What have I been doing all my life? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve lived 23 years of my life in total, blind ignorance by not reading two really great books that were published way back in the days. The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck.
But how is it that nobody, and I mean NOBODY ever recommended these to me? Book lists that I’d religiously haunted failed me in this respect. I’m miffed that Top 50 lists prioritize literature such as Sound the the Fury and Grapes of Wrath, but they don’t shed enough light on marvelous books such as The Once and Future King? Not to imply that Sound the the Fury and Grapes of Wrath aren’t important, but I think that these two are examples of books that have become rather over-hyped in our culture lately.
I mean, when recommending books, one should consider the difference between “academically valuable” and “enjoyable.” Yet so many people rank certain literature above others just for the sake of being politically correct. But what’s the use of hero-worshipping something that doesn’t spark enthusiasm in a reader, nor urge them to read it over and over again? What’s the use of respecting something that doesn’t challenge you in a stimulating way?
Bah, sorry for this really random rant. Without further ado, on with the reviews!
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
“This is beyond understanding.” said the king. “You are the wisest man alive. You know what is preparing. Why do you not make a plan to save yourself?” And Merlin said quietly, “Because I am wise. In the combat between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins.”
I wouldn’t say that Steinbeck cast nearly as personable a light on King Arthur as T.H. White’s version (he also makes Merlin out to be a bit of mischievous rogue), but I do think that Steinbeck’s portrayal of King Arthur was more impartial, if that makes any sense. Arthur is magnanimous, empathetic, and noble for the period that he is living in, but he does have flaws that are characteristic of his era, and Steinbeck to his credit doesn’t shy away from them. He documents Arthur’s character as a historian might–detached, but with a respect and consideration, without bias or judgment.
And that’s not to say that there isn’t heart in this book. One clear scene shows Arthur’s vulnerable side via second-hand eyewitness account. When one of the Knights of the Round Table confesses his wonder that he once came across Arthur crying, but doing his best to muffle his sobs so as not to be heard by others, Steinbeck suggests that yes, his version of King Arthur is just that, a distant portrayal of a distant king. But there is a burdened human being behind that facade, and I really loved that huge burst of heart in that scene.
I also loved Steinbeck’s portrayal of Lancelot. Mind, this book is an unfinished draft by Steinbeck, so it chronicles only until the point when Lancelot and Guinevere’s commits adultery for the first time, and it’s perhaps that impactful scene that made me partial to this version of Lancelot. But whatever the case or reason, the final line of this book is heart-wrenching:
“Their bodies locked together as though a trap had sprung. Their mouths met and each devoured the other. Each frantic heartbeat at the wall of ribs trying to get to the other until their held breaths burst out and Lancelot, dizzied, found the door and blundered down the stairs. And he was weeping bitterly.”
There is wretched despair in Lancelot’s longing for Guinevere, which is coupled with his sense of emptiness despite being one of the greatest knights in the world. And it makes me wonder: are some people just born with an innate tendency for loneliness? It seemed to me that Lancelot was too honest and sensitive a soul to be able to ignore even the vaguest hints of unworthiness within himself, and he suffered for it.
Therefore, when he finally broke his abstinence, I have to admit that I almost cheered him on. No, adultery’s not something to be encouraged, but I almost went mad watching Lacnelot break down in his loneliness that I probably would’ve been hooked him up with a porcupine. In conclusion, I think that Steinbeck might have done an even better job than T.H. White in his portrayal of Lancelot. All debatable of course, but that’s what made this version worth reading. Granted, Steinbeck’s portrayal of King Arthur might appear more detached and distant on the whole, but the use of subtlety and implication to flesh Arthur’s humanity truly did make a great impact in its own way, and I realized that only after reading it through a second time.
This book is a GREAT introduction to the tales of King Arthur, and I highly recommend it.
The Once and Future King
“I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king.”
This book is witty and warm. Silly yet endearing. Academic and brooding, yet wholly human and charged with heart-wrenching emotion. I am still crying and laughing over certain passages that have been ingrained in my brain these last few days since I finished this book, and I doubt that there are many more books out there that could make me care so much about a historical-fantasy world.
I smiled in fondness over Arthur’s warm nature. T.H. White, while tending to idealize Arthur’s magnanimous nature, did bring his own take on realism by making the character conflicts so complex and personable that Arthur’s perfection isn’t so far-fetched anymore. Yes, Arthur is almost too good to be true, but his empathetic nature is wholly justified by the fact that he is a diligent and unbiased thinker. By constantly challenging his own values of right and wrong, Arthur stays true to what he set out to do, and I as a reader became invested in his innocence and warmth. I absolutely LOVED Arther.
I laughed hysterically too. Like when a recently crowned Arthur climbs 208 stairs up to Merlin’s tower for advice, but Merlin shoos him away “like a chicken” for not behaving in the manner of a king and not sending a page with a summons. Then Arthur retaliates by takes away Merlin’s chair the next time he sees him, saying that a subject shouldn’t sit in presence of a king, and the two proceed to bicker. Oh, the funny dynamics between these two is warm and hilarious and an absolute pleasure to read.
I sobbed like the end of the world. The brief mention of the funny and bumbling Pellinore’s death, Gawaine’s redemption, Lancelot and Guinevere’s struggle for love, the character conflicts, and the changes, changes…the passage of time through King Arthur’s eyes is a difficult one. I felt his pain of not being able to prevent a civil war, and it was devastatingly sad to watch this lovable teddy bear of a king to shoulder all those problems.
As for Lancelot, he is once again conflicted in his love for Guinevere. But in this version, T.H. White does a thorough job shedding light on the psychological root of Lancelot’s feelings of unworthiness. He suggests that Lancelot, while good and fair, might actually have been born with an innate affinity for fighting and cruelty–not that he is actually cruel. In fact, Lancelot’s ridiculously kind like Arthur, but he works hard to maintain that kindness and loyalty because he is aware of the darkness within himself:
“He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.”
The last pages are wet and wrinkled with tears, but I loved every moment of it. The final knighting of Sir Thomas Mallory on the eve of battle, the torch being passed on, Arthur dreaming of Merlin before finally coming to the solution of his life’s questions, and coming to peace with his imminent death….Ack, I can’t even talk about it.
What a masterpiece, a vessel packed with heart and soul. This book has made me laugh and cry to an extent that only few others have achieved over the past years, and I will truly treasure this read.