Thursday, May 22, 2008

Book: The Once And Future King

I thought that I hadn't read this in full before, but now that I'm done, I think I have. It must have been in high school or college. Maybe college, because I remember a full-tilt Arthurian obsession during that time including reading The Mists of Avalon for the first time and a Tristam and Iseult book that I can't remember the name of.

Anyway. As the extremely droll (sorry, there's no other word to describe them) blurbs on the front cover say, "I hope that people will find out how good it is. It seems to me to be a wonderful book." It was rather long, almost 700 pages, but indeed, a wonderful book.

I won't summarize the plot since it's standard Arthurian Legend (taken almost directly from Malory's la Morte d'Arthur), but rather just reflect on the experience of reading it.

It's written in four parts. The first is young Wart (Arthur) and Merlin. It's what Disney's The Sword In The Stone is based upon. Fun, funny, charming, light-hearted. This was definitely the most joyful part of the book. It was extremely entertaining to read about Arthur's adventures with Robin Wood (it's Wood, not Hood, mind you) and his transformations into various animals such as ant, goose, badger, fish, bird. The story gets deeper and darker from here, and in the last 'book', is completely mirthless.

The Arthur character is never really that deeply developed -- he remains a representation of himself throughout the book, with a few exceptions. He is presented as a simple man, who has a difficult time once Merlin leaves him; deep thinking does not come easily to him although he is not stupid.

The central characters and chief tragedy in this version of the legend were Guinevere and Lancelot. Their love affair ultimately brings about the fall of Camelot, through a perfect storm of tragic storylines all intersecting. The most touching scene in the entire book was that of Arthur, realizing that trouble is afoot with his knights (most notably Agravaine and Mordred, his illegitimate son), finding Lancelot and the queen in a quiet chapel together, talking. Rather than surprising them, he retreats and find a page to announce him. Once they are all together, he broadly - but gently, pleadingly - hints that things were in such a state that if any hint of scandal or treachery should come to light, even from his best friend or beloved wife, he would be forced to punish any of them harshly. Arthur knows about the affair but does not wish to have it cause trouble -- he loves both Lancelot and Guinevere too much and understands that there is nothing any of them can do about it. In this scene, he is saying to them, without so many words, "Look, I know you two love each other deeply, and I know you love me, too. Please, please, help me keep my kingdom together. Don't do anything stupid, for my sake."

And yet, because this is a tragedy, they do anyway, and then it all comes tumbling down in more and more awful ways.

I really enjoyed this book. Lancelot is an interesting character -- he is torn between his baser motives (he is a sadist, but hates this about himself, and so acts with only good intentions and is never cruel because he actually loves cruelty). There is a lot to think about: what makes a person a good person -- their actions, or their actual selves? What they do, or what lives deep in their hearts?

I was glad that T.H. White skipped over much of the battle scenes (as he said, "If you want the full description of the battle, Sir Thomas Malory provides all the information you could ever want..."), instead focusing on personalities and internal struggles, while keeping the main plotline of the legend intact.

As I usually do after reading a book, I did a little research about the Arthurian Legend. I always want to tumble into days and days of research once I've finished something interesting. There are so many books about this subject, both scholarly and fiction, and quite a few variations on the story. In some, Lancelot is a minor character. Other knights take the spotlight in many versions (Gawaine, Gareth, Percival, Galahad). In some versions, Arthur and Morgause perpetrate the incest which plants the seed for the tragedy. In others, it's Arthur and Morgan La Fay.

I remember learning the basics of the whole legend in my sophomore year advanced english class. I instantly fell in love with the whole thing. I can still see my teacher's family tree illustration on the board, showing the line from Uther Pendragon and Igraine, to Arthur, to Mordred, and the branches of the Orkney clan, Lancelot, etc. I just find it all really fascinating.

One thing I didn't quite catch in this book is that at one point, a reference is made to Arthur having two illegitimate children. I couldn't find any other references to this. Anyone know anything about that?

Anyway. This was so worth reading and a really lovely book, full of beautiful language, pathos, adventure, humor, tragedy... really heartbreaking at the end (I had to make myself finish the book just because I hate how it all ends...). I might have to pick up The Mists of Avalon again, because I stopped re-reading it somewhere in the middle last time because I couldn't bear the tragedy. But maybe I should finish it.

To combat the sadness, I picked up a truly terrible book to take my mind off it. I am not a fan of detective novels generally speaking, but you know how I am about anything with a supernatural edge. However, this series seems like a direct ripoff of my shamefacedly-favorite crack books, the Anita Blake series. The first book in that series isn't called Guilty Pleasures for nothing. Storm Front has the same dry/trying-to-be-wry, poorly-edited writing, only without, as far as I can tell, the supernatural romance factor. Um, author? It needs the romance factor. A wizard gumshoe is not going to cut it for me. Still, I'll probably finish the book just to see how bad it gets. (I don't understand how this book got such good ratings on Amazon)

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