By Dwayne Mayor
The Once and Future King is T. H. White’s classic and “authoritative” version of the saga of
King Arthur. It is a work composed of five books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and
Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, The Candle in the Wind, and The Book of Merlyn. The first
book may be the most well known, its story having been popularized by a Disney animated film,
among other things. The last may be the least well known, having been left out of a single edition
combining the other four, due to a paper shortage during World War Two.
Perhaps it is because someone told me that TOAFK is a classic that I waited more than a
decade before reading it. Even after having bought a copy containing the first four books — they still
sell it that way, even though I think the war is over — I still let it sit on my shelf for several years
before bothering to open it… Life!
What a mistake that was!!! It wasn’t until you assigned it that I discovered my error.
The book is simply wonderful! With all due respect for El Neil’s long overdue trouncing of
Swords & Sorcery fiction, I wish everyone would read this book and see what White is really trying
to say… which has precious little to do with swords or sorcery. With this in mind, perhaps I should
qualify my endorsement by saying that if you need a book that reads like a Schwartzenager movie,
TOAFK will put you to sleep. If, on the other hand, you think you might enjoy something warm,
humorous, tragic, and brutally honest with the grandeur and failures of human beings, then this book
will put a spell on you.
However, pure wonder and enjoyment of a truly marvelous tale is not enough reason for me to
qualify this work as the best I’ve read since Tolkien. Nor even Merlyn’s casual description of himself
as an anarchist (as, he says, any sensible person ought to be) is enough to merit this highlighting.
My reason is that the true subject matter of the saga is not of a great king, nor of love triangles
and betrayal, nor even of a great war, as I had expected. The Once and Future King is about the
immorality and self-destructive nature of institutionalized force in society.
One of my favorite passages of all five books(I’ve only read three so far) is an absolutely
hilarious scene in which Merlyn whisks the young Arthur off to see knights tilting against each other.
Instead of the glorious battle the boy is expecting, we witness the knights illustrating the lunacy of
At a time when brutality reigned supreme and the highest law of the land was that Might
Makes Right, Merlyn plays Arthur as a pawn in an experiment. The experiment? To try to alter or
abolish the law of brutality. Hence, Arthur’s code of chivalry and his Law & Order crew at the
Round Table represent, not an increase in violence against the people by the state, but an attempt to
set a body of law between the naked aggression of the state and the people. The motto of the
knights of the Round Table was Might For Right.
In my view, T. H. White’s concept of “Might” is very similar to what I’d call institutionalized
aggression; systematic and accepted initiation of the use of force as the normal means of solving
problems in society. This curse is still with us. We usually call it “government,” but that is not its only
Given all the individual acts of barbarism detailed in the story, one might suspect that White
was simply railing against all aggression, but I do not see it this way. White is fully cognizant of the
capacity for evil in all of us and his attack is more focused. In his version, even King Arthur has a
black past, having committed mass infanticide and actually earning Mordred’s enmity.
Look at the fifth book, The Book of Merlyn. Almost all of it is devoted to an absolutely
merciless examination of the human animal.(Found that out off of Amazon.com) The conclusion?
Man is selfish and often acts with incredible stupidity, but he manages to create greatness and
beauty such as no other animal on earth. The moral? Rather than try to make man live by rules that
only work for angels, and rather than breaking him or caging him, we should accept him. We should
try to create social systems in which force is minimized, so man’s greatness can apply itself
This is the key that keeps White from being a utopian, in my view. He recognizes that individual
acts of brutality will always be with us, so he concentrated on the brutality that can be eliminated:
the institutions of aggression.
Arthur’s Round table — Merlyn’s experiment — was a brilliant innovation, doomed to failure.
Not doomed because of some silly curse, nor because Guenever was sneaking around with Lancelot,
nor even because Mordred hated his father. The round table was doomed to failure because it
attempted to control Might (institutionalized aggression) instead of eliminating it.
Arthur simply lacked the ability to imagine that Might could be completely done away with…not
until he was dying and his repeated failures to control it left him with no alternative.
Tragic as this may seem for an ending, I find it to be almost painfully hopeful. In leaving us,
Arthur tells us that he will return. He will come again with a new Round Table, this one bent on
completely eradicating Might from society. The cat is out of the bag; Might can be beaten!
Now there is a fantasy I can pour my heart into!!!
This book has appeared in several editions, the original works being copyrighted over fifty
years ago. The one I have here is a Ace book, printed in 1987. It contains the first four books only
and is 639 pages long. I’m not sure what the new ones are like, but I’ve not seen all five books bound
in a single volume anywhere.
“Terrance Harris is a would-be author of fiction. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and sister, who teach
him daily lessons in effective ways to resist tyranny. Having just barely survived 14 years of ‘education’, Mr.
Harris is doing his best to study the human animal in it’s natural habitats and sucessfuly complete the IB/MSE
Pallas, the new sci-fi adventure novel by L. Neil Smith is out in paperback from Tor. Is there room
for a socialist utopia on an individualist asteroid?
Now available at good bookstores everywhere!(Sorry for the ad in my journal but this book is really
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