Sunday, February 17, 2008

Best King Arthur Book

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White

Fantasy - as a genre - suffers under the weight of its own legends. Hobbits have taken on a life of their own, spawning jokes and wisecracks that Tolkien himself would have never imagined. The stereotype of the Dungeons and Dragons acolyte who has no friends except the other players huddled around the cardboard map has made it's way now through multiple generations - I've heard D&D players as a group denigrated by college students to veteran army parachute instructors. There is a perception among some that fantasy stories are no more than an escape from the now, a way to ignore real problems while avoiding people.

To truly appreciate the fantasy genre, though, we must go back to the roots from which the legends came. Long before there were books, we've had heroes. Tired nomads huddled around fires telling the stories of the great men and woman who redefined society. Over time the tales grew old - names were misplaced, new castles replaced the crumbling forts, the achievements of a lifetime were condensed into the magical power of an instant. The role-playing games of today simply reflect the human urge to connect with heroes, to engage in mighty quests and accomplish superhuman tasks. Fantasy novels are indeed an escape - an escape from a society that provides little outlet for true heroism.

It is the rare novel which encapsulates the best of epic fantasy with the common frustration of the modern human being. The eternal quest of Arthur and his Round Table Knights is often viewed as a wholesome fantasy, a kind of "that's nice, now let's hold open the doors for the ladies" kind of story. We know of the quest for the Grail, and we understand that Lancelot - the greatest knight of all - betrayed his own king, but many consider this simply the stuff of legend. But what's the point? Isn't Arthur supposed to come back? If it was really true, I mean?

T. H. White's The Once and Future Kingaccomplishes a unique feat in the Arthurian realm - the novel truly humanizes the legend of Arthur. Unlike recent movies, which have relied upon changing the story itself and replacing the characters as convenient, White's novel remains true to the original Le Morte d'Arthur in terms of the legend. Where he varies the pitch is in the casting of his characters. We see Arthur progress from boyhood to adulthood and into the twilight of old age, and we experience the downfall of his own ideals. It's saddening toward the end, to see how the stubborn hope for that simple moral justice is itself a flawed ideal, but White writes so well that the eventual fall of Camelot becomes inevitable. This book, though good for all ages, is not written as a children's book. The very real failings of Lancelot and Guinevere are cast in an adult light. Death comes to the knights hidden by their shields, and White provides a faces for these men and their ladies.

Already a timeless legend of justice, betrayal, and the quiet hope for civilization gone wrong, the tale of Arthur the King is truly developed in White's novel. I highly recommend this book to any reader who wants to understand a magical world that is, in its own way, very real.

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Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post on the book. I haven't read it yet, and I have always wanted to read Le Morte d'Arthur. I'll have to put them both on my reading list this year.

Question for you: Have you read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and if so, what are your feelings about the author's take on this same legend? I tend to like reading original legends/stories, and then reading books that are an intelligent and interesting take off of them. I am thinking of Wicked by Gregory Maguire. In fact, Maguire made an entire career of, shall we say, alternate view point fairy tales.

Ryan Edel said...

Hey Amy,

Thanks for the comment. I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to read Mists of Avalon - it's been on my wish list for as long as I can remember it being on the shelves. I'm actually a big fan of books that take the traditional legends and put an intelligent spin on how they could have been. I loved Wicked - it was hilarious and poignant at the same time. I began to feel sympathy for the Wicked Witch (I mean, I don't think I'd like being born allergic to water and green).

For me, legends are meant to pass on a lesson. But when you take a 1000-year-old legend like King Arthur and translate it to modern readers, I think the writer needs to make the work relevant. Books that stay "true" to the legend sometimes leave out the personality of the characters involved - writers become so focused on the "facts" as if a legend is a purely nonfiction work. Instead of writing to produce a good story, they write to "get it just so." In the end, they hurt the story and they hurt their own desire to share the tale.