Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Once and Future King #1-4

The Once and Future King

Rate this book
T.H White′s masterful retelling of the Arthurian legend is an abiding classic. Here all five volumes that make up the story are published in one volume, as White himself always wished. Exquisite comedy offsets the tragedy of Arthur′s personal doom as White brings to life the major British epic of all time with brilliance, grandeur, warmth and charm.

639 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1958

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

T.H. White

97 books1,119 followers
Born in Bombay to English parents, Terence Hanbury White was educated at Cambridge and taught for some time at Stowe before deciding to write full-time. White moved to Ireland in 1939 as a conscientious objector to WWII, and lived out his years there. White is best known for his sequence of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King, first published together in 1958.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
42,959 (40%)
4 stars
37,105 (34%)
3 stars
19,298 (18%)
2 stars
5,064 (4%)
1 star
2,146 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,717 reviews
Profile Image for Corinne Edwards.
1,459 reviews216 followers
September 5, 2018
This book terrified me, on many levels. It's 667 pages long, to begin with. It's been a while since I read a serious chunkster like that (besides Harry Potter, which somehow in my mind doesn't really count...).

Besides that, I am just not a fan of "Authur" stories, despite my deep love of the Disney movie The Sword and the Stone, of course. Ever since I saw the musical "Camelot" in the theater when I was in high school, the story just didn't appeal to me. Then my book club chose this as our monthly selection and I finally decided it was time to tackle this monster.

Was it worth reading? Absolutely. This book is so much more than just Arthur and Camelot. The first section of the book is essentially the Disney movie, and that part does grab you and you love Wart so much that you keep reading just to find out how it ends for him (although, it got harder and harder to keep reading for a while there, in the middle - it got a bit slow).

White, our beloved author, is a genius, really. He's like your friend or fellow book club member, who just happened to be there, in the middle ages, and he's telling you the story with his own language and always using references to modern day concerns and people. He sometimes appears to mock them and their ways (oh, especially those blundering old knights...), other times he pities them, but mostly, I felt as though he was trying to understand them and why they made the choices they did.

The book is, to me, chiefly three different things.

First, it is a "historical" study of England at the time, which is both interesting and confusing, with many Lords and Kings and battles etc. Obviously this is a fantasy book and it's based on legend, but either way, we read a lot of political and historical stuff.

Second, much of the book is devoted to a character study of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. Arthur, the imperfect, naive, thoughtful and above all, forgiving king. Guinevere, the stubborn and difficult to understand queen/mistress - White often just tells us straight out that he doesn't know why she made the choices she did. And Lancelot - the ill-made knight, the self-loathing hero of the round table who made a lot of mistakes and yet always tried his best to be moral (except where Guinevere was concerned, of course).

Thirdly, I felt like this was a very moral and philosophical book. White asks difficult questions, usually through Arthur, trying to figure out issues like: Is man inherently good? Why do we have wars and what causes them? Which do we owe more loyalty to, our family (clan) or our country? Is it better to get revenge or to forgive? How do we best create peace: through worship, through wars or through civil justice?

This book is truly a work of art. I must admit however, that as soon as the "Sword in the Stone" section of the book is over, the story was completely depressing, in every way imaginable. Nearly everyone is either deceived, deceitful, or unhappy. Bad things are constantly happening to good people and even the good people seem to be constantly making bad choices. I must also admit that it was still insanely interesting and worthwhile - and, even amid the depressing things, I found myself laughing out loud. Often I found myself pondering the idea of actions and consequences and how often our actions can lead to things in our future that we never could've imagined. My heart ached for Arthur, for what he had and for what he lost.

But, you should read it. Read it for Arthur and Sir Pellinore and for White's use of the word "chuckle-head." I'd be surprised if you regret it.
Profile Image for Daniel B..
Author 3 books32.5k followers
September 10, 2019
It's a classic for a reason. Wonderful story. Great characters. Clearly bar raising for its time.
Profile Image for Heather.
77 reviews25 followers
June 16, 2008
Seriously, how do you review the pinnacle of all fantasy? You can argue with me, but that, in my opinion, is what The Once and Future King is. Sure, the evil enchantresses are stout and grumpy, the magical castles are made out of food, the lily maids are fat and of a certain age, and the knights in shining armor refer to one another as ‘old chap’s. Oh and did I mention that King Arthur’s nickname is ‘the Wart’?
Somehow, T.H. White takes the legend, undresses it, and gives it a new kind of dignity. Fantastical happenstance takes secondary place to human emotions and actions, noble, selfish, and ridiculous. And the narrator himself always lurks somewhere, hastening to explain himself when it seems necessary, or simply describe the king of the fishes as ‘rather American looking, like Uncle Sam.’. To some the novel- subdivided into four books- may seem big and slow-moving. But it is not a book to read in a day; nor should it be, since it concerns entire lives, whole worlds, both real and imaginary. The characters are spared no description; we know them better than we ever could have before. This is fiction at its finest.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,996 followers
February 6, 2020
I have owned the copy of this book I just finished since 1997!

I originally got it for a school project and only finished the first part of it (Oops!).

Now, years later, I read it as part of a Goodreads book club that focuses of reading books on “Must Read” lists. I am glad I had the extra motivation, or it may have been another 20+ years before I would have finally completed it!

I see many sing the praises of this book. It is a classic novel of Arthurian legend that many swear by. When looking at lists of both essential classic novels and essential fantasy novels, it is likely that you will find this book. Alas, for me, it was only mediocre.

First of all, this is probably the longest it has taken me to finish a book in several years. It was a chore to convince myself to read a few more pages each day. The writing was just not motivating me to come back to it quickly. 10 pages a day (sometimes with a few days break in between) was about all that I could muster. Not a good sign if a book has me that disinterested.

Another odd thing about this book is, despite how long it is, it felt like most of the action was taking place unwritten between the chapters. The best I can describe it is they might spend a chapter talking about going off to a battle. At the beginning of the next chapter they are returning from the battle. The only thing we end up finding out about the battle is from hints dropped by characters in the follow-up chapters. It just felt like I was missing a lot.

Finally, the fantasy label. I mean . . . there are kings, queens, and nights. They live in the Middle Ages. But other than that, it is basically just a love triangle story with a few medieval fights here and there. Most scenes are in a castle chamber somewhere with Lancelot, Arthur, or Guinevere brooding about something. If you are a fan of High Fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, that is not what you will find here at all! Not even close!

I wish I had better things to say as I know that this is beloved by many. And, based on the response to many of my statuses, I might disappoint a few people with this review. But, it was just another so-so entry from the must read list for me.
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 3 books3,376 followers
January 24, 2014
In case anyone is wondering: I picked this book up for a re-read because of one throwaway line in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal . I haven't read this since high school, but I remember loving it almost giddily as a tween.

Since it's a big monster of a book, I took a steak knife to it, as I often do, and cut it in half so I could carry it about and read it on the subway without breaking my back. Here's the new cover I put on my DIY'd "vol 2," from Vice magazine. I find it creepy & rather fitting:


Anyway, I have been reading this for days and days and days and days and days—exactly a month, it turns out (thanks for keeping track, Goodreads!), which is about four times longer than it takes me to read most books. I'm not at all sorry to have spent so long with it, as this book encompasses multitudes, and was just consistently enthralling the whole time. I remembered it only sketchily from high school, mostly only the first book, much of which is retold in the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone: Arthur as a boy being turned into a fish and a bird, scampering about learning lessons from comical genius klutz Merlin, who is always knitting his beard into his scarf.

All that is, of course, still there, still fun and silly and charming and delightful. But, like all good epics do, what starts as a somewhat childish fantasy story grows up as its characters do, maturing in deed and thought and even language, so that by the end it is more philosophy than slapstick, more high art and the endless search for meaning than antics and adventures. The difference between right and wrong, the search for God, love and its lapses and failures, why men fight wars, how the sins of the father are visited tenfold on the son, the impossibility of absolute justice, the very meaning of life—all these are dissected, mulled over, worked around and through over these 700 pages. Additionally, throughout, there are the most fascinating digressions: on falconry, on the food and fashion of the day, on the political landscape of the British Isles through history, on many different sorts of weapons and their uses, on all the various accessories that make up a knight's attire, on needlepoint and castle architecture and the effects of weather patterns on different birds.

And of course, over it all runs the arching taut string of the foregone conclusion: everyone knows that this story is ultimately a tragedy, that no matter how carefree young Arthur frolics as a servant-turned-fish, he will still pull the sword from the stone to be revealed as King of England, he will still marry the beautiful Guenever who will have a decades-long affair with his best friend Lancelot, he will still be seduced by his half-sister to sire the bastard who will wind up being the agent of not just Arthur's own demise, but the disintegration of the entire Round Table and all those lofty goals of chivalry and valor.

So even at its sweetest, this is a bitter tale, a beautiful awful devastation, an incredible encapsulation of human failure despite all the most noble of intentions. It's wonderful and terrible and crushing and glorious.

What a spectacular world to spend a month thrashing about in.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
October 3, 2017
“They made me see that the world was beautiful if you were beautiful, and that you couldn't get unless you gave. And you had to give without wanting to get.”
― T.H. White, The Once and Future King


I loved it and my two brats (11 & 13) absolutely enjoyed it, even if many of the jokes, the funky anachronistic blending of the Medieval with the Modern, might have floated a bit over their tiny wee heads.

Anyway, I think White perfectly captured the magic, power, fears and the joy of both youth and myth with this retelling of early Arthurian legend. White's theme of power and justice ("Might Makes Right") seem to perfectly capture the political Zeitgiest of now. Perhaps, White like Merlin was just writing through time backwards and wanted to capture the queer contradictions of Imperial Democracy in the global 21st century, but wanted to write it in the 1930s so Disney would be around to animate it (ugh) in the 60s and thus make his point resonate better in the early 21st century.

You might think a novel that basically focuses on a love-triangle (a quadrilateral if you include God), several affairs, a man's struggle between his love for a woman, love for God, love for his best friend, would not hold the interest of a 13 and an 11-year old for long, but this is T.H. White. The characters are so human, so filled with frailties, heroics, and insecurities that White could have written about cooking for 300 pages and my kids would have been rapt from page 1 to the end.

The story turns, about half-way through, solidly to Lancelot. It is impossible to understand Lancelot without looking at Arthur, Guinevere, Elaine & Galahad. And White digresses throughout TO&FK to capture these stories. The middle of the book pivots as Camelot, under Arthur's leadership, undergoes a change from physical quests (Round Table v. Might makes Right) to spiritual ones (Round Table > Grail quest). This change captures/mirrors the dynamic of Lancelot's own story (the vacillation between the physical and spiritual).

Finally, the weight of the conspiracies, the betrayals, the killings, and the expulsions are all there pushing against the King (I love when T.H. White calls Arthur - England) and his faith in man and justice. It just isn't to be. Do I need to hide the ending? Am I going to spoil the book for you? Come now, we are all mostly adults here. Camelot fails, but T.H. White explores the failure almost as beautifully as he does the magic of Camelot. He captures the magic of Camelot by focusing on the humanity of the people. He isn't satisfied with making (or keeping rather) Lancelot, King A, Guinevere, and even Mordred locked up in the stale symbols they often become. The trite shadows of type is not T.H. White's jam. He wants to humanize everybody. He wants to show the motives, the nuances of character that makes the reader LOVE these figures not because they symbolize things like bravery, chivalry, or justice ... but because they remind the reader of elements, times, moods and flaws found buried within. T.H. White started with a fantasy novel, but ended with an exploration of war, humanity, love, and hope.

Look, I'm skeptical of fantasy novels. They aren't my thing. I want literature. I want something that pushes you against the wall of your own head and dares you to think bigger. I think T.H. White was aiming for that -- and holy anachronisms - he nailed it.
Profile Image for Beth.
101 reviews21 followers
January 9, 2008
I carried a quote from this book around in my purse for decades. In my original version of the book, it is on page 111 and begins, "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."

Another quote reads: "You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one's tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don't want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror."

T.H. White has an imagination large enough to stimulate the reader regardless how many times this book is read.

Profile Image for Jeff .
912 reviews710 followers
May 8, 2014
3.5 Stars

Way back when, I took a college class in Arthurian literature. This book was not included in the course which had us read just about everything else written about the legendary king. By the end of the semester I was sick of King Arthur, the round table, the Holy Grail and knights in general; as a consequence, I didn’t bother reading this book until now. Before I finally picked it up I assumed it would be something like Camelot (a crappy musical); I heard Lerner and Lowe based the musical on the book. They did, but it is a loose adaptation.

This book is divided up into 4 shorter books. Merlyn is in the first two. He isn’t in rest. The book suffers for it. Merlyn, a wizard who ages backwards from the far distant future is a hoot. He’s the heart, soul and humorous center of the book. I understand that each book represents an era in Arthur’s life, but Merlyn's presence is sorely missed.

The first two books are laden in fantasy. You have plenty of magic, unicorns, griffins, a talking owl, a castle made of food, etc. The first book was the basis for the Disney feature, “The Sword in the Stone”.

The latter books deal with Lancelot and Guenever, Arthur’s desire to bring a civilized society to England, the quest for the Holy Grail and the round table’s demise.

As the book goes through each tonal shift, White maintains a very contemporary voice (with modern day references and allusions) throughout. As this worked in the more whimsical first half, it becomes jarring when juxtaposed with the epic sorrow and madness of the Lancelot/Guenever affair.

Lancelot, in White’s rendering is, to put it mildly, conflicted. I guess sleeping with your best friend’s wife, the Queen, and trying to hold onto Christian and chivalrous ideas at the same time will do that. His misery is palpable. Also, White makes Lancelot ugly as a mud fence. No Richard Gere or Franco Nero images in your mind while reading - this isn’t a bad thing.

The female characters (there aren’t many) are ill-served by White, none are very likable.

If you’re looking for a more entertaining version of the Arthurian legend, read Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex. Or just read the first two parts of this book.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews925 followers
July 9, 2022
“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails."

The Once and Future King | A Kennedy in College

Based on the Arthurian legends, T.H. White's The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King, #1-4) packs a big punch. Sometimes it feels like a parody, sometimes a morality lesson, and other times a reflection on political authority, or an exploration of animal behavior and other times epic fantasy. With references to WWII and other 'modern' events, Merlyn's living time backwards provides interesting new perspectives and thought-provoking anachronisms.

It took me a little time to engage with this, but after that (around the time Wart/King Arthur wished to become a fish), I started to become absorbed and soon didn't want it to end. Merlyn's offhand comment about future imprisonment, "It's one of those things that's going to happen" sets the tone.

I'm sure the reason I've never read this before is because I'm just not all that interested in King Arthur and the Round Table, but this was so much more than I had expected. The only drawbacks for me were that the hysterics of Guinevere and the naivety of Lancelot became a bit frustrating. That didn't take away from all that was so good here. In turns comic and serious, The Once and Future King has it all. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews142 followers
October 14, 2020
The writing here is stunning. There are some rougher edges that I forgot about (some sudden and ROUGH racism), but overall for a book this old, it's remarkable how fresh everything still reads. I laughed and cried. I know I'll be reading this one again and again.
Profile Image for Jonathan Terrington.
595 reviews574 followers
October 31, 2012

A complex and multi-tiered depiction of the epic Arthurian legend. This book is unlike any other I've read either focusing on the myth or simply in terms of fantasy writing.

While the story begins with The Sword in the Stone, a novel I had already read years ago it was refreshing to re-familiarize myself with T.H. White's eccentric and unique style of portraying the character of King Arthur as a child. In fact I believe The Sword in the Stone is the deepest depiction of the childhood Arthur I have read as many other stories gloss over this. Yet it is important to understand Arthur's beginnings in order to understand his growth of character and this firstly sets T.H.White's work apart from the other tales about Arthur.

White's use of humor and his linking of the myth to the present was incredibly clever. He was in part able to both tell the tale and provide a join critique and analysis of the legend. And such a deep analysis was able to be therefore used to reflect upon the human condition, upon human beings, their wants and desires and what it is that drives them to do such acts as Guenevere in being unfaithful to Arthur. Or as Mordred desiring her as his own. It is a more effective analysis than Freud's simple conclusion that men are simple carnal beings I feel, for what it showed me is that White recognizes that yes few men are truly good but at the same time few men are truly base. It is the way they react to the events of life that makes them ignoble or even noble.

It was an incredibly deep book with so many angles that it simply astounded me. Was it a fantasy, a fairytale to enjoy with magic and well constructed characters? Was it a commentary? Was it a critique? Was it for children or for adults? Was it an analysis? Was it a collection of psychological observations? I believe that this book was all of these and yet none at the same time. It is a book that derives aspects from all of these and yet is never truly one of these alone. For here T.H.White has created a grand epic that I recommend all people read.

However, for all of its depth and magnificence I felt it was let down at times, particularly right near the end. This was majorly due to its pacing. At times it was fast and furious and at others it was slow and ponderous. It never truly was consistent. And for me this made it difficult to get into at times. I would recommend Roger Lancelyn Green's tales of Arthur instead for their pace. However T.H.White's work has a greater depth than any other Arthurian tale I have read and it is for that it is to be admired.
Profile Image for Matthias.
107 reviews352 followers
December 16, 2015
Five stars? All the stars! This is the best book I have ever read. My other 5-star-ratings pale in comparison to this big wonder of a book. My Goodreads-rating system needs revision. Hors categorie.

A fantasy classic? It's so much more than that. It's about everything that matters in life, told in the warm voice of a brilliant and gifted author. He has struck a chord within me that will keep on trembling forever.

Humor, adventure, suspense, tragedy, poetry, romance, philosophy, history, faith, sociology, tradition, fantasy, the list goes on and on. It contains everything.

A page-turner. More than 600 pages? Not to worry. By the time you're done with them it will have felt like 600 days do after they are over. Short. But not 'too short', for they will have left a mark.

This book is a friend. Possibly, probably, for life. I love him first page to last, and finishing it hurt a little as with all tender goodbyes, but I will revisit him often.

I have already encountered difficulties suggesting and praising this book to friends, given their association of Merlyn = just for kids. They are wrong.

This book is perfect in every way, apart from the problem it presents me with now: What to read next? Which book(s) to taint with its enormous shadow?
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
January 26, 2018
From Geoffrey of Monmouth (1*) to Thomas Malory (2*) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (3*) to T.H. White (4*) to Lerner & Lowe (5*) ...

1* Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), 1130s.
2* La Morte d'Arthur, 1485
3* Idylls of the King, 1859-85
4* The Once and Future King, 1938-41
5* Camelot, 1960 Broadway!! The big time!!!

1) See here for the association of the musical Camelot with the Kennedy Administration.

2) Here's an extended quote from the first page of the book, to indicate the flavor ... (don't confuse with Harry Potter, this was written in 1938).

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got especially muddled she would take it out on the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay's knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name ...

In the afternoons the programme was: Monday and Friday, tilting and horsemanship; Tuesdays, hawking; Wednesdays, fencing; Thursdays, archery; Saturdays, the theory of chivalry, with the proper measures to be blown on all occasions, terminology of the chase and hunting etiquette.


This was one of the best books I read in my early college years.

The overly-"Madison Ave." cover is an advertisement for (and/or playing off the popularity/fame of) the Lerner & Loewe musical Camelot, whose original run on Broadway opened on December 3, 1960 and closed on January 5, 1963 (873 performances). The original cast included the rather duo pictured on the cover - Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.

Somehow I first heard the music from this while on an NSF summer institute at Pan American College in 1961. I associate the music with both that experience, and with the Texas girl I met there that I fell in love with.

I still have the vinyl record of Camelot. Haven't listened to it for a long time.

Well ... that's The Once and Future King for me. Rating increased from 4 to a 5 somewhere along the way.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Previous review: Stoner
John Williams
Random review: Light in August
Next review: Complete Works, Shakespeare

Previous library review: Sword of Honor trilogy Waugh
Next library review: To the Lighthouse Woolf
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
April 11, 2017
The Once and Future King was recommended to me on Reddit as probably the best Arthurian fantasy book extant. I have read Stephen R. Lawhead's The Pendragon Cycle and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and - if my memory serves me correctly – did not care for either of them. I am still interested in the Arthurian saga though so I proceeded accordingly.

The Once and Future King is divided into four parts, the first three previously published as separate books. The four parts are:

• The Sword in the Stone
• The Queen of Air and Darkness*
• The Ill-Made Knight
• The Candle in the Wind

I usually try to avoid reading a book’s synopsis first before reading it so initially I was surprised the protagonist of the first part The Sword in the Stone turns out to be some kid called “The Wart” instead of Arthur, Merlyn is of course instantly recognizable even with the “y” instead of the “i” in his name. By page 30 I was a little tired of reading about The Wart and wondered when Arthur would show up. Not being a complete idiot (only a partial one) I did suspect that the Wart is indeed Arthur but I had no idea why they could not just call him by his proper name. So I peeked at the book’s summary and resumed reading.

I find The Sword in the Stone to be very whimsical and very juvenile, cartoonish even, not my cup of tea at all. The chapters are quite episodic and the book seems to lack any real sense of momentum or urgency. Most of it feels rather disjointed as there is no single clear story arc to unify the chapters. The reader is basically following The Wart’s charming magical childhood adventures under Merlyn’s tuition. It is all very nice and safe and rather soporific. The numerous chapters where Merlyn transforms The Wart into various animals to go on adventures mostly bored me. The effortless transformations are just too Teletubbies for me to simply suspend my disbelief.

I almost gave up on reading the entire The Once and Future King after finishing The Sword in the Stone but cooler heads (on Reddit) prevailed and I am assured that it gets better after this first volume. I quote from a sage advice I received from Reddit:

“The books change in style as they go - the first (The Sword in the Stone) is much more light comic in tone, but they get much darker in The Ill Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, so don't judge too much by the first book. If you're not enjoying Wart's boyhood adventures you could try skipping there.”

Also, I do like T.H. White’s prose style which is quite charming in an old school sort of way, though the floweriness and his love of obscure words sometimes get the better of him. So I stayed the course and continued with The Queen of Air and Darkness ( The Witch in the Wood).

My favorite portrayal of King Arthur (*´▽`*)

The Queen of Air and Darkness is a considerable improvement on The Sword in the Stone. It is mainly the story of the Orkney clan (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth), sons of King Arthur’s half-sister Morgause. Given their unloving upbringing by their mother it is not surprising how several of them grow up to become Arthur’s antagonists. This part of the book is much less juvenile than The Sword in the Stone. There is a scene which is quite tragic. However, the chapters involving King Pellinore, Grummore and friends still contain too much childishe buffoonery for my taste. The “romance” between King Pellinore and the Questing Beast is like something out of a Tom and Jerry episode. As a separate book I would just about rate The Queen of Air and Darkness 4 stars.

With the third part of the book The Ill-Made Knight The Once and Future King makes a huge leap forward in quality and maturity. The Ill-Made Knight focuses on the legendary Sir Lancelot (well, most of the characters of The Once and Future King are legendary must Lancelot is extremely legendary). Starting from his childhood, his rise to being the best knight in the world and his love affair with Queen Guenever (more commonly spelled as Guinevere in other books). The various quests he goes on to distract himself from his illicit love are great adventure yarns. While these often have fantastical elements there is no juvenilia to speak of. Tonally The Ill-Made Knight is much more mature than the previous two parts of The Once and Future King and I was finally really digging the book at this point. The characterization of Lancelot is very well done, he is the most interesting, complex and conflicted character in the book. It is also interesting that T.H. White makes him ugly instead of giving him the usual knight in shining armor look. His affair with Guenever is a tragedy for all concerned, the queen even drives him completely bonkers at one point. Lancelot’s relationship with his other lover, the poor totally friendzoned Elaine is even more tragic.

The final part of the book The Candle in the Wind continues the sophisticated tone of the previous part. This part of the book is a culmination of all the previous parts, even the childish animals transformations of The Sword in the Stone is given a mature context here. The Candle in the Wind is mainly concerned with the downfall of King Arthur (and there is no mention of Norma Jean anywhere). I really like this description of Arthur:

“He was a kind, conscientious, peace-loving fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius. Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong. Now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood.” Poignant stuff.

King Arthur is far too nice for his own good, he is well aware of his wife’s infidelity but tries to overlook it as best he can, and he is not a silly cuckold as some would have us believe. He turns a blind eye for the sake of his best friend and his unworthy wife. Unfortunately his vengeful son Mordred cannot leave well enough alone and this leads to a war he does not want, his Chivalry project and his Round Table collapsing miserably. The Candle in the Wind is the most philosophical part of The Once and Future King and leaves the reader with much to reflect upon.

Over all I like The Once and Future King a lot in spite of the juvenilia of The Sword in the Stone. If you are interested in Arthurian fiction this is definitely one for your TBR list.
* Goodreads lists this as The Witch in the Wood, the original title.
Profile Image for Sarah.
237 reviews1,114 followers
January 15, 2018
T.H. White’s Arthurian opus, The Once and Future King, is probably as influential on the modern fantasy genre as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, yet has been overshadowed in the mainstream by its two major adaptations: Disney’s animated feature The Sword in the Stone (1963), which is based almost exclusively on the first quarter of the book, and the Broadway musical Camelot (stage debut 1960, film 1967) which is based on the last half. To adapt White’s whole book, and do it justice, is probably impossible. Even reviewing it accurately is an intimidating prospect. I will try my best.

White has adapted Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte de Arthur for modern audiences in this tome, divided into four books:

The Sword in the Stone, which chronicles Arthur’s childhood in Ector’s castle and his tutelage by Merlyn

The Queen of Air and Darkness, which follows the war between the newly-crowned Arthur and King Lot of Orkney from the perspective of Lot’s four young sons: Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth. The titular character is their mother, Morgause, who is terrifying. Cassandra Clare, true to form, has “borrowed” this title for one of her own books.

The Ill-Made Knight, which centers on Lancelot’s adventures, struggles, and family problems

The Candle in the Wind, wherein Mordred comes to power , and everything Arthur worked so hard to build collapses on him.

The tone of the first book is blithe and frequently, brazenly crosses from mere Monty Python-like silliness to outright self-parody. Merlyn, born at the wrong end of time and constantly blurting out anachronisms, is mostly a figure of great fun, while his owl Archimedes, Sir Ector, and the haplessly questing King Pellinore are wholly so. When I was younger, I remember watching The Sword in the Stone with a friend and being appalled by the irreverent treatment of Merlyn, especially the scene at the end where he shows up in the royal hall wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and sunglasses. Little did I know that the book itself is almost as flippant—I think he wore a top hat in this version.

Yet even at this early point we get subtle hints of the darkness to come. The shards of social commentary are intriguing, such as White noting that the great predatory fish in the moat, who is the first to tell Wart (the child Arthur) that “Might makes Right,” looks like Uncle Sam.

Also, Robin Hood—Robin Wood in this version, and don’t you forget it—is camped out in the same forest as Ector’s castle, and he’s as merry and fun as you could ask for.

As the book progresses, both the comedy and the blatant anachronisms recede, although they don’t disappear entirely until the end. The first quarter ends with the coronation of the boy Arthur, noting that Archimedes sent a great-grandson to “perch upon the King’s throne and make messes behind it” or something to that effect. We then launch right into the early bloodlust of the Orkney brothers, and their sickeningly creepy relationship with their sickeningly creepy mom, but even this plot thread tangles for a while with the romantic travails of the senile Pellinore and a well-meaning trick by Sirs Palomides and Grunmore going horribly awry.

By the time that Morgause has worked her grisly magic on Arthur and become pregnant with the child of that incest, though, we are fairly settled in the darkness, with Lancelot, who even as a child is wracked with self-loathing and impossible expectations of himself. White’s insistence that Lance was hideously ugly is a curious departure from every other portrayal of the character, although the female characters sure don’t react to him as if he were. Perhaps Lance’s inverted hatred is so strong it effects even the narrator, or perhaps the author (whose life seems to have been sad and lonely) rendered the “ill-made knight” as a skewed self-portrait.

The Grail-Quest here is undertaken as a morale-boosting exercise to Gramarye (the name of Arthur’s kingdom; apparently Camelot is only the capital city) and is mostly told through flashbacks by the knights who came home. Galahad is portrayed as an arrogance priss with no concept of teamwork who gets on everyone’s nerves. I can see that. The quest itself makes about as much sense here as it does in any other version, that is to say none.

Arthur’s reign is usually understood as fairly short, but White again diverges from popular conception and portrays the King as a broken old man at the end, who has lived long enough to become the villain (in a fashion) and see the same eyes in different people and all that. Lance and Gwen are not much younger. Yet Gareth, only a few years younger than Lancelot, is cut down in the bloom of his youth, and Mordred is portrayed as even younger. Meanwhile Ector, Pellinore, and Lance’s Uncle Dap live to positively biblical ages. Trying to figure it all out was starting to give me a headache, so I can only imagine how White felt writing it.

In White’s version, the story takes place not in fifth-century, post-Roman Britain, but in a parallel twelfth century. Here Robin and his merry men exist independent of Richard and John—in fact, the real kings and queens are considered legends here.

But all the suspension of disbelief is well worth it. White’s character development for Arthur and Lance is spectacular, while Merlyn will cheer your soul, Morgause will freeze your blood, Guinevere will earn your loathing and Elaine, your pity.

Content Advisory
Violence: There are spurts of it, and where it occurs, it’s dreadful, some of it against animals. Morgause boils a cat alive as part of her evil magic. Later she wraps Arthur in a ribbon of human skin in order to bespell him. The young Orkney boys slaughter a helpless unicorn and messily butcher it. The man who later becomes Sir Bedivere beheads his wife for adultery. Agravaine slays his mother for the worst possible reason. Lancelot splits a guy’s head in half, and later, in berserker mode, strikes down his friend Gareth.

Sex: No racy scenes are described, but we know that a drunk Lancelot gets deflowered by Elaine, mistaking her in his altered state for Guinevere. The young Arthur falls asleep having a vague dream about a beautiful, hypothetical wife, and awakens to find Morgause climbing out of his bed with her gruesome ribbon while her four young sons look on. Lance and Gwen have secret liaisons for twenty-four years, none of which are ever shown. Even in her old age, Morgause maintained the appearance of a young woman through her witchcraft, and had successfully seduced Pellinore’s son Lamorak when they were ambushed and murdered by Agravaine, who is all but directly stated to have incestuous feelings for his mother. Mordred is hinted at sharing those feelings, and he also has a creepy preoccupation with Guinevere—his attempt to force her to marry him brings about the final battle.

Language: Lancelot accuses the late Tristan of boorish behavior including racism: “He was always riding on poor Palomides for being a n****r.” That’s it for the whole book.

Substance Abuse: Ector’s hunting guests get hammered. Lancelot gets hammered on one occasion. Gawaine is either hammered, angry, or hammered and angry, which isn’t a Scottish stereotype at all *clears throat aggressively*.

Disney did a surprisingly faithful job of adapting the first quarter of the book, although I am very relieved that they didn’t attempt the others at the time. The musical Camelot is definitely prettier and simpler than the last half, but it catches all the important themes, and preserves the poignant ending with little Tom of Warwick (who grows up to be Malory).

This weighty novel will appeal to a wide range of people and I heartily recommend it to anyone who can handle its gory flashes and its sorrow.
Profile Image for Cornelia Funke.
Author 336 books12.7k followers
August 21, 2015
The ONE book I'd take to the island. I would chop off a finger to have written this book!
Profile Image for Richard.
204 reviews14 followers
May 16, 2012
I got to page 377 before I resigned to the fact I wasn't enjoying this book and only read a couple of chapters a day after that.

There is so much wrong with this book I cannot understand why it is so popular.

Firstly there is virtually no action, adventures or quests that you would expect from a King Arthur book. It plods along painfully slowly with little or nothing going on for pages and pages at a time. Every thing is described in huge detail, even really mundane activities that are going on that have nothing to do with the plot and boring conversations go on and on when the could have been easily summed up in a few lines rather than a page or two of dull dialogue. Conversely many of what should be exciting parts are summed up in a couple of paragraphs.

The story as well as being slow, bumps along without any real book long plot almost like a group of short stories that have been hashed together.

Many major events are told after the events by characters. The death of some characters are talked about by other characters some time after they have died. The entire Grail Quest is told only by those that return from it (none of those were successful) to the king and queen. Two major battles are told about in a letter and Arthur's final battle against Mordred isn't told at all. All of this gives a huge disconnect to the story and turns what should have been exciting passages into something fairly dull.

The characters are often comic without being funny. Others are unbelievable and unrelatable and act in ways that make no sense. Many of the characters act irrationally and are very inconsistent making it even harder to understand or like them.

Lancelot is an awful characters, he regularly kills and injures others for little or no reason, goes to great lengths to cover up his affair with the queen and generally acts very deceitfully. One example is that he finds a tent and goes to sleep in a bed in it, the owner of the tent returns, Lancelot wakes up and he tries to kill the owner. Another time he is caught in the queens bedchamber by 14 other Knights, he tricks one of them into coming in by himself, Lancelot overpowers and kills him, takes his sword and armour, kills all but one of the other knights, the one that he 'spares' comes away with a broken arm. Despite all this most other characters think Lancelot is the best knight ever and the knight who got the broken arm is in the wrong because he should have died fighting!

The Lancelot and Queens affair is horribly written with no warmth to it, they spend most of the time behaving like a mixture spoiled children and a bitter old couple. I had no sympathy for them at all.

The king is very weak and boring, he started of great as a child but once he is an adult he is pretty pathetic. He even knows about the queens and Lancelot's affair and does nothing about it.

There are quite a few analogies that have either dated very badly or would not makes sense to most people outside of Britain. A couple are even pretty racist, sexist or otherwise offensive by today's standards.

If I was given the choice of re-reading this book or actually reading Twilight for the first time, I think the tween vampire romance novel would win out...
Profile Image for Katie.
444 reviews278 followers
December 4, 2013
Spoiler alert, I guess. But not really. It’s been 600 years.

I love this book so much, you guys. I feel like I can’t even articulate it. It is possibly my new favorite book.

The Once and Future King is a book about nostalgia, though not in the typical sense. It’s hazy and dreamy and romantic, and it has some of the loveliest prose you’re going to find anywhere, but it’s not about the idealization of the past. If anything, it can be read as an examination of its failure: all throughout the book, from little Wart’s childhood education to Gawaine’s final letter, feudal society is shown as cruel and restrictive and artificial. Moments of beauty are precarious, nearly always undercut in the end by the violent or the absurd.

But I’d argue that it remains at its core a book about nostalgia, because it is a book that is persistently fixated on the sadness of failed possibilities. At first, The Once and Future King seems oddly disconnected, jumping around from character to character throughout its four books. It is difficult at first to determine the protagonist. But I think it’s a story about a person who tries to build something new, something great and lovely and filled with possibility, and then it is a story about the thousand myriad ways in which such an attempt can crack, and teeter, and fail.

One of the most interesting parts of the whole book comes from a single chapter featuring the knight Lionel recounting his adventures in pursuit of the Holy Grail, a trip that reached its climax when he nearly killed his brother Bors. He then confesses that he did, in fact, kill a hermit attempting to protect his brother. Lionel rattles off a litany of mitigating circumstances, finishing with this: “I’m afraid I was simply in a passion,” admitted Lionel after a bit. “You know how you get.” It seems terribly unfair and insufficient, but that’s the point – for all of Arthur’s efforts, for all the potential that the Round Table offers, all it takes is a streak of cruelty, a moment of pride, or even a singular episode of kindness for it to start the process that brings it all crumbling down.

But one of the loveliest things about The Once and Future King, and the part that will make me love it forever, is the fact that that despite all this sadness it’s never cynical. It’s an almost painfully human story, and it offers kindness and the possibility of understanding to all of its characters. It is a master class in the potential of omniscient narration, and it is at times almost unbearably lovely and kind. It also puts faith in the potential of the past: if its resentments and divisions can cause the violence of the present, its stories can also break those cycles, and offer the possibility of a more open view.

It is absolutely wonderful, and you should go read it as soon as you can.
Profile Image for Kimberly .
549 reviews66 followers
July 29, 2022
This book enchanted me when I first read it many years ago. It was my first introduction to Arthur in literature and I've reread it several times over the years. It is a book that stays with you. It is magical, humorous and bright. Totally delightful! What a classic!
2 reviews6 followers
January 17, 2008
I read this book about every two years. It is one of my absolute favorites. The stories and the characters are so well-crafted that I can read it over-and-over time and again with just as much pleasure as the first time.
This novel is actually divided into four 'books' within itself, and while you can read the four books out of order, it really is meant to be read from front to back.
The first book, "The Sword In The Stone", is much like the Disney animated movie that was adapted from it. There are a few scenes in the movie which are not in the book, and quite a bit in the book which is not in the movie, but the overall flavor is the same, and the essence of the story is there. The main thing lacking from the movie, which is quite important in the novel, is that Merlin is teaching Arthur (Wart) about the ways of humanity, civilization, and society, so that when he becomes the King he will not just continue with things as they have been, but learn to reason and think for himself, to try his best to make the world a better place. These lessons are referred to again and again later in the novel. This first book has far more magic and fairy-tale qualities than any of the rest of the book.
The second book is called "The Queen of Air and Darkness", and primarily has to do with Arthur's nephews from his half-sister, Morgause, and ends with Morgause, not knowing that Arthur is her half-brother, bewitching him and seducing him to give her a child. This child, Mordred, is the essence of fate of Arthur and what makes this novel such a tragedy. White reveals this information as well, and knowing it here does not spoil the remainder of the book in anyway. This second book is one of the shortest of the four.
The third book is easily my favorite and is called "The Ill-Made Knight". It is the story of Sir Lancelot. This portion of the novel (and many smaller pieces of it) are where a great many Hollywood movies pull their King Arthur and Lancelot material from, only they usually get it all wrong. Lancelot, in this book, is the greatest knight in the world, though he is quite ugly - not the sexy and charming knight as is always portrayed in the movies. His face is often compared to a gargoyle. I believe this is quite important. It helps the reader to better understand his relationship with Queen Guenevere ("Jenny") and to understand that the Queen does not have this lifelong affair with her husband's best friend simply because he is charming and handsome and the best knight in the world. The character of Lancelot (as are Arthur and Guenevere) is so richly charactered. His struggles with his faith and humanity, and how those play against his love for his best friend's wife, are his lifelong struggles. Lancelot is shown to be an honest person, of the truest sense, even though he lives this lifelong struggle of adultery with his best friend's wife. The love triangle between Lancelot, Guenevere, and Arthur (and Qudrangle with God, as White often represents it) is the heart of this book, though the book really focuses on Lancelot's internal struggles. This book also serves to explore Arthur's attempts at removing the "Might Is Right" mentality of the Middle Ages, and gives us the Quest for the Holy Grail stories. This book, along with the first book, represents the bulk of this novel's content.
The last book, "A Candle In The Wind", brings together all the elements of Arthur's tragedy. The irony in this book is how Arthur's own new system of "justice" is used against him bring to light (publicly) the affair between Lancelot and Guenever.
This novel is a wonderful exploration of humanity, society, and civilization, and a beautiful fairy tale tragedy.
Profile Image for Markus.
476 reviews1,564 followers
March 20, 2017
A curious book. The Once and Future King is at the same time a very classical and completely unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, but it unfortunately falls short of almost all the others.

On one side it's an interesting attempt at reforging the legend to something not quite set in time and place, and a fascinating mix of Medieval English myths. On the other there are many aspects of the style that ranged from slightly annoying to deeply flawed.

Firstly, the book is written too much like a fairytale for my taste. I realise this is what some people would want, but I couldn't take the constant use of things like castles made out of food, extremely forgetful and laughable knights, and witches seemingly taken from the pages of the Brothers Grimm.

Second, the anachronisms are absolutely unforgivable. White is apparently talking to the reader, and thus sees fit to bring in, among other things: Eton College, Oliver Cromwell, communism, Freudian psychoanalysis and the IRA. This does not belong in a medieval fantasy and serves for nothing but ruining the mood.

Third, White does not place his Arthurian epic in a historical setting, or even in a vague context. He puts it in the middle of the High Middle Ages, taking out all the events that actually happened during that time and calling it myth. This would have been fair enough if he had simply kept quiet about it, but alas, we get to hear all about the legendary William the Conqueror, the imaginary Richard Coeur de Lion, the supposed king Edward III, the so-called Henry IV. Just like the previous point, this just killed the book for me.

The book does have its good sides. It is pleasant and entertaining reading sometimes (although the entertainment occasionally comes from laughing at the author's style), and it does have a few enjoyable aspects. It is incredibly, conservatively, British, to the extent of making Tolkien look like a radical hippie by comparison. It includes Merlyn as a time traveller constantly travelling backwards in time. And it serves the reader a moral lesson on the atrocity of war and nationalism, two of the greatest evils in the world, using said Merlyn, with his knowledge of the future, as a vehicle.

"I never could stomach these nationalists," he exclaimed. "The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees."
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books2,156 followers
June 12, 2017
Confession: I had assigned this to 6 of my children to read but had never read it myself. Now I am thinking perhaps it should be read a little later than 7th grade. I am not sure a seventh grader can grasp the glory of it.

What a book or maybe I should say what five books!! The Sword in the Stone: Delightful. The Queen of Air and Darkness: Delightfully dreadful. The Ill-Made Knight: Tragically wonderful. The Candle in the Wind: Toweringly beautiful. The Book of Merlin: Ridiculously thoughtful.

Arthur, the story of every good man or woman. The earnest quest to build a better world. The ever-increasing chasing after perfection. The ultimate betrayal and the death of a vision. Finally, the rebirth of hope. I have lived that story. T H White has lived it, and probably you have too.

This is a full five-star book.

Profile Image for Lee  (the Book Butcher).
278 reviews73 followers
June 5, 2022
This was a long story broken into 4 parts about King Arthur. took me awhile to finish mostly i lacked compulsion. with the first part being Disney's Sword in the stone which was the best part by far! Other parts were good, but the storytelling was often clunky.

Sword in the stone by Disney is close in a Walt Disney way. I will say Arthur's adopted family is much nicer in the book. With Arthur growing up with Merlin trying to instill modern values into the young wart. part 2 is of the Orkney clan who is a vicious bunch which Arthur is a part of. through many underhanded things the type that Arthur is trying to stop. his son Mordred is one of these as unfortunately Arthur has a child with his half-sister before marring Gwenevere. Part 3 is the love story of Gwenevere and Lancelot and the search for the grail. which is sort of a retailing of Sir Thomas Malory. The last part is when Merlin returns right before Arthur's death to teach one last lesson to Arthur.

The last part is where T.H White who is a conscientious objector to WWII living in Ireland mildly states his opinion. i got his opinion fine enough but he is not fervent. i know he is worried about the British communist, but Orwell composed his thoughts much better. On one side you have Hitler screaming his head off then you have T.H White using King Arthur to say, "Beg your pardon, old boy, can't we just get along". i understand he is trying to start dialogue. But he says alot without stating anything concretely. which is probably just my american take he was probably very forceful for a 1940's British Cambridge chap. i will say that the authorship is what weighted this down even the love romance of Gwen and Lance was bogged down by the writing style the knight fights were almost uninteresting compared to don Quixote which i just read. Worst of all there is weird modern references that crop in and by modern that early 20th century. One of the main problems is it is so dated. written eighty years ago to use a model from the past like king Arthur to conduct a lesson on a modern major issue like WW2 which humanity was going to solve without your Wisdom'd advice. Can only lead to that.

Great story of King Arthur in sword of the stone which i recommend to anyone. combined weird anti Irish bigotry with a flavorless Gwenevere and Lancelot love story. then topped off with a outdated morals lesson by someone who seemed unable to accurately state anything other than the importance of the sense of selfness which we have in abundance here in America, and i agree with. good read but don't expect much from the author!
Profile Image for Werner.
Author 3 books599 followers
March 16, 2020
Note, March 15, 2020: I'm pretty much offline at the moment due to an extended family visit; but I just took a moment to edit this review by correcting two typos.

As the above description notes, this collection (it includes The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood, and The Ill-Made Knight, plus, I believe, some additional material) is "different" in it's approach to the Arthurian legend; but whether it represents "the modern" view of Arthur is dubious --White's view is pretty much unique. (If there is such a thing as a "modern" view of Arthur, it would probably be the historical view that tries to place him in the actual historical-cultural setting of his time, an approach exemplified in Catherine Christian's The Pendragon, a novel I'd also heartily recommend --but to fans of historical fiction, not of fantasy!)

White takes as his starting point Sir Thomas Malory's Morte de Arthur, the apex of the high-medieval reworking of the legend, with its importation of armored knights and chivalry into the story, and its transformation of 6th-century Britain into a magic-infused fantasy world. But to this anachronism, he adds his own layer of deliberately anachronistic features of material and social culture and attitudes from his own time, and instills a considerable amount of running socio-political commentary and serious philosophical/moral reflection. (The many Christian elements in the original material are handled respectfully.) He mixes much of the work with exuberant humor, but the tone can vary from the whimsical and comic to the serious and tragic. Obviously, this would be an extremely difficult work to pull off successfully --and it's a great tribute to White's literary gifts that, somehow, he manages it!
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
552 reviews167 followers
May 20, 2019
The Sword in the Stone: an indisputable classic of children's literature and a book I very much look forward to sharing with my kids when they reach a certain age (12ish or thereabouts, probably). As a child, I loved it for its rollicking action and imaginative fancy. As a college student, I loved it for its subversive anti-authoritarian message. As an adult, I love it for its heart. It's a charming, funny, exciting, stirring book for readers of all ages which has great staying power and sets depths of humanity dancing on every page. I found the rest of the series less engrossing as a child, but revisiting it as an adult I understand why: White's recounting of the King Arthur mythos is a vehicle for exploring maturity, character, growth, and the putting aside of childish things. Though the action never reaches such exciting heights in the sequels, White's stately, magisterial writing style throughout is an indulgent treat well worth savoring.

5 stars. Highly recommended—a book that actually grows and gains more the more you read it and the older you get.

(Honestly, I waffled on the star rating here because the quality of all the books in the series is very uneven. The Sword in the Stone is undoubtedly 5 stars and since it's the opener the rest of the series kind of just gets swept along in its wake. But Book Two is probably a 3 star stand-alone at best, and the overlong Book Three has a lot of stilted, foreshortened side plots that keep it into maybe the 4 star range... But I think that this series has to be taken as a complete whole, and the individual books can't be split up quite as easily as some other trilogy/quadrilogy/umptilogy series can. Certainly the progression of Arthur from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to middle age is a huge part of the point and must be the reason White insisted these be collected together instead of presented separately. So, since the writing quality is so incredibly high at the sentence-by-sentence level and the entire series works towards a cohesive whole, I'm sticking with a strong 5 star overall rating for the whole enchilada.)
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books751 followers
July 3, 2019
Listened to the audiobook this time, which is not as neat nor as concise as the written form, but which tears my heart out all the same. Every time I read it it feels meaningful in some way. Every time I find someone who is willing and able to meet me in my joy and my sorrow, and offer me insight as well as companionship. The narrator was excellent, and I have to go be sad for awhile now.


This is my all time favorite book. I've read it countless times since I was first recommended it in the way back. It is my go to now for comfort, for wisdom, for kind wit. It's a solid story of Arthur, which is itself pleasant, but that isn't what captivates me. The timeless, universal truths it carefully hands to us, the writing that makes you feel safe, cared for, in the fold of the story but doesn't preach--those are the things that make it special.

It's truly a masterful work and possibly one of the strongest tellings of the "coming of age tale" and a brief history on psychology. Recommend to everyone.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,897 followers
July 11, 2019
An incredibly ambitious, deeply complex work, filled with moments of silliness paired with moments of sorrow, and everything in between, and fueled by an enormously generous and grievously pained heart. I admire T.H. White’s effort to grapple with huge, unwieldy questions of justice and the inexorable weight of history, and I enjoy his ability to infuse his writing with wit and verve. There were times when I wanted some moments to be more vividly brought to life than he seemed willing to do, for when he leaned into lengthy scenes of dialogue, the scenes often soared.

I didn’t know much about the details of the Arthurian legend, and I’m very glad that this book has turned out to be my first proper education.
Profile Image for Frankh.
845 reviews164 followers
April 29, 2016
I knew enough about the King Arthur mythology through cinematic adaptations I've seen growing up, but this is the first time that I ever read a novel about this legendary hero, and I thought T.H White's classic masterpiece The Once and Future King is the best place to start as any, considering the raving reviews I've encountered about this one every time I browse the medieval literature section in book-related websites. I was also drawn to this book because of this quotation taken from it: 'Perhaps we all give our hearts uncritically to those who hardly think about us in return'

I remember buying a copy of this book once a paperback became available back in 2013 or so, and I started reading last year but had to stop because of my self-imposed Batman comics diet. I was glad to pick this up again last week where I was already halfway through the first of the four segments. Now that I have officially finished the entire thing, I suppose what I can say first and foremost was that it wasn't everything that I hoped or wanted it to be--and that was pretty disappointing, honestly. Nevertheless, there are exemplary aspects to it--particularly on the discussions concerning the ideologies of power and leadership; morality and gray areas--that are thoughtful and provocative. This book has very strong arguments which I immensely appreciated.

"Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance."

The first segment of the book is The Sword in the Stone where a boy deemed Wart, a warden of Sir Ector and a playmate to his son Kay, meets a mysterious and whimsical wizard named Merlyn who offers to tutor him. Their chance encounter was supposedly destined and Merlyn is very fond of pointing out that he has clairvoyance, often humorously overwhelming Wart with prophesies from his distant future. Their relationship is very unusual, an interpretation and approach that I'm not used to, but it remains nonetheless as my fondest and most favorite part of the entire novel. Wart doesn't feel special in any way and it baffles him why Merlyn has taken such an avid interest him especially when the boy has gotten accustomed to being treated of secondary importance to his more privileged friend, Kay. His journey of self-discovery is an entertaining mix of the extraordinary and poignant where Merlyn forces him to question the social constructs of the era he lives in.

"The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then; TO LEARN."

Throughout The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn accomplishes this by turning Wart into various animals through magic, imparting him indirect lessons pertaining to the nature and roles of community and individuality so that the boy who will become king of Camelot will develop an understanding and compassion of how to best govern his subjects. Wart is a receptive student who eventually does accept that nothing his eccentric mentor is teaching him is inconsequential. Over the course of the first two hundred pages, Merlyn shapes Wart into the fine young man worthy of pulling out that famed sword Excalibur at the end of the first segment, and it's pretty much rewarding for our lead character and the readers to see Wart freely choose and embrace his fate even when he's absolutely terrified of the things Merlyn has warned him about for his future.

Next we have The Queen of Air and Darkness whose tackled events are twofold in scope; the first few years of Arthur Pendragon's reign and the wars he felt obliged to wage; and the curious adolescent misadventures of Queen Morgause's sons Agravaine, Gareth, Gawain and Gaheris whose unquestioning devotion and slightly (if not gravely) Oedipal-worship for their mother are upsetting and pitiful to read. Queen Morgause is, of course, Arthur's half-sister, who will make him unwittingly commit an incestuous affair that will produce an offspring who is to be Arthur's ultimate downfall--Mordred. In this segment, there are noteworthy discussions about "Right" and "Might" between Arthur and Merlyn and his old friend and mentor continues to challenge him to think about every decision he makes as a king and the purpose and motivation behind every course of action he will take.

"You have become the king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt. Unless you do something, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles. That is why I have been asking you to THINK"

The third segment entitled The Ill-Made Knight is the longest one and definitely the part of the novel that ALMOST ruined it for me. We've been following Wart's growth and evolution to King Arthur and his meditative discussions with his mentor Merlyn, and then all of a sudden we've switched central characters midway and they're the most irreconcilably selfish, distressing and unsympathetic pair I have ever encountered. I'm referring to Lancelot and Queen Guenever. I may have more sympathy for the former whose lamentations and struggles of moral judgment against the weakness of earthly desires can be quite moving in some moments during the book, but I absolutely abhorred this version of Guenever.

I assert that the writing for the women in this book is so appalling, even in medieval romance literature's standards. We have Guenever who is just vain, oppressive and pathetic and the commoner Elaine who is passive-aggressive yet also submissive and stupid. Both women are Lancelot's love interest and unrequited admirer, and they are respectively the devil and the deep blue sea for him as well. It's like reading the lives of a celebrity couple and a stalker-fan who wants to pull them apart. And it's not even the trashy-fun, tabloid drivel kind of soap opera which was why I almost, ALMOST wanted to give up reading this book entirely. I did like this quote, however:

"They thought they had understood each other once more--but their doubt had been planted. Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were seeds of hatred, and fear and confusion growing at the same time; for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury."

Though the third segment is heavily focused on the painfully unrealistic and absurd adulterous love affair between "Lance and Jenny" and the involvement of the unwanted second mistress Elaine (who, by the way, tricks Lancelot twice in her own version of modern 'date rape'), there are still gems to be found in this part of the book. This happens when we revert back to Arthur who begins to question and doubt the choices and rules he had imposed on his kingdom. I just don't understand why I should care about Lancelot and Guenever's depressingly bland "love story" when I'm so invested in finding out more about King Arthur as a leader who is supposed to be a champion of the masses but has found himself becoming their oppressor instead and in ways he had been so committed in preventing in the first place. This was the man who argued with Merlyn that ideas should not be imposed on people but rather made available for them to choose or not to--and yet he finds himself doing the exact opposite because the supposedly noble knights in his service have taken advantage of their positions.

"When I started the Table, it was to stop anarchy. It was a channel for brute force, so that the people who had to use force could be made to do it in a useful way. But the whole thing was a mistake. It was a mistake because the Table itself was founded on force. Right must be established by right: it can’t be established by Force. I'm afraid I have sown the whirlwind, and now I shall reap the storm."

Furthermore, there are also interesting sidestories concerning the knights themselves, particularly about the theory and application of "chivalry" back in those times. I recall Jaime Lannister from George R.R Martin's A Song of and Fire series once arguing that there are so many vows that knights take that it's often possible to follow one vow and forsake the other especially when they tend to contradict each other. White does tackle this but not nearly as straightforward as Martin's. His knights are still more inclined to hide under the veneer of moral self-righteousness to justify their machismo and misogyny. Even the bravest and most chivalrous of them all, Lancelot, still mistakes his own intentions but I can actually blame Guenever and Elaine for that. As a central character of The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot is compelling but his inability to reclaim his weaknesses and use them instead to strengthened his convictions is ultimately the reason I stopped rooting for him.

The only real lesson I garnered from reading the torturous and unsurprisingly tragic relationship between Lance and Jenny is the fact that passions unchecked and consummated out of blind lust and immaturity are going to destroy you little by little, and Guenever most of all deserved whatever is coming for her. I frankly want to wish away the "Lance and Jenny" disaster from the pages of this novel.

"Morals are a form of insanity. Give me a moral man who insists on doing the right thing all the time, and I will show you a tangle which an angel couldn't get out of."

The final segment of the book is The Candle in the Wind is probably the most serious part of the entire novel (where as the first one has great humor in it) which is only appropriate since it concludes the story in a way that I actually found shocking yet acceptable. The personal drama between Lancelot and Guenever's revelation about their affair and Arthur's reaction to it is one that really amused me to no end because Arthur has been aware of the affair since it started (thanks to Merlin, the walking spoiler alert) but chooses not to do anything about it as long as it's left unspoken. However, his half-brother/half-son Mordred wants to make sure that Arthur will be forced to punish the adultery of his wife and best friend in accordance to the new laws of his kingdom. What follows over the course of the pages is actually rather suspenseful for me. Everyone's dishonor and sin have caught up with them; Guenever's jealousy, Lancelot's pride and betrayal and Arthur's ineffectual stand against these two people and his unwillingness to accept Mordred as a son (as well as a couple of other things I won't spoil here).

In the most twisted and ironic twist of fate, these three characters have no other choice but to stay united against the joint forces of Mordred and Agravaine who are determined to end Arthur's reign in Camelot.

Arthur's conflict for me in this last segment is very riveting to watch unfold; all the lessons Merlyn have taught him have lead him to this moment. "Arthur’s laws are the culmination of his conversations with Merlyn about the use of might and right; to abandon his faith in these laws would be to reject everything for which he stands. Mordred and Agravaine are aware of Arthur’s commitment to justice, so they are able to trap him by his own rules and laws. Arthur does not want to unravel the society he has built, but to preserve it, he must sacrifice the two people he loves most." It's Arthur, waiting and dreading for the other shoe to drop.

In summary, The Once and Future King was thought-provoking in ways that I enjoyed and consumed wholeheartedly, but it also fails to establish a well-balanced narrative that allows me to attach myself emotionally to its characters which diluted my investment in their eventual fates. I was very fond of Wart and Merlyn's relationship the most, and I would have liked to see Merlyn still play a role in the final years of Arthur's reign. I think the reason I have to rate this book lower than I initially intended was because I believe trimming The Ill-Made Knight is NECESSARY. I also believe White should have lessened his focus on Lancelot and Guenever and showed us more about Lancelot's relationship with Arthur as oppose to telling us in passing. I think Arthur and Lancelot's relationship is more important than his affair with Guenever and if Guenever was written better then perhaps her role in the story wouldn't have been so wasteful and indigestible to read.

I maintain that this is a remarkable classic as a whole as long as you can select the parts to remember the most fondly. If I ever re-read this, I definitely plan to skip all the Lance-Jenny-Elaine debacle. I must also caution anyone who plans to read this novel to endure the insufferable length of the third segment because, overall, this is still a worthwhile read.


Profile Image for Travis French.
14 reviews2 followers
July 16, 2008
Just last week I finished one of the greatest books I have ever read. The Once & Future King by T.H. White.

I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned in Bryan Singer's X-Men movies. Xavier talks about it with his students and Magneto can be seen reading it while in his plastic prison. Because all great works of art are connected I had to read the book. I didn't even know it was about King Arthur and his knights until I found it on Amazon.com.

Like most people I was familiar with the characters and parts of the plot. What surprised me is how much of the story is a tragedy. The story couldn't really unfold any other way.

It all starts quite simply. Arthur is a young boy called Wart. Wart lives a sequestered life in feudal England training to be a knight. One morning Wart is searching the forest for a lost falcon and stumbles upon Merlyn's cottage. It is here that the story really starts. Merlyn becomes Wart's tutor and teaches by turning the boy into all manner of animals.

Disney adapted this section, titled The Sword in the Stone, into one of its early animated features with a fair amount of accuracy. Disney's only noticeable changes are addition of musical numbers and the absence of Robin Hood.

The next two sections, titled The Queen of Air & Darkness and The Ill Made Knight, serve to introduce more of the principle characters. It is in these two sections that we meet Queen Morguase, mother of the Orkney clan, as well as Lancelot and Guenever. It is all of these characters, including Arthur himself, who ultimately bring about the downfall of Camelot.

The final section, titled The Candle in the Wind, brings everything to its inevitable conclusion. Lancelot, by rescuing Guenever from the stake, forces Arthur to leave Camelot in the care of a wretched little prick named Mordred.

In the face of all this tragedy some hope survives. Arthur remembers his idea of a just and peaceful civilization, his candle in the wind, and passes it along to a young page named Thomas Mallory. Mallory goes on to write Le Morte de Arthur, perhaps the earliest version of the Arthurian legend.

What makes the book so great is the level of realism White brings to what would otherwise be a fairy tale. A professional journalist turned novelist White cares about the world he creates. He knows what details would add to the plot and what might take away from it. The characters are well rounded human beings; motivated by both their strengths and weaknesses. They live in a real place and coexist with all manner of fantastic beasts. Magic is a natural part of life; no more extraordinary than a jousting match.

Like any great work of art I was sorry I had to finish.

Profile Image for Heideblume.
212 reviews105 followers
January 29, 2018
Mozzafiato. White è solo uno dei tanti portavoce del ciclo bretone ma è anche il primo ad aver rimarcato il collegamento con la realtà odierna rendendo questa versione così preziosa e attuale. “Re in eterno” è quello che Piero Dorfles ne "I cento libri che rendono più ricca la nostra vita" definirebbe un romanzo-mondo:
I grandi romanzi, cioè quelli che racchiudono un intero universo di esperienze, di sentimenti e di percorsi logici, spesso non sono riconducibili a un solo genere o a un solo modello letterario. Sono i romanzi che, per le caratteristiche della narrazione, la qualità dello stile, la varietà dei personaggi, l’ampiezza del periodo storico descritto e la precisione dell’ambientazione, si possono definire romanzi-mondo. Alcuni di questi parlano di un solo personaggio, di un ristretto periodo storico, di una sola giornata, eppure riescono lo stesso a darci un’immagine nitida, un’analisi profonda e completa del modo in cui si sviluppano e incidono sul nostro vissuto le relazioni umane, tanto da assumere un valore universale.
I romanzi-mondo rappresentano i rari casi in cui un prodotto narrativo supera i limiti della ricostruzione letteraria di una vicenda, della vita dei personaggi e della cornice storica in cui si svolgono perché racchiudono emblematicamente, o anche metaforicamente, l’universo delle esperienze che possiamo avere su questa terra. Perché contengono, in una storia, qualcosa che è sostanziale nella nostra vita.

L'epos di Artù incarna simbolicamente la fine di un'età aurea e l'arrivo di un più tetro e incerto domani - diceva Tolkien - ma vi è anche una speranza per l'avvenire.
Lo ammetto, questa è una delle rare volte, se non uniche, in cui ravviso totale padronanza della materia.

Per dare un'idea di quale sia il tono del libro, copio la fine del secondo volume:
Nonostante nove decimi del racconto sembrino occuparsi di cavalieri giostranti, di ricerche del Santo Graal e cose del genere, la storia costituisce un tutto unico e narra i motivi per cui infine il giovane andò incontro alla rovina. È la tragedia, la tragedia aristotelica e globale, del peccato che torna a casa per passarvi la notte. Ecco perché dobbiamo prender nota dell’albero genealogico del figlio di Artù, Mordred, e ricordare, quando sarà il momento, che il re si era congiunto con la propria sorella. Non sapeva di farlo, e forse avrebbe dovuto esserne incolpata lei, ma nella tragedia, a quanto pare, essere innocenti non basta.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,717 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.