Best books: The Once and Future King

An Arthurian fantasy by TH White

I have been worming my way through books for over 40 years and consider myself to be pretty well-read. When I meet people who’ve read more, I wonder if they’ve ever got up from the sofa. And this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy – a tragedy, a comedy, a study of the nature of power and justice. It is the first book about King Arthur that I read and remains the best. (Is it really one of the best books I’ve ever read, or is it just that the books we read when we are young have the most profound influence on us?)

It is divided into four volumes. The first deals with the boyhood of Arthur – known as the Wart – and his education by Merlin. Later volumes deal with his rule as king, the romance between his queen, Guenever, and his best knight, Lancelot, and his eventual downfall. It is set in medieval Britain and has jousting, quests, magic, damsels in distress, feasts, castles – and lots of falconry,  a subject that TH White was especially fascinated by.

What stands out about it is the way the narrative shifts from comedy – the descriptions of King Pellinore in pursuit of the Questing Beast are very funny – to romance, and tragedy. The style is a happy mixture of the formal and informal: it can soar majestically and then be suddenly very down-to-earth. While these characters are legendary, White also makes them behave and sound very modern. There are unusual twists too: Merlin is living backwards and on one Boxing D

ay hunt arrives wearing a tracksuit.

The first volume, The Sword in the Stone, is often described as a classic children’s book – and was turned into a charming Disney film – but I have yet to meet a child who has read it. Like other ‘older’ works of fiction, the text is too complex and demanding, and the pace not swift enough, for most young readers today – although any 11-year-old who has read all of the Harry Potter books twice, as so many have, should be able to deal with it easily and would probably enjoy it. The other volumes are darker and more adult in their themes. Most of it was written before and during the early part of the Second World War, and I get the impression that TH White was brooding on the idea of ‘might makes right’ as the skies darkened over Europe and the storm arrived.

My step-father lent me his copy of the book when I was about 14 or 15, and he didn’t get it back, due to an unfortunate episode that occurred on the bus coming home from school. I had got to the part where the brothers Gawaine, Gareth, Agravaine  and Gaheris kill the unicorn as it lays its head in the lap of the kitchen-maid Meg. I started to cry, and the yob in the seat in front of mine tried to snatch the book away from me in an effort to see what had affected the ‘sissy’ in front of him so much. I held on to it and a page ripped out of it. The yob threw the loose page at me, saying that it was all my fault, and then turned to face the front, clearly embarrassed by his act of vandalism. For years I couldn’t get hold of another copy to give back to my step-father; it seemed to be out of print. But I am glad to say that I found one eventually – many years later – in a second-hand bookshop. Now it is available again and much easier to come by.

There are many other versions of the Arthurian legends: Rosemary Sutcliff’s trilogy is good and Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur, High King of Britain is one of his best. But none of them come close to this wonderful book.