The Once & Future King by TH White


When I was eleven or so I won a prize at school. I can no longer remember what the prize was for but I remember that it was book tokens and I went into Ottakers and spent what felt like a huge amount of money on a huge, grown-up beautiful book, which I devoured and loved fiercely as a teenager and have discovered I still very much love. The Lies of Locke Lamora is my favourite book of recent years; TH White’s The Once and Future King is my favourite book of all time.

The Once and Future King, technically, is five books. You all know of the first one – The Sword in the Stone which became a Disney film. It’s part historical (in as much as it can be when Arthur probably never existed and Merlyn certainly didn’t, or at least he wasn’t a real wizard), part fantasy, part philosophy and a tiny bit comedy. It was very much a literary step up for me at that age. I don’t really remember what I was reading then other than Watership Down (never again!), the Animals of Farthing Wood series (never again also!) and Enid Blyton but I was one of the best readers in my year and by eleven or twelve I was definitely beyond Malory Towers and the like. Maybe the YA of the time. Had I discovered Jilly Cooper by then? Probably not quite. I think most of my schoolmates were reading Goosebumps around then. I never did because I’ve never liked horror. But The Once and Future King was a proper serious big grown-up book and quite what made me not only successfully read the thing at that age but also love it, I don’t know.

It starts off with King Arthur’s childhood, when he’s an adopted and semi-feral child better known as Wart and moves through Arthur’s life – coronation, marriage, the Round Table and the adventures of assorted members and ends with his death, hence the title. Merlyn, Arthur’s teacher and mentor, figures highly throughout. He lives backwards through time and can therefore comment on Arthur’s country using points of reference from the twentieth century – there is at one point a quite blatant discussion about Hitler. Merlyn is somewhat short-tempered, his magic is a little less than reliable and he has a talking owl called Archimedes who does not like being called Archie.

My favourite character as a teenager was Lancelot, who is brave and kind and ugly and wonderful and also full of angst and pain, not least because he’s having an affair with Arthur’s wife and is head-over-heels in love with Arthur himself. Lancelot takes everything very seriously, he’s very religious and he was probably incredibly hard work to be around. Arthur’s mind is mostly on how best to rule and how to solve the problems of various wars, battles and feuds around his Round Table, which stars a wonderful cast of knights ranging from the villainous to the angelic to the downright daft.

My other favourites – for they come as a group and you can’t pick one of them out – are the Orkney kids. Four red-headed Scottish boys, all stuffed full of Oedipus complex who love and hate Arthur. There’s their leader, the eldest, the big tough guy with a heart of gold, Gawaine. There’s Agravaine, the bully and the coward and the skittish one. Gaheris who, to be fair, doesn’t get to do much apart from up the numbers. And Gareth, the youngest and fairest and sweetest. They spend a lot of the second book scuttling around, telling stories in the dark, having adventures in an attempt to impress their mother and I just really enjoy them.

Last year, when I had a fortnight in a tent in Iceland, I took it with me as an excellent book for being chunky enough to last a while, not so chunky that I’d get sick of it and one that I already knew I liked. I’d get into the tent before it got cold and lie there reading this book and most nights, I dreamed about knights. If I’d known it was going to have that effect, I’d have taken Sagas of Icelanders and dreamed about Vikings. Only twice can I think of times when I’ve dreamed about books, both times nightmares. When I was about fourteen – and therefore more than old enough to know better – I had a nightmare about Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets. Not the film, the book. I won’t see the film. It contains a scene that’s too emetophobe-unfriendly. And in 2011 I had a nightmare about Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium, which, to be fair, was fairly high octane nightmare fuel. But no, nice dreams about knights in armour with swords. Nothing more specific. When I was eleven, that book looked like a massive thing and now it’s about standard fantasy size and much more readable than a lot of fantasy.

So, in short, I really love The Once and Future King and have done for a long time and I highly recommend it (but please don’t tell me if you don’t like it because I want to remain under the illusion that everyone loves everything I love).