T.H. White's sensibilities are on display through his prose and commentaries found in the book. Especially in the character of Merlyn, who is absolutely wonderful, unique, and truly unforgettable, the story drips with anachronism. It's a clever technique considering Arthur's goal as king is to bring his kingdom and people into modernity, even if he doesn't know exactly what that looks like. Furthermore, The Once and Future King is filled with humor, some of it very, very funny. Albeit, as the reader reaches the close of the saga the world becomes darker, more complicated, and more dire. In addition, the book has some incredibly shocking moments—from incest to gruesome violence (that poor, poor unicorn) to adulterous affairs—the story never lets you feel at ease. The playfulness of the first quarter of the book only comes in brief episodes toward the latter half of the book as Arthur's knights, especially Lancelot, roam the world looking for adventures.
As a commentary on society, whether modern or ancient, the book feels cynical. And considering the history of mankind and the dramatic arch of this book one realizes why. Is our modern society much improved in the way of morals, honor, and justice? Are the court rooms of today mere proxies for ancient duels intended not so much to achieve true justice but to decide the strongest and most skillful brute? These types of questions are provocative and sobering. Arthur's quest to abolish "Might makes Right" eventually becomes circular. Morality becomes fuzzy to characters who should know better. Human mistakes have generational effects, and the great lesson of life—choice and consequence—is illustrated in a powerful display of pathos. For hundreds of pages you see the tragedy coming, you feel it coming, but it still breaks your heart when it arrives.
Mordred, the sinister and nefarious son of Arthur, is an antagonist not to be forgotten. Arthur, the visionary but tragic king, is both an object for admiration and for pity. The lessons on leadership taught to and taught by Arthur are important, poignant, always relevant. My feelings toward Guenever and Lancelot are complicated, albeit mostly negative. Their actions lead to great misery for those around them, but their actions highlight some of mankind's greatest weaknesses, such as envy, lust, and selfishness. Merlyn, as I mentioned earlier, is the great archetype of a mentor and teacher. There are other fascinating and entertaining characters throughout The Once and Future King, and they provide the glue and substance to a narrative which is unconventional and strange.
The Once and Future King is a profound book. The last dozen pages or so is a tour de force of philosophical and ideological commentary. As an old man, Arthur struggles to make sense of the human condition. The reader attempts to do the same. However bizarre a book The Once and Future King is, it's a book not to be ignored or forgotten. The lessons of Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot are not fictional fantasies but those which are "common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13). And seeing as how we are all common in our humanity, we would do well to learn a thing or two from them.
Of the several profound passages in the book, I found the following to be particularly piercing:
- "Do you think that they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription? Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, do we not ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation? If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?"
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem