So, recently, I decided to rectify a glaring omission in my own reading of the field. I was on holiday when I saw a copy (in one volume! Don’t you just love BIG books? My nerd confession for the day is: I do!) of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (TOFK) sitting on a bookstore shelf. (What? Stop looking at me like that. Of course, I’ll pop in to any bookstore that chances along, even when I’m on holiday. Doesn’t everyone? Even if it didn’t exactly chance along… I knew it was there and kinda suggested we drop in. Oh, never mind.) And this copy actually had the fifth part included! So… all five books in one. (White’s book was originally published as a tetralogy, with the fifth coming out quite a number of years later.) So this looked like a winning proposition whichever way you looked at it.
(If I love the Arthurian thing specifically and epic fantasy in general so much, how is it I’ve never read TOFK, you ask? Dunno. Just one of those glaring omissions, I guess. One of those I’ll-get-‘round-to-it-eventually things we all have floating around in the detritus of our lives. Now I have. Stop pestering me.)
So I sat down and read it over a period of a couple of months or so. And there was a slight problem with it (the length of time it took me to read the thing should be your first clue).
I didn’t like White’s story. At all. Had to force myself not to abandon it, to read right ‘til the bitter end. As I wrote in my Goodreads review (right next to all the glowing ones talking about seminal works and all that), I thought it was facile and simplistic. Hugely disappointing. Felt like Dorothy must have when she discovered The Great And Powerful Oz was just a very small, ordinary man using a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Why did I dislike it? Well, that’s not really the today’s point, but aye, it’s a fair question to ask, so I’ll answer. Throughout the first book (titled The Sword in the Stone), I recall thinking with amusement the Disney film of the same name stuck very close to the book’s plotline. Which should have been my first clue, because, yes, Constant Reader, I confess I loved the film. When I was eight years old. In fact, I dressed up as Merlin that long-ago Halloween as a result, if memory serves. And actually (as Lucy Pevensey superciliously intones to Mr. Tumnus in the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), I still like Disney’s animated feature today, more decades later than I care to confess. But I do not look to it expecting a deep, rich cinematic experience. It, too, is facile and simplistic, if in Disney’s usual rather charming way.
Quite a lot of TOFK reads like a children’s story, although at nearly nine hundred pages, it obviously isn’t meant to be. But White breaks the fourth wall like it is, which I didn’t mind in The Hobbit, but certainly didn’t expect in The Lord of the Rings (and didn’t see, so Tolkien obviously understood the difference.) I don’t like White’s habit of making modern historical and cultural references to the tale, of having characters call each other Lance and Jenny (for Lancelot and Guinevere), of going on, in tediously pedantic detail, about his own political theories (especially in The Book of Merlin). That’s enough to be going on with. It just didn’t grab me, anyway.
I’m very much aware, in voicing my dislike/disappointment of TOFK, I’m swimming against the tide of public opinion over the last sixty years or so. You may have loved TOFK, Constant Reader, and be aghast at the temerity of my sacrilegious criticisms. That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. And so am I. (One thing we desperately need to do in current society is become waaaaay better at being able to express differences of opinion in a calm and rational manner without abusing or attacking the person differing with us, because our inability to do so is, quite frankly, one of the things tearing society apart.)
By the way, if you want my recommendation of at least two modern writers who have done much better at writing about the Arthurian saga, may I present Mary Stewart and Jack Whyte for your inspection? Their tales --- Stewart’s is four books long, Whyte’s is seven --- are richly detailed, superbly written, sophisticated, posing all sorts of interesting questions… in short, everything I did not find with T.H. White.
If the reasons why I didn’t like TOFK aren’t the point of today’s epistle, you ask, what is? Once again, a fair question. It’s really a thought I’ve voiced before, including with authors I’ve mentioned right here in today’s post (namely, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), and now I find it applicable to T.H. White: looking thoughtfully at these authors, these giants of the epic fantasy genre, who, ironically, were all publishing the works for which they’re most famous today around the same time frame i.e. about 65 years ago… I’m really not sure they would find publishers today if they were seeking publication for the first time, as unknowns.
We can talk more about that some other time, but for now… well, ‘tis food for thought.
Sic transit gloria mundi.