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 readers are already familiar with the characters and the outcome of the story, White has the freedom to break off on narrative and philosophical tangents, such as Wart’s transformations, King Pellinore’s pursuit of the Questing Beast, or a discussion on the nature of civilization. The narrative depth is complemented by a richness of style-the prose of White’s descriptive passages, even those only peripheral to the action, has been widely praised.
One of White’s surest strengths is his characterization. He makes these mythical characters come alive, and he makes them understandable human beings. The human scale of his characterizations allows him to refer irreverently to the Queen as “Jenny” or to the mighty Arthur as “Wart.” He uses psychology for some of his insights into character and action, but refrains from falling into psychological jargon or letting his observations intrude on the story.
White’s absolutely unique achievement, however, is his evocative descriptions of what it is like to be an animal, such as a fish or a bird. The scenes in which Merlyn turns Wart into various creatures are, for many readers, the most memorable scenes in the novel. Years of careful observation of the natural world went into these passages.