Terence Hanbury White was born on May 29, 1906, in Bombay, India. His father, Garrick Hanbury White, a district superintendent of police, and his mother, Constance White, had a tempestuous marriage. White’s mother, who was considered beautiful, had been berated by her own mother for being unmarried at almost 30. In response she swore she would marry the next man who asked her. She did, and the result was a disaster.
White’s modern retelling of the story of King Arthur and his knights presents the reader with an extremely full range of literary experiences. The Once and Future King contains entertaining comic episodes and moments of the highest tragedy; it deals with profound philosophical issues and, at the same time, offers exciting action. The principal characters-Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and Merlyn-are heroic, but White takes care to portray their human flaws as well as their attributes. As a result, they are believable people, with whom readers can identify.
The Once and Future King is set about 1200 in England, which Arthur calls Gramarye. Most historians think the actual Arthur-if there was one-lived much earlier, probably during the fifth century. Even though White presents a great many details about life in medieval England, he intentionally mentions modern things that could not possibly have existed at the time of the story, such as cannons and top hats. He uses anachronism partially for humorous effect, but also to demonstrate that the human problems of that time were similar to the problems of the 20th century.
The major character of The Once and Future King is Arthur, whom Merlyn affectionately nicknames “Wart.” One of the strengths of White’s novel is that it keeps its focus on Arthur; in many versions of the Arthurian legend, the major emphasis falls on Lancelot and Guenever.
In his retelling of the Arthurian myth, White places greater emphasis than did Malory on the tragic elements of the story. White’s tragic theme-the sins of the past that return to destroy the hero-gives shape to the story, and recalls the themes of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 429 bc) and other Greek tragedies.
Because White’s purpose was to show the cruelty of war and the evils of humanity, there is a great deal of fighting and lopping off of heads in the book. Additionally, White’s use of cruelty to animals as a device to reveal the villainy of his evil characters may disturb some readers. Queen Morgause boils a cat in an attempt to find a magical bone, and her sons brutally betray a unicorn and sever its head. However, these actions-appearing as they do in a book that celebrates the beauties of nature-are clearly used to establish certain characters as excessively vicious and depraved.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Arthur’s first important realization is that people in his time think that “might is right.” Is this a belief confined to the Dark Ages, or do many people still think this way? Can you give any examples?
White originally intended his Arthurian stories to be published as a collection of five books. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, was completed in 1941, immediately after the completion of the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind. White’s publishers refused to publish the collection because of a wartime paper shortage. Although the paper shortage was a real problem, many critics think that the publishers did not want to publish The Book of Merlyn because they considered it too philosophical, too political, and too bitter about humankind’s failure to achieve peace. In any event, White insisted on including The Book of Merlyn, and nothing was published until 1958. At that time, the fourth book was included in The Once and Future King, but the Book of Merlyn was omitted. Two important scenes, however-one in which Arthur is turned into an ant, and another in which he is turned into a wild goose-were lifted directly from The Book of Merlyn and inserted into The Sword in the Stone.