The once and future king

by T. H. White

Hardcover, 1958





New York, Putnam [1958]


"A deluxe hardcover edition of the world's greatest fantasy classic--part of Penguin Galaxy, a collectible series of six sci-fi/fantasy classics, featuring a series introduction by Neil Gaiman T. H. White's masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as the sword Excalibur and city of Camelot that are found within its pages. This magical epic takes Arthur from the glorious lyrical phase of his youth, through the disillusioning early years of his reign, to maturity when his vision of the Round Table develops into the search for the Holy Grail, and finally to his weary old age. With memorable characters like Merlin and Owl and Guinevere, beasts who talk and men who fly, wizardry and war, The Once and Future King has become the fantasy masterpiece against which all others are judged, a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations. Penguin Galaxy Six of our greatest masterworks of science fiction and fantasy, in dazzling collector-worthy hardcover editions, and featuring a series introduction by #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman, Penguin Galaxy represents a constellation of achievement in visionary fiction, lighting the way toward our knowledge of the universe, and of ourselves. From historical legends to mythic futures, monuments of world-building to mind-bending dystopias, these touchstones of human invention and storytelling ingenuity have transported millions of readers to distant realms, and will continue for generations to chart the frontiers of the imagination. The Once and Future King by T. H. White Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein Dune by Frank Herbert 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin Neuromancer by William Gibson For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This beautifully written book is one of two golden standards I use to measure Arthurian books. Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy for the historic approach, and this one, White's The Once and Future King, for the full-on fantasy approach. (The book was the basis for the musical Camelot.) The first three parts weren't originally written as part of the integrated novel but published separately. The best known of those was the first part, The Sword in the Stone, a great coming of age tale that was turned into a film by Disney. I loved that first part of the book especially--full of wisdom and whimsy as Merlyn--who lives backward in time--turns Arthur into different animals in order to help him gain wisdom, and the characters are truly endearing and the story full of humor that makes this part stand alone as a classic children's book. The next parts are very much adult and much darker, particularly the final and poignant fourth part, "The Candle in the Wind," dealing with the fall of Camelot. The Once and Future King has the most complex depictions of Arthur, Lancelot and Guenivere I've read and I think no matter what version of them I read afterwards, these are the ones I imprinted on--this is my Arthur, my Guinevere and my Lancelot. After White's death a connected novel called The Book of Merlyn was published, but I don't find it as engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member bill_reyn
This book offers a very readable, entertaining version of the Arthurian legend. It is not a book for purists--C. S. Lewis thought the book was an abomination, especially in its treatment of Palomides. But for the uninitiated or those who choose not to plow through the Mort D'Arthur, this is a very happy alternative.

White captures both the humor and the pathos of the legend. There were places in the first section, The Sword In The Stone, where I actually laughed out loud. Later in the book, I felt the ache at the inevitability of the downfall of Camelot.

The one real drawback--although an entertaining one--is the caricature of Merlin. He appears to be a lovable hayseed with a bad memory who happens to be able to turn the Wart (Arthur) into different kinds of animals during his education. We experience none of the wizard's real power of presence.

I've read the book four times and still find it entertaining.
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LibraryThing member Awesomeness1
I finally finished this book. It was assigned school reading, that had to be done after winter break. So guess what I spent my winter break doing! At first, I hated it. It was boring and I couldn't even stop reading it for threat that my English teachers head would explode.
I was forced to persevere, and I'm glad I did. Once I got used to the sporadic pacing and style, I quite enjoyed it. Especially, the last book. The tone of the novel changed with the story line, as things became more and more tragic. The pacing was weird though, and there were intentional anachronisms which just added to the oddness. There would parts that were dreadfully boring to read then it would get all actiony, then White would go on a rant. It would also be very frank in some places, then overly detailed in others.
I don't know. It was an experience, and I'm glad I (was forced to) read it.
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LibraryThing member Anselme
This is an incredibly good book. I am writing this review while the impression is still vivid, or should I say, while i'm still in awe. 20 minutes have not yet passed since I closed it. So beware, chances are that this review might turn out complete rubbish.

The book is about questions, I think. Those so-called big philosophic questions you start to ask yourself while you are a kid - though you would not have called them philosophic back then. Naturally, while you are small you do not worry too much about what it is all about: You will surely find the answers as you grow up. And then you get older, and you don't. And the questions multiply and become more and more important, as you are struggling to make the right decisions. How much it would help you to find an answer, even if it were but for one of them! Still, the more you learn and watch and listen, everything only gets more complex, continuously.

So you find that living a life is playing a game without knowing the rules. And you try to just be friends with the idea that you won't ever find any real answer, or discover any "pure" truth, and that answers may not even be relevant. Maybe you can live, without knowing exactly what's the idea of it. All the while assuming that you are not among the lucky ones who can content thenselves with the somewhat mysterous equation that "life is its own meaning".

Ah, the book. Yes. It is about might, and society, and war and love, and youth and age, about doing the right thing, candles in the wind, passing-on-the-parcel and what-not, and about any human emotion you could think of. Just like every other good book, actually. Except that this one is better. The Once And Future King is impressively well written, as absorbing as it gets and very often very funny. By the way, this is where J.K.Rowling drew some of her inspiration from. A book I would -carefully- compare it to is: Robert M. Pirsig's Motorcycle Diaries.

I should finally mention that The Once And Future King is, as the title hints to, nothing else than story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Anyway!
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LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
What a delight this has been - to re-read T.H. White's classic King Arthur story after having read much of his source material. I first encountered THE ONCE & FUTURE KING when I was 15, and I was entirely smitten by it - one of the formative books of my adolescence.

Merlin's advice, which I took to heart as a kid: ''The best thing for being sad,' replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, 'is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.' (183)

'[Arthur] was a kind, conscientious, peace-loving fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius [Merlyn]. Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong. To stop this sort of thing, they had invented the idea of the Table - a vague idea like democracy, or sportsmanship, or morals - and now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood. When he was feeling healthy he did not grieve much, because he knew the dilemma was inevitable - but in weak moments he was persecuted by shame and indecision. He was one of the first Nordic men who had invented civilization, or who had desired to do otherwise than Attila the Hun had done, and the battle against chaos sometimes did not seem to be worth fighting.' (364)

On the faery folk: 'Fairies are not the kind of creatures your nurse has told you about. Some people say they are the Oldest of All, who lived in England before the Romans came here - before us Saxons, before the Old Ones themselves - and that they have been driven underground. Some say they look like humans, like dwarfs, and others that they look ordinary, and other that they don't look like anything at all, but put on various shapes as the fancy takes them. Whatever they look like, they have the knowledge of the ancient Gaels. They know things down there in their burrows which the human race has forgotten about, and quite a lot of these things are not good to hear.' (101)
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LibraryThing member tintinintibet
After being ridiculed for what, the last 12 years for not having read this book (and having shed countless subsequent tears as a result), I realize now that I HAVE read the first "book" of this series -- the sword in the stone -- and yes, I did like it. So now I wonder whether my former oppressors would still demand that I read the LATER "books" in the miniseries, which probably are terrible.....I hear they are "dark" and have "more romance". Ugh. That would be a particularly cruel and unusual sort of oppression, akin to getting other foxes to cut of their tails too (Aesop) or loaning some innocent friends a VHS movie -- that just happens to transfer to them a pale, soggy, murderous stalker (the Ring).I'm going to stop after finishing (again) the sword in the stone section. Take that, oppressors.… (more)
LibraryThing member RobinReardon
On the surface, this is a story of Camelot: of a noble king, the beautiful queen who loves him, and the self-effacing, powerful soldier who worships him. And for a good portion of the book, it seems like a story you might read to children. The delightful scenes where Merlin the magician transforms the boy king into different animals, so that he learns what it means to be human, present lessons in humility and generosity I keep with me today. The contrast between the Questing Beast and the Holy Grail—one comedic and earthly, one celestial and sacred, and both retaining their meaning only as long as the objects are unattainable—contains lessons for everyone.

But it’s also a story of betrayal, of self-delusion and false dreams, and of what happens when we draw lines between what’s yours and mine, between what you are and I am, and when we isolate ourselves from each other by any of the various means at our disposal. It’s a story of what happens to love when we try to divide it.
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LibraryThing member JaneSteen
Where I got the book: on bookshelf. Wasabi's, to be exact.

This is a sad, sad, sad, sad book. And also very funny. The first book is the funniest, and then they get sadder. It's like White took the Malory Morte d'Arthur and sucked all the silly stuff out of it so what's left is the essence of the Arthur legend in all its tragedy and glory.

And it was written at a horribly sad time. After two World Wars, things weren't looking too bright around Europe and that outlook colors EVERYTHING that was written at the time. In fact, this reminds me strongly of C.S. Lewis, of The Lord of the Rings, of every book in which writers tried to reconcile the horror of the recent past with the hope for the future.


"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn..."is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.

"You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then--to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

Arthur begins as an eager boy, and ends as an ever-hopeful but misguided ruler who refuses to see the sin that's taking place under his nose. Lancelot is forever undermined by the path down which love has taken him. Galahad's virtue is so rarified that he has to be removed from this world. Merlyn - oh, I wish we'd had more of Merlyn - is living life backward and understanding it forward, possibly the worst tragedy that can happen to any man.

Tragedy and hope: ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 20th century. If you want to understand it, read this. Read The Lord of the Rings. Read C.S. Lewis. Read Ray Bradbury. From our age of small wars and nameless terrors, look back and try to understand how writers used a familiar past to understand a terrifying present, and did it with a sense of humor that we just don't have.

This is one of those books that demands to be re-read. But will I ever have the courage?
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LibraryThing member debnance
This is the definitive book about King Arthur, first published in 1939. All the characters in this book are seen with soft eyes, the eyes of a forgiving man, who finds ways to explain even the most cruel of actions. A few depictions seemed surprising; Lancelot, for example, is portrayed as an ugly man. It is the big view of the author that I found most compelling. The author looked at Arthur’s reign as a major change in the way humanity lived, not living to take revenge on its enemies, but attempting to settle squabbles with diplomacy.… (more)
LibraryThing member melydia
I thought I'd read this for a class in high school, but I know now that I did not. This lengthy tome is actually four books in one. "The Sword in the Stone," which inspired the Disney film of the same name, is the charming story of Arthur's childhood with Sir Ector, Kay, Merlyn, and the rest. Easily my favorite of the four. Next is "The Queen of Air and Darkness," which introduces the Gaelic Orkney clan, headed by Morgause. It's probably the funniest book, between the silliness of King Pellinore's lovesickness and the darker humor of the Orkney sons' desperate attempts to get their mother's attention. "The Ill-Made Knight" was my least favorite. It's all about Lancelot and his unending angst. "The Candle in the Wind" more or less wraps up the Lancelot story, with a sometimes irritating amount of commentary on how much better everything and everyone was back in those days. I wish the story could have gone all the way through Arthur's death and successor, but by and large I could see why this is considered one of the quintessential books on Arthurian Legend. I could spot the inspiration for many other works, from Excalibur to Monty Python's Holy Grail. If you're a fan of Arthur, I would definitely recommend reading. If you only have a passing interest, just read "The Sword in the Stone." It's delightful.… (more)
LibraryThing member Karlstar
This is the best known and 'classic' story of King Arthur. It is relatively simple, not burdened by religion or overly mystical. Its more the Disney version than Excalibur.
LibraryThing member renbedell
Amazing read that really immerses yourself into Arthur's and Merlyn's world. This is the collection of 4 of the books in Arthur's timeline. The first book, Sword in the Stone, is more of a children's tale that has a good deal of humor. When Arthur is more adult, the book itself is also more adult. I really like how the book tackles different themes. Arthur is first taught by Merlyn the proper way to rule, while when he is the king he has to maintain his kingdom. It covers problems that rulers probably experience regularly: justice, responsibility, peace, war, feuds, friendship and fidelity. In scenarios where right and wrong do not matter, but whatever is necessary to keep the peace.… (more)
LibraryThing member Excalibur
This is an incredible book about what it means to be human. The characters in this book strive to be perfect but ultimately fall short because they are human. However, this doesn't make the story any less tragic. We want the characters to achieve perfection so that Camelot can be the ideal place that it promises to be. White skillfully shows us that Camelot can't ever be this place because a perfect Camelot populated by Galahads would be an inhospitable, cold realm. Camelot's true romance comes from human weakness. It is Arthur's fatherly, benevolent love in the face of betrayal and Lancelot's tragic inability to quit Guinevere that give this story its power. Everyone leaving this book should see that the "earthly, sinful man" is the "best of them" while longing for the ideal notion that Camelot represents.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattries37315
There have been many accounts of the Arthurian saga over the 1500 years, the best thought of the past century has been T.H. White's "The Once and Future King". Though White's prose is good and engaging, the narrative arc through is tetralogy-in-one edition is problematic enough that it sometimes overshadows the wonderful characters he has developed.

The first of the four individual works, "The Sword in the Stone", is the best of all four. White's writes wonderful characters, especially young Arthur (aka Wart), in well-rounded depth. The narrative flow of this work is the best of any of them and sets up the reign of Arthur that makes the reader look forward to seeing what happens next. Unfortunately in "The Queen of Air and Darkness" the characters are not well rounded and the narrative aimlessly wanders between England and the Orkneys without connecting the two until the last chapter when an evil scheme comes to fruition that the reader did not know what actually happening. The third and longest of the individual works, "The Ill-Made Knight" focuses on an ugly Lancelot, his love affair with Guinevere, and the knightly exploits of the Round Table. While this individual work is somewhat engaging, White emasculates Arthur both physically and mentally that continues into final individual work, "The Candle in the Wind", while other characters aren't even given much depth or story arc.

Throughout the entire writing, White injects himself and modern day elements throughout the entire book making it hard for the reader to keep to the narrative flow and maintain a "suspension of disbelief". Another unfortunate decision by White was to insist his story was real history of a part of the medieval era then mention "the supposed Henry III" or "the supposed Richard the Lionhearted" throughout. Also White assumed that his readers were versed in Thomas Malory's "The Death of Arthur", which I must admit a half century ago might have been the case, nowadays readers ironically look to "The Once and Future King." And there were White's tangents, whether it was philosophy or history, that were beautifully written but had no bearing whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything else he had just written about before he went down those literary side roads.

Upon completing "The Once and Future King", I can see why many people enjoyed it and rated it highly. However, I personally can't ignore narrative stumbles or downright tangents that made three-quarters of the book harder to read than the section covering "The Sword in the Stone". My advice before reading T.H. White is to read Malory's book first and be prepared for references from the 1930s to the late 50s, or you'll be taken aback.
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LibraryThing member quondame
The time when it was written and the time when it is read matter a great deal in this retelling of the King Arthur legends - T.H. White deliberately sets the story in a post Norman conquest 'Gramarye' and prefixes imaginary or legendary to the names of 12th-15th century figures, and the technological level is mostly late middle ages. There is an appropriateness to this as to some extent the Saxon antagonists of Mallory's story were the victims of the Normans who promulgated the iteration of the older tales on which Mallory based his book.
Except for the first part, this is not an easy read at all, and re-reading it after decades I certainly notice it's combination anti-fascist/anti-anarchist message much more than I did in the 60's or 70s. It is full of cleverness, and there are action scenes, but mostly there are dialogs - between Arthur and many others, among the Morgause's sons, between Lancelot and Guenever, and others, only occasionally in the midst of action. A brilliant section deals with the quest for the Holy Grail by having the surviving questors relate their tales, directly of indirectly to Arthur and Guenever and indicating the effect these tales have on Arthur. Still I am not and never have been happy T.H. White's Arthur of simple slow thought any more than I like other author's gay or bisexual Arthur. All of the other characters given any portion of dialog, and the young Wart are well, are well done.
So when I read this long ago the take away seemed to be look what good and just times we live in now - but just now it seems like the candle is truly in danger of going out.
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LibraryThing member Sarah_Buckley
This is one of my most favorite books ever. I just love all the stories of King Arthur and Merlin. I read this a while ago, but I can still remember my favorite parts.

I felt the story flowed along quite nicely and the characters were all engaging. There might be better King Arthur novels, but this one is still my favorite!… (more)
LibraryThing member empheliath
I have no idea how this book got to be such a classic. Any book that has a chapter in which young Arthur has an adventure with Robin Hood in which they rescue Friar Tuck from the castle of Morgan Le Fey is pure trash, in my opinion.
LibraryThing member wirkman
Four books under one cover, with the original fifth ("The Book of Merlyn") only printed in the '70s, this work nevertheless became a classic way back when, long before I was born. It is a deserved classic.

First, there is "The Sword in the Stone," a marvelous boys' book, a tale of growing up, a novel of education. Made into a bad Disney film, it should not be dismissed because of this. It is a great tale, funny, enlightening, clever, exciting, mysterious and in the end quite heart-rending.

Then there is "The Queen of Air and Darkness," a rewrite, or condensation of the first sequel, "The Witch in the Wood," which I've never read. This book contrasts darkness and light chapter by chapter, with hilarious buffoonery from King Pellinore, and sad, sorrowful tales of the children of Morgause . . . who in the end ensorcles the young King Arthur (yes, these are Arthurian tales; didn't I mention that?).

Next is the tale of courtly love . . . that is, adultery, the grandest tragic adultery of all, that of Gwynevere and Lancelot. A sad tale, very well done.

And then it all raps up, perhaps a little too hastily, in "The Candle in the Wind." Arthur, dying, finally understands the lessons Merlyn had been trying to tell. Rarely has a book's explicit lesson been worth a wade through fiction. In this book, it is. White has a message, and it increases, rather than detracts, from the tragedy of his book. Indeed, the tragedy really is that Arthur learns too late.

And thus, this fantasy proves as realistic as any other, more realistic than most, for the tragedy is the tragedy of most in life. Too many of us learn too late. The greatest lessons are hard. And they rub against the grain of our natures.

You will weep for Arthur. More than once, in this once and future book, but, in a sense, the tears may also be for yourself, and all humanity.

Just possibly.
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
A nicely graduated fantasy graduation. The relatively juvenile "the Sword in the Stone" of 1938 begins a deeper and deeper study of the ways of power until we reach "The Candle in the Wind.",(1958) a sad, but hopeful final look at why the rule of law, opposed to the personal vagaries of rulers, makes for better lives for the bulk of the population. I enjoy the book, and dip into it now and again, as I pass my seventies.… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceaP
First of all, it turns out that I really know very little about the Arthurian legends. Here are some things I've learned from The Once and Future King: 1. It's spelled Merlyn. 2. It's spelled Guenever. 3. Lancelot is considered quite ugly. 4. This is not the authoritative volume of all things Arthurian. There is actually a series of books by Sir Thomas Malory collectively called Le Morte d'Arthur (I've just ordered the first book so get ready for that in the future) which were referenced more than once in The Once and Future King. This was a beautifully written book and had me so caught up that I actually missed my stop on the train...twice. It's full of damsels in distress, knights in glittering armor, love beyond measure, and above all chivalry. There's a reason that many consider this book to be the best fantasy novel ever written.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book was chosen by a book club member when she was asked to name a favourite classic. The story of Arthur who became King of England and head of the Knights of the Round Table. was rich and meaty and delightful.
LibraryThing member csleh
a classic, wonderful read. The stories from Arthur as a child with Merlin turning him into different animals to learn a lesson are great. The battling ants and non-territorial birds stay with me. Highly recommend.
LibraryThing member StephenEvans
The Once and Future King is my favorite book, nd one of the finest novels in the English langauage. Which is a lucky coincidence, since that's the only langauge I can read. It would be very unfortunate if your favorite novel was in some language you couldn't read.
LibraryThing member AliceaP
First of all, it turns out that I really know very little about the Arthurian legends. Here are some things I've learned from The Once and Future King: 1. It's spelled Merlyn. 2. It's spelled Guenever.

3. Lancelot is considered quite ugly. 4. This is not the authoritative volume of all things Arthurian. There is actually a series of books by Sir Thomas Malory collectively called Le Morte d'Arthur (I've just ordered the first book so get ready for that in the future) which were referenced more than once in The Once and Future King. This was a beautifully written book and had me so caught up that I actually missed my stop on the train...twice. It's full of damsels in distress, knights in glittering armor, love beyond measure, and above all chivalry. There's a reason that many consider this book to be the best fantasy novel ever written.… (more)
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
This was a funny one. There is a significant change of style and tone over the four books, and I would say that whilst both the childlike whimsy of first book (The Sword in the Stone) and the epic humanism of the final book (The Candle in the Wind) are wonderful reads, in differing ways, neither of the two transitional books work at all.

The worst is definitely The Ill-Made Knight, the third book - which is a ill-made mixture of childish simplicity with adult themes, and feels plain odd. The books leaves all character development of its two main protagonists (Lancelot and Guenevere) for the fourth book, barely features Arthur at all, rushes past the deaths of some of the key knights, has none of the madcap creativity of the early books, and tries to do moralising and irony in the same breath.

However, you can't not love the collection as a whole, given the strengths of other books. White's textual richness is his main success, and the way he illuminates the 'dark ages', making it feel fizzing with life. Also: is there a more euphonic title than 'The Once and Future King'. Beautiful.
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