Reviews: The Once And Future King

After reading White's retelling of the Arthurian legend, I can see how some call this the greatest fantasy novel of all time.

The novel tells Arthur's story from beginning to end, following him as he pulls the sword from the stone, attempts to be a good king, and makes the tragic mistake which eventually returns in the form of Mordred to destroy all he's built. Very well-characterized, especially when it comes to Lancelot, the book is also philosophical. From what I gather, White believed the Arthurian Legends were an attempt to solve the problem of humanity's violent nature, and it shows in his retelling. King Arthur tries to channel "Might" productively by creating the Round Table, then by sending them after the Holy Grail, and then finally by creating the Rule of Law. Funny, Sad, Heartwarming, and Awesome Moments abound and the ending is one of the most elegiac* things I've ever read.

However, The Once And Future King isn't perfect. The novel is a set of four books, moving from light to dark, and the shifting tone may turn off some readers, depending on taste. Another possible turn-off is that White makes all sorts of anachronistic references to later periods, and Merlyn is happy to add to it. Also, White includes all sorts of medieval facts, and usually weaves them in well. However, there is one part where he stops the novel for several pages in order to get it all in. Finally, and this is my only real complaint, is that the first book doesn't strike me as belonging with the other three.

Even keeping the shifting mood in mind, The Sword In The Stone is so light that it feels out of place. The first book isn't very far from the cartoon movie, and it's plot mostly consists of Merlyn transforming Arthur into different animals and sending him off to learn about their particular hat. The titular sword doesn't even appear until the last pages. The baron's refusing to recognize Arthur, the resulting battles, Guinevere, Lancelot, the Orkneys, Mordred, and almost everything else of importance to the tragedy of Arthur won't appear until the next book. Mind you, I don't think The Sword In The Stone sucks or anything, I think it's a wonderful children's novel, and very enjoyable so long as you're not prejudiced against children's novels.

(Note: I hope I used "elegiac" right.)