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The Once & Future King

There was dead silence.

Only, in the far corner of the room, which had been netted off for Cully--loose there, unhooded and deep in moult--they could hear a faint muttering from the choleric infantry colonel. "Damn niggers," he was mumbling. "Damned administration. Damned politicians. Damned bolsheviks. Is this a damned dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Damned spot. Now, Cully, hast thou but one brief hour to live, and then thou must be damned perpetually."

"Colonel," said the peregrine coldly, "not before the younger officers."

"I beg your pardon, Mam," said the poor colonel at once. "It is something that gets into my head, you know. Some deep damnation."

There was silence again, formal, terrible and calm.

Would you believe, I have never read T. H. White's the Once and Future King?

It's true. In my slow, researching way, I have begun patching my fantasy background together for my next large project (or so it appears). I settled on it around the time I began thinking about sword and sorcery and its nature and, since years in the University systems has left me with the disease of research, and because it'll be at least eight or nine months before I can seriously sit down to it, I figured I'd begin slowly reading. I read Mallory's Le Morte de Arthur a few years back, and found it a mixed experience of suffering and odd moments of interest, but White's series completely slipped past me. I'm not all that big on Arthurian text anyway, since I tend to think that there's a little bit too much of it floating around.*

However, White's book is really beautiful (and quite funny, though this will apparently change as I get to the end). I haven't read the whole thing yet, so I'll refrain from saying anything that might look like a critique, except that I've been surprised by how much I've gotten into it being the jaded fantasy reader I am, and how, as I continue reading, the book feels like the foundation of modern day fantasy much more than Tolkien. The final edition of The Once & Future King was published a few years after Tolkien**, but the original books were published some fifteen to twenty years prior (The Sword In The Stone was published when what was thirty two, in 1938). I'm not up on my Tolkien knowledge, because I dislike Tolkien quite a bit, so I've no idea if there was a sequence of influence there, but White's book can be felt, I think, in the heroic fantasy genre that populates around us. The poor orphan boy Wart who becomes Arthur, is what would later be known as The Farm Boy Who Would Be King, and can be found in countless novels, complete with his wizard mentor showing him how to be a good king. David Eddings Belgarid series springs straight to mind, but there are more. And there is also the bumbling wizard, Meryln, and his uppity owl, because bumbling wizards often have an uppity animal to help them out, I've noticed.

There is no doubt that Tolkien has been hugely influential on the fantasy genre, but as I continue reading, I'm surprised that more people don't also talk about The Once & Future King.

* In other words, any new book/film/musical claiming to be the legend of King Arthur makes me break out the gasonline cans.

** A fifth book, the Book of Meryln was published after White's death in 1977 (though White died in 1964). For those, like me, who are fascinated by how authors die, White died on about the ship Piraeus, while returning from America. Kind of fitting, I feel.


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Jun. 30th, 2005 03:56 am (UTC)
I read Book of Merlyn not so long ago and didn't love it. The animal parables felt a little preachy, which didn't work well with White's whimsy for me. Wart seems crushed and White seems to have despaired of the world. It may be because I haven't read the books between it and Sword in the Stone, as it felt rather like a coda to a saga.
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:13 am (UTC)
i have heard that the book of meryln isn't the best of the series. it's hardly surprising, really, because he'd been dead when they published it, which thus suggests it was incomplete in his mind.
Jun. 30th, 2005 10:38 am (UTC)
I might have to hunt out a copy of The Once and Future King, especially if it's the work that launched a slew of other fantasy book.

I really enjoyed the Belgariad series (and the Mallorean one), and to an extent the two Sparhawk series (can't remember the official titles of them), but thought that with his latest books, Eddings had become too formulaic, in particular the book about Althalus, the thief (?). I haven't read the books for ages and they've been in storage in the US, awaiting a decision from DIMIA before we know whether they're going West to Aus, or East to the UK. Mind you, I haven't read the latest Eddings offerings (The Elder Gods etc), so perhaps he's written something that isn't a rewrite of stuff he's already bought.

Jun. 30th, 2005 01:16 pm (UTC)
well, i don't know if it launched anything--i think the success of tolkien's lord of the rings in the seventies did that. but i do think a lot of those books were influneced by it--directly or indirectly. you can see a lot of neil gaiman's humour in it, i think, and white's bumbling meryln resembles a lot of bumbling and powerful magicians that came afterwards. so i think you could argue it.

when i read the eddings belgariad series, i liked it. i was a little less on the malloreon, but i liked the first sparhawk series (hated the second). i tried reading the elder gods a while back, but it was utterly unreadable. i've the strong suspecion their books are ghost written now, but i could be wrong.
Jun. 30th, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC)
White is definitely underrated. Its an odd book, though, full of deliberate anachronism.
The later books have a depth of tragedy that is quite unexpected, too.
Jul. 1st, 2005 01:45 am (UTC)
is it talked about much, you reckon? i've never heard people talk about it much.
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