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 an engrossing story and an excellent introduction to one of the most important legends in English literature. The Arthurian legend is often referred to as “the matter of Britain,” and many critics consider it-along with the King James Bible and the work of Shakespeare and Milton-one of the four cornerstones of English literature and culture.
White’s title, The Once and Future King, is drawn from the epitaph attributed to Arthur’s tomb by the medieval English writer Sir Thomas Malory: “And many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus” (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king). White’s use of this quotation is appropriate, because he is, in a sense, translating Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur for modern readers. Malory wrote in 15th-century English, a language that many readers would find difficult to understand. White’s book is not strictly a translation of Le morte d’Arthur, however, but rather a modern retelling of the story of Arthur. White infuses the material with his own concerns and philosophy of life. In his turn, he is doing what Malory did when that author compiled the French romances of King Arthur and produced an English version.
Throughout literary history different generations have interpreted the story of King Arthur in their own ways. Historically, Arthur was probably a Briton (Celtic) warlord who fought to repulse Saxon invaders around ad 460; for Nennius, a church historian writing around 800, Arthur is a Christian king who carries the banner of the Blessed Virgin into battle; for the Welsh minstrels of the 12th century, he is a mythical hero who takes on some of the attributes of their ancient Celtic gods; for Geoffrey of Monmouth, around 1140, Arthur is the High King who unites England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and who challenges Rome. The French, with their interest in royalty and courtly love, add the Round Table, and in 1190 the French author Chretien de Troyes adds the love affair of Lancelot and Guenever. Around 1220 the Cistercian monks develop the legend of the Holy Grail. But it was Malory who turned Arthur into the King of Chivalry, and turned his legend into the foundation of English literature that it remains today.
Modern writers, too, have seen Arthur in the mirror of their own times. For example, the 19th-century British poet Alfred Tennyson turned Arthur into a Victorian gentleman in his poem, “Morte d’Arthur.” Thus White continues a long literary tradition when he makes Arthur confront the problems of the 20th century. White created his Arthurian novels between 1937 and 1941, and the concern most on his mind was war. World War II was destroying Europe, and although he lived in neutral Ireland, White could not escape the fear generated by the war.
Malory wrote about his Arthur during the War of the Roses, and White finally came to believe that the central theme of Le morte d’Arthur was the need to find an antidote to war. In his attempt to find this antidote, Arthur examines the relationship of humankind to the animals, the workings of justice, and other philosophical questions about the nature of civilization. The tragedy of Arthur is that philosophy provides no answers. The evil in the world lives inside the hearts of those he loves best, Lancelot and Guenever, in his own heart, and, finally, in the hearts of all people.