Lev Grossman on T.H. White and The Once and Future King

One of the subjects I will go on at length most often is, most assuredly, Arthuriana. My abiding love for that genre started with a gorgeous illustrated volume (an abbreviated Morte D’Arthur) given to me by my great-aunt, but really came to fruition during my Freshman year of college when I was assigned both The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon. Previous to this, the only fantasy I’d really read was Tolkien, L’Engle, Alexander, and some Terry Goodkind. And while Mists was very empowering, especially as feminist fantasy, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King changed the entire landscape of how I viewed fantasy storytelling.

If I had one book to keep with me until the end of the world, it would likely be The Once and Future King. I had no idea fantasy could be so multi-faceted, so humorous (and hilarious) and yet poignant. I can’t get through the damned book without sobbing (the scene with Gawain and Arthur in the tower… egads… hand me some Kleenex). But I can’t read it, either, without getting completely lost in the narrative, the philosophy, the language. It is, as far as I’m concerned, a truly magical book.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I read an NPR article today, where Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, had something very similar to say. You ought to read/listen and take note. But here’s a good bit:

The Sword in the Stone set the standard by which I judge all historical fiction. It is also the most perfect story of a childhood ever committed to paper, and it is only the first part of The Once and Future King. What follows — Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, the Holy Grail — is a foregone conclusion to those who know the story of King Arthur. White took hold of the ultimate English epic and recast it in modern literary language, sacrificing none of its grandeur or its strangeness (and it is very strange) in the process, and adding in all the humor and passion that we expect from a novel. What was once as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry becomes rich and real and devastatingly sad.

It’s no exaggeration to say that after reading The Once and Future King, I never looked at Arthur, or fantastical writing the same. And I am so thankful for that.


  • Jason

    Happened upon this post while looking up stuff about T.H. White… I believe Mr. Grossman has said in another article that it’s a mystery that White is never mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien or Lewis. The answer to ur mystery, my dear Grossman, as the Great Detective would put it, is “simplicity itself.”
    With THE SWORD IN THE STONE, Mr. White had done something unprecedented: he had humanized Arthur, made him a relatable character, a far cry from the ornamental or ceremonial which over a Millennium’s worth of Arthuriana had made him out to be (same goes for the rest of the cast, even Sir Ector!). How did Mr. White accomplish this? Humor. You’d be hard pressed to find an author so gifted with employing whimsical elements to his story. SWORD reads like a precursor to the middle-grade genre, and to the works of Diana Whyne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, and J.K. Rowling (but not Neil Gaiman’s!).
    And so, having single-handedly created a whole genre, what does Mr. White do next? He tears this achievement to ribbons with the three sequels, wherein he descends to the very level of the former Arthurian authors he so marvelously surpassed in SWORD. He literally kills off every thing that made his first book so whimsical and unique. He does away with Sir Ector, Archimedes, King Pelinnore, and eventually even Merlin himself. As for Kay, whom he humanized in SWORD, gave significant page time to, is relegated to the same passive role he occupies in all Arthuriana after Arthur is declared King. And having swept aside all the magic, wonder, and humor, he leaves his work in the hands of Lancelot and the other knights who, especially in his poor rendition, seem to have nothing better to do than try to catch each other sleeping with their stepmoms or aunts or whatever.
    People say Frank Herbert is guilty of tearing down everything he built in DUNE by the time he finished DUNE MESSIAH, but Mr. White has done is twice as horrific.

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