If you are enrolled on the SED’s Arthurian Literature course, you may agree with me when I say it has been a greatly enjoyable, but also greatly varied experience. We have traveled between the ancient works of Béroul and Chrétien de Troyes; traversed the mountainous five weeks of Le Morte d’Arthur, and immersed ourselves in the imperialist daydreams of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King. But now that is all coming to its end, closing upon what I must say is the most admirable and adventurous book ever written: The Once and Future King, by T.H White.
Admirable, because it pulls characters from the world of Arthuriana and shapes them into a heart-wrenching plethora of real, human beings. In reading it you shall encounter a host of heartfelt, engaging moments steeped in raw emotion; Arthur, who begins his days as the dejected ‘Wart’, sacrifices his whole being to create a peaceful kingdom that will eventually be consumed by war, and Lancelot, who names himself ‘The ill-made knight’, has his heart torn apart by his conflictual feelings of love, chivalry, and godliness. The whole text engulfs itself within a deep exploration of character, to an extent that has arguably been unachieved in the Arthurian literature that proceeds it.
And adventurous, because it skillfully plays with the entire mass of the Arthurian universe, and never so than with the mysterious figure of Merlin, who has been transformed from a barely-visible wizard into a cunning political commentator. ‘The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined’, he tells us, in a surprisingly anarchistic viewpoint, ‘wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species’, he asserts, acting as an obvious mouthpiece for the enraged White; a rallying cry against the warfare, destruction and totalitarian control of his time.
None of this could exist, of course, without the absolute malleability of King Arthur’s universe. It is a fictional world with no restrictive code, no unquestionable textual authority, where no story may look too ridiculous, lore-breaking or unrealistic. In the past, this allowed for the creation of a colourful and explorative fabric of enthralling stories. Which questioned ideas of loyalty, religion, and violence whilst simultaneously exposing us to a fantastic realm of burly knights, powerful witches, grand dragons and of course tournaments – lots and lots of tournaments.
If we also step into our recent past, many a century after the supposed days of la table ronde, we may find an abundance of famous figures inspired by its stories. There is Waterhouse, with the beautiful Lady of Shalott; Disney, with the uplifting The Sword in the Stone; Wagner with the powerful and poetic Tristan und Isolde. Even those works which spring up in opposition to it, as Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court does, add to the sense of richness that comes with the genre. Together they all add something more than one may find in other fantasy worlds, like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, an effect that can be likened to Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, an amalgamation of voices expressing the woes, loves and anxieties of the creator’s times.
So in the wake of the glossy trash that was King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I give you this impeccable piece of advice: ignore it. Instead, focus your attention on the two thousand years worth of profound and provocative Arthurian works. Start with Malory, in his Le Morte d’Arthur, or go straight to T.H White, and be enthralled with The Once and Future King; either way, don’t let this distinctive element of European culture go amiss in your life. If you do, then head to the nunnery and live your days in shame as Guinevere did.