I had originally planned to read the entirety of T H White’s The Once and Future King for Lory’s Witch Week over at The Emerald City Book Review.
Then I thought, well, I could just read Book 1, The Sword in the Stone, because I’d wanted to read it for the longest time.
Then an unexpected thing. I didn’t like it.
In fact, I got downright stalled over it and didn’t really pick up anything else while I skirted round the edges of not quite reading TSITS and not quite accepting that I wasn’t having the sort of fun reading it that I’d imagined having.
So I missed Witch Week altogether (apart from enjoying reading all the posts). And I finally finished TSITS about 10 days ago and have just about come to terms with my feelings so that I can write about them.
I’m not sure the story itself needs much introduction. TSITS is the first in a tetralogy of books by White covering the legend of King Arthur. It deals with Arthur’s boyhood, where he comes under the tutelage of the magician, Merlin, who sets out to educate him for the task that lies ahead. The book ends as Arthur pulls the legendary sword from the stone and his true destiny is revealed to those around him. Most people also know about the episodes in which Merlin turns boy-Arthur (the Wart) into various animals, birds and insects to help teach him the ways and wiles of the world. I didn’t know until I started looking into it that there are various manuscript versions of TSITS (I think, the British original, an American version, and the version that appears in The Once and Future King – my version). To be honest, I’m still a little hazy on those various versions and the differences between them. My main take-away is the fact that my version is missing Merlin’s encounter with the witch Madame Mim, and I’m fairly certain is the poorer for that.
There are things about the book that I liked very much. Firstly, it’s one ginormous anachronism, from the undetermined period in which it’s set, to the wry authorial voice who pilots in from the present day every so often and puts events and people in their place, so to speak. There’s humour and there’s a lot of cleverness. I loved the irascible Merlin, and White’s notion that Merlin is somehow living his life backwards and thus is privy to knowledge of all manner of future events while often being somewhat confused as to where and when he is. White is also excellent at scene-setting descriptive passages; many are quite beautiful and all are clever in the way they wrestle with perspectives. Take this for example:
“…in the Old England there was a greater marvel still. The weather behaved itself. In the spring, the little flowers came out obediently in the meads, and the dew sparkled, and the birds sang. In the summer it was beautifully hot for no less than four months, and, if it did rain just enough for agricultural purposes, they managed to arrange it so that it rained while you were in bed. In the autumn the leaves flamed and rattled before the west winds, tempering their sad adieu with glory. And in the winter, […] the snow lay as it ought to lie […] like thick icing on a very good cake […] on the boughs of the forest trees in rounded lumps, even better than apple-blossom, and occasionally slid off the roofs of the village when it saw the chance of falling on some amusing character and giving pleasure to all.”
Where it fell apart for me was with the ‘action’ of the book. I’m afraid that when it came to the big set pieces of the narrative – Wart’s transformations, the jousting, the hunt, Robin Wood’s adventures – I was just bored to tears. In fact, these bits were so difficult to read that I lapsed into that absent-minded skim reading where you plough through pages at a time before realising you were mostly thinking about some knotty work problem and could no more remember what you just read than you could recall what you had for dinner three weeks last Tuesday. I forced myself to read certain sections (the bit when Wart was transformed into an ant was a particular low point) and then was left wondering why.
So all in all, a mixed bag. It’s strange having that reaction to a book you’ve long anticipated; I feel sort of let down but also guilty at the same time. And perhaps a little like I missed something fundamental that everyone else got.
One interesting thing to ponder is how much I might have been affected by the influence of the Disney cartoon version, which I watched endlessly as a child and loved. It’s undeniably cutesy in parts, of course, and I could never quite understand why they set Madame Mim up as the villain when she was clearly the best character in it, but I loved it nonetheless. Disney leaves out many of the bits in the book that left me a little cold (oh the ants…), but of course it’s also missing the glorious anachronisms.
Film versions of books can be a mixed bag. In this case, I’m definitely ‘Team Film’ (as I was with Forrest Gump as I recall). In fact one of the only instances where I just can’t pick a winner is The Princess Bride, which has never let me down in any of its incarnations. But I digress.
Is there anyone else out there who didn’t love TSITS? Should I have read the British original version?
If you have a bit more reading time: