“I have learned, and been happy.”

Okay, so I just finished T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  And oh.  My.  Gosh.  SO GOOD.

I think I’m probably the only person who took the classes I did and somehow never read this.  And when I mentioned I hadn’t read it to my dad and my sister, they both responded with

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And now I see why.  It’s amazing.  And I seriously can’t believe that, as much as I love Arthurian legend and mythology and all of that, I’ve never tried it.  But here are four reasons why it’s pretty much the best.

  1. Book One: The Sword in the Stone – Merlyn, Archimedes, young Arthur, adventures and magic and animals… perfection.
  2. Book Two: The Queen of Air and Darkness – Arthur on the throne, family drama, intrigue and betrayal and battles and Morgause… intense.
  3. Book Three: The Ill-Made Knight – Lancelot and Guenever and quests and chivalry and even though you know what’s going to happen and you really want to hate the characters that are hurting each other you can’t because they’re human and you understand what they’re going through… amazing.
  4. Book Four: The Candle in the Wind – The end of it all, Mordred and justice and politics… devastating.  Mainly because it’s the end.

I’m not going to say this was the easiest book I’ve read, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in a while.  Mainly because the legends I thought I remembered were reimagined, expanded, and made better than I recalled.

Also, while I think Book One was my favorite because it was so magical, the transition to the bleak final book makes me think of Harry Potter.  When I reread Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I’m caught up in the magic and the wonder of Harry discovering magic and Hogwarts, meeting Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and even Malfoy, the horror of finding Voldemort and the knowledge that he will always be there.  But when I keep reading the rest of the series, I’m reminded that, as Harry ages, his challenges become less easy to meet, his world more cemented in reality.

In The Once and Future King, Arthur follows the same course.  Book One is dedicated to his lessons with Merlyn and the magic of knowing that this boy is destined to be a king makes everything simultaneously fun and tragic.  By Book Two, Arthur is a young king and you can’t help but sympathize with his struggles as he tries to unite his country (and the sons of Morgause are so hard to hate when you think about how twisted their upbringing is…).  Books Three and Four were hard to get through, only because I knew how the legend ends and characters like Lancelot and Guenever (whom I have always disliked) became so human it was difficult to hate them.  Real life is complicated and people are more than good or evil, and I think that is the greatest strength of this novel is White’s ability to not only develop characters in a sympathetic and realistic manner, but also his insertions of a modern perspective lend reminders of why we should keep reading this book.

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Two of my favorite quotes were from Book One, and I share them now as a reason to pick this book up.

First, when Kay is going to be knighted and Merlyn tells Arthur that his lessons are at an end.  The Wart’s simple answer just about brought me to tears.

“By the way,” added the magician, stopping in the middle of his spell, “there is one thing I ought to tell you.  This is the last time I shall be able to turn you into anything. All the magic for that sort of thing has been used up, and this will be the end of your education.  When Kay has been knighted my labours will be over.  You will have to go away then, to be his squire in the wide world, and I shall go elsewhere.  Do you think you have learned anything?”

“I have learned, and been happy.”

Second, when Wart is about to pull the sword from the stone (spoiler: he succeeds) and all of the animals with whom he has spent time in his education come together in love, cheering for his success.  Throughout the whole book, love is such an important concept, and to have such a humble example (they are the animal friends of a child, after all) still makes me cry.

They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn.  Some of them had come from banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields about — but all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love.  Wart felt his power grow.

So when you’re in the mood for an Arthurian epic, this is the one I’d nudge your way.  Just be prepared to enter the world of Arthur and not want to escape any time soon.

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2 thoughts on ““I have learned, and been happy.”

  1. Erised Moon says:

    My favorite book of all time! It makes me cry each time…

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