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Why The Once and Future King is still the best King Arthur story out there

Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Daniel Smith / Warner Bros.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The legend of King Arthur is one of those stories that has been around for so long and retold so many times that you can more or less make it do whatever you’d like it to do, like the stories of Robin Hood or Superman. The BBC’s recent Merlin series made it a madcap buddy-cops-in-fantasyland show; Guy Ritchie’s new King Arthur: Legend of the Sword uses it as the launchpad for a new superhero-in-all-but-name franchise.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. Ritchie’s King Arthur flopped at the box office, and some have suggested that’s because there’s nothing for today’s audiences in the Arthurian legend. There’s a sense that the story has been twisted around and retold so often that there’s nothing left of it to explore beyond our collective mental image of a tall blond guy with a crown and a sword.

But there is something out there that makes an argument for the Arthurian legend as a story with meaning, one that’s compelling to modern audiences: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, written in 1958. White was writing for a post–World War II audience, but his book has a vigor and clarity that makes it an urgent and important read today.

Drawing painfully from the demons of his own past, White uses the Arthurian legend as a way of thinking about war and power and the proper uses of violent force — at the state level as well as the individual level. And the whole thing is written with some of his most lucid and loveliest prose.

A huge part of The Once and Future King is an extended political allegory

If you read The Sword and the Stone as a child and haven’t come back to it since, or if you’ve seen the Disney movie, you might be surprised when I say that it’s an extended political allegory. But it is — especially in the revised form it takes as the first book of The Once and Future King, the part that covers King Arthur’s childhood as the cheerfully dim orphan boy Wart. (White first published The Sword in the Stone as a standalone novel for children in 1938, then revised it for inclusion in The Once and Future King.)

The Sword in the Stone is the story of Wart’s political education, which takes the form of him getting turned into various animals by Merlyn and seeing how they run things. It is all very charming and joyful and evocative — and, at its core, political.

As a fish, War learns about absolute monarchy; as an ant, he learns about totalitarian communism. Wart’s ideal becomes the pacific and playful geese (not, it is safe to say, the Canadian geese of North America, who are anything but pacific), and while he has fantasies of the pomp and glory of chivalry, he cannot stomach the endless, pointless wars of the ants.

So in the rest of the book, after he becomes king, Arthur devotes himself to finding a political system that will do away with the brutal excesses of feudal power and its “might makes right” ethos. At first he tries to channel his knights’ violent urges into the fashionable ideal of chivalry, of protecting the innocent and saving the pure. Later, he tries to focus it on religious quests, and later still, he introduces the innovation of civil law.

But despite everything Arthur does, Camelot creeps ever closer to the decadence and self-conscious irony of modernity. Every system Arthur creates only invites the worst of his knights to find new ways to twist it toward their own purposes.

The Once and Future King emerges out of World War II and its horrors: White reportedly wrote it as an act of resistance against Hitler. (He fled to Ireland rather than fight in the war, on the grounds that it would do no one any good for him to die as cannon fodder.) Via the didactic figure of Merlyn, White argues that war is necessary to stop atrocities, and that if you are fairly well assured of your own safety — that is, if you are wealthy enough to have armor and a horse in Arthur’s day, or a plum field position in World War II — war can be deeply satisfying, even fun. He argues that mankind is inextricably drawn to violence, but also that all wars are terrible and evil.

In turn, White’s Arthur grapples madly with this war paradox as he tries to work out how to manage his state while being complicit in the minimum possible number of deaths, while his knights squabble among one another and long for the glory of battle.

But in the end, Arthur fails and the state collapses because of a family tragedy — and because of all that happens with Lancelot.

White’s greatest achievement is his tragic, broken Lancelot

For hundreds of years, Arthur’s family has been his downfall. Since the 12th century, Arthur’s doom has come at the hands of his son Mordred, whom he fathered on his half-sister Morgause (without knowing who she was, in most versions). And for just as long, his reign has been plagued by the courtly love between Lancelot, his greatest knight, and his wife Guinevere. It’s in the figure of Lancelot that White finds his greatest literary achievement.

For the troubadours like Chrétien de Troyes, who helped bring Lancelot into the Arthurian legend (he’s a relatively late addition; originally Arthur’s greatest knight was Gawain), Lancelot’s love for Guinevere was noble and beautiful, if occasionally comically emasculating, and both parties were untroubled by any idea of wrongdoing. That’s the ideal that lives on in Tennyson’s tirra-lirra-singing chivalric portrait.

But White’s central source for The Once and Future King is 15th-century author Thomas Malory, and Malory considered Lancelot a tragic figure, tortured by his illicit love for Guinevere and his betrayal of his king. And so White emphasizes the tragedy, making his Lancelot riddled with self-loathing, a weak and broken man chasing after an impossibly high ideal.

Lancelot, says White, has something fundamental to his psyche broken: “something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand. There is no need for us to try to understand it. We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.” And whatever this secret shame is, it is what spurs Lancelot to become the greatest knight in the world, to make a point of taking on any challenge and avoiding any unnecessary death. “He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice,” White writes, “the things which made him brave and kind.”

White never explicitly lets readers in on Lancelot’s secret — while in his notes he toyed with the idea that Lancelot might be gay, such an idea remains strictly subtextual — but it’s hard not to come to a biographical reading here. White was gay, and closeted, and he had sadistic urges and abusive parents. All of this together made him deeply ashamed of himself.

In response, White exercised strict self-control. He isolated himself. He refused to beat his students at the private boys’ school where he taught, although it was common practice at the time. He tried to train a goshawk, apparently because he thought if he could participate in the pure savagery and violence of a hunting bird of prey, he could satisfy his sadism in a morally chaste and sinless way. But he didn’t really understand how to train goshawks and ended up mistreating his quite horribly. At age 55, two years before he would die of heart failure, he wrote, “I expect to make rather a good death. The essence of death is loneliness, and I have had plenty of practice at this.”

In turn, White’s Lancelot isolates himself from the world to devote himself to knighthood, the better to make up for his dark secret. He is deeply in love with Arthur and the chivalric ideal that Arthur represents (whether that love is romantic or platonic is left to the reader), and at first he resents Guinevere for usurping his place at Arthur’s right hand. It is only after he has been cruel to her and hurt her that he comes to see her as a person and falls in love with her too.

Lancelot’s dream is that in spite of the thing inside of him that is broken, he might be able to become the greatest knight in the world and work miracles on behalf of God. He considers sexual purity to be fundamental to that work: In order to be the greatest knight in the world, he must be chaste; he must be a virgin. So when Elaine the lily maid drugs and rapes him, he is destroyed. “You have stolen my miracles,” he tells her, weeping. “You have stolen my being the best knight.”

Then, since he believes he has lost all hope of purity, he rides off and begins his affair with Guinevere. And that is the affair that Mordred eventually uses to destroy Arthur. Their relationship is high treason, and if Arthur wants his rule of law to work, he cannot simply pardon his best friend and his wife, as much as he wants to. Instead, Arthur and Lancelot find themselves caught up in a war against their will, with Mordred playing each side against the other.

The Once and Future King would be painful to read if it weren’t so funny and so beautiful

Lancelot’s struggle replicates in miniature Arthur’s struggle with the state. Both men are consumed with the problem of violence and with how attractive it is, and both are determined to create ideals and systems that will keep them from giving in to it, Lancelot personally and Arthur politically.

Their stories feel like the product of a writerly mind that is inclined emotionally toward violence and toward the breaking of sexual taboos, but is revolted intellectually and morally by the very idea. Again and again it turns over the problem: How can this be fixed? How can man be perfected? How can we become like the geese?

The result is a sad and lonely and beautiful book that transforms the old and venerable Arthurian legend into a philosophical examination of the uses of power and violence, both personally and politically. It is a little painful to read in places, because White’s loneliness and confusion feel so palpable, but he also invests the story with enormous warmth and tenderness and gentle humor. There is the joy of young Wart learning to swim with the king of the fish, and the comic play of knights battling in slow motion because their armor is so heavy that they can’t charge quickly at each other.

It’s a lovely and thoughtful book. And if you’re looking for a King Arthur story that is both resonant and well-crafted, it’s probably a better use of your time than the new Guy Ritchie movie.