethrone ‘Might’ from its place at the head of human affairs and replace it with… well, that’s the real trick isn’t it? With what? Other, better-directed ‘might’? Right? Justice? The Law? Over and over Arthur finds that his attempts to reform society by making it good are thwarted by the very people he is trying to serve–and at times even by himself. As is probably fairly obvious, once past ‘The Sword in the Stone’ territory, the book is pretty dark. Betrayals, murder, adultery, incest, etc etc etc about. You’ve been warned.That said it is still a book worth reading. T.H. White was clearly a writer with both modern liberal sensibilities and an accurate understanding of reality. He knew what he wanted to see in society (a good state full of good people) and he knew that he wasn’t going to get it because there is something inherently wicked about human nature. It’s telling that there is functionally no Christian presence in the text. Aside from a deus ex machina by the Pope at one point, the one group of people who could have warned Arthur that his project was doomed to fail from the beginning are noticeably absent.
And that tells us something about the role of Christians in the world. It is our obligation to remind the world of the perils of utopian thinking. Man is inherently sinful, and any political program that forgets that is doomed to fail–and the bigger and wider-ranging the program, the more devastating the collapse. Arthur tried to reform the whole nation, and the result (spoiler alert) was the collapse of everything into terror, civil war, and chaos. Whatever our political orientation, as Christians caution and restraint and an appropriate accounting for sin ought to weigh heavy in our thoughts about politics in this world. The Once and Future King is as good a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.
A final closing note: if it can be a bit hard to follow some of White’s storyline, in part that’s because the book is based on Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (and who reads that these days?). But it can also be difficult because White intentionally writes his book as if all the myths of the English past are the true histories, and the true histories are the myths. So as you’re reading about how Arthur invades and conquers Rome, you’ll hear parallels drawn with the ‘legendary’ Richard the Lionheart. It’s a fascinating device, though it does make some of the narrative slip a bit into obscurity if you don’t know both the history and the myth.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he leaves swords in stones regularly–the alternative is too big a headache.