Back to the Round Table

Audiobooks helped me find the time to reread T.H. White's magnificent "The Once and Future King"

Published March 7, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

                                                                               (Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

There was a time when rereading seemed a nearly unimaginable luxury to me; with one book review to write per week, plus miscellaneous new books that need to be checked out on top of that, I just didn't have the time, or the eye-power. I'd long yearned to revisit what I remember as one of the most beautiful books I read in my youth, T.H. White's "The Once and Future King." Originally published as four separate novels (the first, "The Sword in the Stone," was animated by Disney) with a later add-on title, "The Book of Merlin," this is an unusual epic, the story of King Arthur and his Round Table -- material that resonates through Western culture -- yet in White's hands the story is also intimate and even humble.

How sad to think I might never get the chance to revisit it! (The list of older books I plan to read once I "retire" is probably longer than the list of books I've already read.) Then I came across the audiobook, an option made irresistible by the fact that it is narrated by Neville Jason, whose sensitive rendering of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" has helped me get past the famous second-book hump in that series of novels. The ideal place to revisit White's masterpiece: Lying in bed in the dark at night, with my iPhone set to turn itself off in a half hour. Soon, however, I found myself squeezing in bits of listening as I waited for the bus or baked a friend's birthday cake.

If anything, "The Once and Future King" is more ravishing when read in adulthood, when the seasoned melancholy of the final volumes is all too recognizable. Unsurprisingly, for an author so invested in the English countryside, White made the four main books follow a seasonal pattern. "The Sword in the Stone" relates the childhood of "Wart" and his education under the eccentric wizard, Merlin, a pedagogy that consists of turning the boy into various animals so that he can understand their different approaches to the world and its demands. White loves lists, and Merlin's house, full of anachronistic collectibles and half-finished science and magical projects (the wizard lives backward in time and has already experienced the future) gives him plenty of opportunity to indulge that passion. Jason, called upon to create vocal characters as diverse as a mad falcon, a scholarly badger and a modest little snake, shines.

That's spring. Summer, and the prime of the round table after Arthur's coronation, arrives in "The Queen of Air and Darkness." Surely you know this story already, but White makes it fresh, the promise and exhilaration of a new, better vision of what the world can be. An ardent amateur medievalist, White is partly re-creating a splendid fantasy of the period, but that doesn't mean he buried his head in the past. "The Once and Future King" is deeply engaged with the optimism and despair of the 20th century, a period in which people dreamed of remaking society, of overthrowing war and injustice, only to find themselves entangled in hopeless contradictions, unanticipated consequences and the frailty of the human animal.

In the final two volumes, autumnal "The Ill-Made Knight" and wintery "The Candle in the Wind," the cracks in the dream begin to form and the focus becomes the romantic triangle among Arthur, Guinever and Lancelot. The latter is depicted as an ugly but glorious knight tormented by the impossibility of resolving his three loves: for Arthur, for his queen and for God. It is a marvel how White consistently humanizes these three characters, delicately exposing their insecurities and stumblings, and yet this only makes them more magnificent. They're like the gods of the Greeks, titans even in the midst of their domestic spats and gaffes. And what are gods, anyway, but the form in which children see the adults they love? To witness their fall is like undergoing the dismay of adolescence all over again, but from the perspective of a grown-up.

The conclusion, especially as brought about by Arthur's illegitimate son, the perverse, spiteful Mordred (vividly conveyed by Jason), is almost too sad to bear. As for "The Book of Merlin," it's a little too much in the medieval mode, as excessively didactic as the boring parts of Chaucer. I'm sure it has its partisans, but I consider it eminently skippable. The true heart of "The Once and Future King," however, is far too glorious to read only once.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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