The Once and Future King

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5 out of 5 stars
By Robert on 12-13-12

My favorite book this year.

When I read reviewers write, “the best book I have ever read,” I thought yeah right! ‘must not have read many books. Well, I have read a fair bit myself and this is definitely one of the best written books I have ever read. I believe it is a book that one can read and reread and enjoy over and over and find something new in each reading of it. Not to be redundant, it is also one of the most fun and funniest I have ever read. It is a scholarly and even literary work, if you will. And yet, at the same time, the book is totally enchanting, witty and charming.

The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table arose in the early Middle Ages, when England was just beginning to come under the influence of Christianity. When anyone retells the story, the author brings his own perspective to the tale of chivalry. Here T.H. White often appears to use the education of the young king Wart by Merlyn to educate the reader. While not in so many words, or maybe it is that: Merlin is a time-traveler. Not so much in the context of some science fiction novel but in his memory. Merlin is aware of past, present and the future. Certainly the author is aware of those times and uses those temporal events to tell his story. The book is in many ways a critique of mid-twentieth-century British culture. At first, things seem somewhat anachronistic but then we see that the narrator regularly references events and people in modern times to help tell his tale even more effectively.

Both T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were written in the shadow of World War II, and both reflect that context to some extent:

“No. There is one fairly good reason for fighting - and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.” (Merlyn)

Not only is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King full of anachronistic references to places and events of modern times, but it also plays fast and loose with time within the framework of the novel itself. Given the references to the death of Uther Pendragon in 1216 and the appearance of Thomas Malory at the end of the story, Arthur would have lived from 1201-1485. In effect, what White does is telescope almost three hundred years of English history and social development into the backdrop of a single narrative.

The book is long. But multiple versions of the story of King Arthur are considered within its covers so how short can it be? No, this is the best of several interpretations of the legend and it is not too long. While much of the book’s ending dwells on allegory, philosophy and social commentary, it is done with and eloquence and prose that is hard to compare with.

One of the young reviewers of this book that I found tried to figure out the audience for for whom the author intended and concluded there were many. I agree:

For children and young adults-
“I have been thinking ... about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.” (Arthur). One of the central themes of the book is War: Right and Might.

On one level, both Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and T.H.
White’s The Once and Future King are children’s stories, yet both novels contain very
serious social commentary clearly intended for adults. Who could argue though that the social satire found in these novels detracts too much from the ability of children to enjoy them. Could a child appreciate all that is contained within TOaFK? Certainly not. However, there are many stories in this legend and many that target the child in all of us. One need not read this entire book though I am sure a lust will always remain to do so.

No reviewer could possibly do justice to this book. How about some more of the author’s own words:

On Wisdom-
“The best thing for being sad ... is to learn something. That is the only thing that never
fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” (Merlyn)

This is a story about great compassion-
“If I were made a knight ..., I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, a Hob does with
his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.” (Wart)

The author writes a great deal about the evolution of man-
“Here, all you embryos, come here with your beaks and whatnots to look upon Our first
Man. He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle, out of all of you, and We have great pleasure in conferring upon him the Order of Dominion over the Fowls of the Air, and the Beasts of the Earth, and the Fishes of the Sea. Now let the rest of you get along, and love and multiply, for it is time to knock off for the weekend. As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.” (Badger)

Much is written about human morality-
“Morals ... are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right
things all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn’t get out of.” (Lionel)

This title actually includes Books 1-5 of T.H. White’s magnum opus. It is not so much about world-building per se though there is enough of that. The book is more about us as humans and our nature... our intellectual, psychological, social and even political nature. The book is philosophical, satirical with even a little theology thrown in. Not too much; just the right amount. If it is action that ye seek, knockdown, drag out fighting, best look elsewhere. This is one more about relationships and different kinds of heroes.

This is brilliant storytelling brilliantly read and performed. The narration by Neville Jason is as good as it gets. I could not recommend a book more highly.

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162 of 172 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Jefferson on 12-17-11

A Modern Classic Epic Flawed by One Book Too Many

I eagerly purchased this audiobook of T. H. White???s complete The Once and Future King, because for a long time Audible only had the individual books available. And I loved the first four books, which begin with the halcyon fantasy of The Sword in the Stone, in which the boy Arthur (???Wart???) is educated by an anachronistic Merlyn. The scenes describing the daily life of a medieval castle during different seasons are vivid and beautiful, while those recounting Wart???s fantastic adventures and transformations into various animals are imaginative, suspenseful, and humorous. White loved and respected flora and fauna (even snakes), and this first book is encyclopedic and fantastic, dense and rich, absorbing and moving.

From the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, which opens in the cold north as Queen Morgause boils a black cat alive while her four sons are telling the story of their grandmother???s rape by Arthur???s father, begins the increasingly dark movement of the novel, centered on the tragedy caused by Arthur???s family history and the romantic triangle between himself, Guenevere, and Lancelot (The Ill-Made Knight). In the 2nd through 4th books White most closely follows Malory, though he also moves the era forward from the 11th to the 15th century and empathically imagines how medieval men and women felt and thought with modern psychological insight. At the same time, he writes plenty of joie de vivre, questing and combating knights, and fascinating details about medieval life (food, fashion, feudalism, etc.).

The novel really concludes with the 4th book (The Candle in the Wind) as the last battle between Arthur and Mordred is about to begin, but this audiobook then adds The Book of Merlyn, which may be good for completists, but which I found disappointing, as on the eve of the last battle Merlyn takes his former pupil off for a night of anachronistic political and philosophical debate with Badger and company about why humans wage war and what might be done to prevent it. Apart from Arthur changing into an ant and a goose to experience two different social systems, there is little ???story??? in this last book: too little Arthurian Matter and too much Whiteian Musing.

Jason Neville does a marvelous job reading the long work, effortlessly giving different characters distinctive voices and personalities without over doing it (so that, for example, his female characters sound like human beings rather than like a man imitating ???women???). And his King Pellinore reminds me of John Gielgud.

I recommend this audiobook for anyone interested in the Matter of Britain or philosophical and well-written fantasy.

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157 of 167 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Bookoholics Anon on 08-28-11

Fabulous reading, epic story and a new chapter!

I first read this book in 1963, and it was always a great favorite; the layers of Arthurian myth with White's dry wit and time-bending sensibilities as if Camelot were set in circa WWI Great Britain. This version is an admirable reading, Neville Jason provides finely-honed voices and the perfect slightly-ironic intonation that catches the tongue-in-cheek nature of this book. There is a chapter new to me, actually two. The "Mrs Mim" section was absolutely not in my edition, and features a wizard's duel between Mrs Mim and Merlyn. Reminds me of some other book about wizards I've read recently, can't think which one, though. And the Book of Merlyn is at the end, an addition to the version I read, advice to the king from his departing tutor. HIGHLY RECOMMEND this for the most enjoyable listening.

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69 of 73 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Valerie Allen on 02-17-13

Good, but not unabriged

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

It's very well-read, voices are excellently done. And overall, it's a great story.

Any additional comments?

I wish the recording had included everything that was in the book. I read the book once before, a long time ago, and kept waiting for the bit where the Wart visited an ant colony (one of the few things I remember clearly from the time I read it before. It was about 30 years ago now). It never arrived. Thought I was losing my mind. I checked a physical copy of the work, and there it is, beginning of Chapter 13. They also skipped the bit where the Wart, after being turned into an owl and being taught how to fly, is turned into a goose. They probably skipped it because they skipped the ant colony, as this experience is a sharp contrast to the other one.

If I hadn't known they were missing, I suppose I wouldn't miss those parts at all. But still. I wish a recording wouldn't call itself unabridged when it isn't.

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85 of 91 people found this review helpful

1 out of 5 stars
By Nelson on 03-27-17

This version has chapters missing!!!

Book 1, Chapter 13 - Wart as an Ant - Everything not forbidden is compulsory - missing!!

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17 of 18 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Jim "The Impatient" on 05-07-13

People Who Say They are No Good are Always the

Good Ones.
Since you can get these five books for one credit, go ahead and get it, instead of one book at a time. Believe me if you buy the first book, you are going to want the second and if you buy the second, etc. Since this is five books I will go over each, in case you buy one at a time. I will try an be brief. I mean if if takes you as long to read the review as the book, why not just get the book.

1, The Sword and The Stone (1938). This is the best of the five and is mostly a fantasy. Wart/Arthur is turned into several animals to learn about life. There is also an interesting part on boar hunting. Did you know on a boar spear there is a cross piece to keep the animal from running up the spear to get to you.

2.The Witch In the Wood (1939) This is shorter, darker and not as funny, nor as good as the book before and after, but necessary as it explains the origin of the Round Table.

3. The Ill-Made Knight (1940) This is all about Lancelot. You really get to know his character, matter of fact there is more character building in this book then the others. This is the longest of the books and actually goes on about three hours longer then it should have. Did you know that Lancelot was extremely ugly? This is one of the reasons he became such a great Knight. It is such a big part of his character I can't believe so many movies chose to make him some stupid Handsome Hunk. He is a lot more complicated as an Ugly Man. You are introduced to the tragic character Elaine, who starts out as a trickster, but who you end up feeling strongly sorry for. Guinvere turns out to be one horny queen.

4. The Candle in The Wind (1958) Does Might Mean Right is the common theme in all these books. It is especially in this one and the book has several long speeches. I myself as a child never understood why John Wayne won ever fight he was in. Until True Grit, John Wayne strongly believed he should never be killed in a movie. Heroes don't die and never lose fights. King Arthur's mother dies at the age of 70, in bed with a young man she seduced. In the original "Once and Future King" this was the last book, as it should have stayed.

5.The Book of Merlyn (1977) This was published after T.H. White's death. He wanted it in the original (Once and Future King), but the editor would not allow it. That was one smart editor. This book brought the whole series down from Five stars to Four. This book has no plot and is 97% anti-war speeches. There is a part where the King is turned into a ant and then into a goose. Those parts and the end which explains what finally happens to everybody are the only good parts to the book. This is mostly a debate where White argues both sides. I also am aniti-war, but no explanation is given about what to do about people like Hitler. White seems to say let him keep murdering Jews.

All in all this is very well written, is very entertaining and if you are a fan of the Legend of Arthur, then it is a must read.

The narrator is excellent.

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87 of 96 people found this review helpful

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