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22 April 2010

Book Review: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King
by T.H. White 

I began re-reading a favorite from childhood because I didn't remember anything about it but I always smiled when I saw the cover so I must have enjoyed it at least a little before I went senile and lost all vivid memory of anything.

Now that I've made it through the thick tome, I realize that, as a child, I only read the first book of the four included;
Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. I enjoyed all four, The Queen of Air and Darkness being my least favorite, as it deals with parts of the storyline that depict borderline child abuse, poor behavior and violence, three of my least favorite things.

T.H. White does a laudable job re-tooling the Arthur legend for "modern" audiences. His writing style is almost Wodehousian, with amusing asides and comments in a thinly veiled author's voice. White uses much anachronism (Pellinore wears glasses, the Tower of London exists, etc.) and twirls the timeline of the story around with great freedom, highlighting that there is no one actual myth. The Arthur legends are of dubious origin and every treatment of them is slightly different in detail. But the big lessons remain and though White's main purpose as he tells the story is to highlight the big lessons and morals, he has no qualms about entertaining the reader whilst doing so. I laughed out loud as much as I put my book aside to think for a moment.

A great read.

I dog-eared pages that included passages that made me think and ended up with a good many folded corners. A selection;

"Only fools want to be great"

"Learn why the world wags and what wags it"

"The destiny of Man is to unite, not divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees"

"There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine - short of war - my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it. A murderer, for instance, is not allowed to plead that his victim was rich and oppressing him - so why should a nation be allowed to? Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force"

"Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies."

"Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people"

"There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. The seventh sense. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. At this stage we begin to forget that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life ... there was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. There were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was. what we were ourselves. All of these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave"

"The world is beautiful if you are beautiful, and you can't get unless you give"

"She turned to him with a face of composure and relief - the efficient and undramatic face which women achieve when they have nursing to do or some other employment of efficiency."

"Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe - his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction"

"Perhaps, so long as people tried to possess things separately from each other, even honour and souls, there would be wars forever. Perhaps wars only happened between those who had and those who had not. As against this, you were forced to place the fact that nobody could define the state of 'having.' A knight with a silver suit of armour would immediately call himself a have-not, if he met a knight with a golden one. Perhaps war was due to fear; to fear of reliability. Unless there was truth, and unless people told the truth, there was always danger in everything outside the individual. You told truth to yourself, but you had no surety for your neighbour. This uncertainty must end by making the neighbor a menace. Perhaps wars happened because nations were like people - they had feelings of inferiority, or of superiority, or of revenge, or of fear. Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed a part of it. Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution."