Eight Things About Life and Literature I Learned from “The Once and Future King”

This post is a continuation of my “Things I Learned” series, which began with Harry Potter. That post had a really good response, so I figured I’d write a similar post focused on “The Once and Future King.”
I am a total Arthurian legend NUT. I’ve read tons of it. One of my favorite classes in college was an Arthurian legend senior seminar offered through the English department. Though I’m hard pressed to say there’s a manifestation of Arthur’s story I don’t like, T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” is by far my favorite. It’s such a BEAUTIFUL story, in every way. It’s well written, it’s imaginative, and it hearkens back to Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” without being stale or repetitive or taking anything away from the original. I’ve read it multiple times, and can’t wait to pick it up again. What I love most about White’s tale, and what I feel it taught me, is:

  1. FORGIVENESS AND MERCY ARE NOT WEAKNESS: One of the scenes I will never forget is when Sir Aglovale returns from the Quest for the Holy Grail to find that the Orkney faction has killed his father. They did so to avenge their father, King Lot, whom King Pellinore killed years before not treacherously but in battle. King Arthur helps Aglovale see that if he pursues a feud and kills Sir Gawain in retaliation, Sir Gawain’s brothers would only kill him in, which would make Aglovale’s brother have to avenge him, and so forth, until both clans are utterly decimated. Arthur shows Aglovale that the Orkney faction is not man enough to let bygones be bygones. It must fall to Aglovale to prove himself the bigger man, and there is no doubt at all that Aglovale, in mastering himself and his hatred, is indeed the more respectable. The scene sends a powerful message that compassion and forgiveness do not make anyone weak.
  2. AN INNER DRIVE TO BE THE BEST PERSON YOU CAN BE IS HALF THE BATTLE TOWARD BECOMING THAT PERSON: None of us is perfect. We all mess up, and there are things we would all do differently if we had the chance for a do-over. My favorite aspect of White’s Launcelot is that he never ceases to want to be good. He is horrified, absolutely horrified, when he thinks Elaine robbed him of the chance to work a miracle, and when he finally, actually does work a healing, I was almost moved to tears as much as he is. Launcelot is a flawed man, who knows he is flawed and regrets his weaknesses. He sincerely mourns his sinful nature and the holiness of which it robs him. I was born and raised a Catholic, so I see the world through that lens, and Launcelot, I believe, perfectly exemplifies the heart of the second beatitude in the Gospels: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
  3. HOW TO WRITE YOUNG VOICES: Anyone interested in having young characters in their fiction could do much worse than taking the early books of “The Once and Future King” as a model. Young Arthur, Kay, and especially Gawain and the Orkneys, are beautifully and realistically painted. White’s young fellows were a big inspiration when I wrote Zacry Porteg in “The Crimson League,” and Rexson’s three sons in “The Magic Council.”
  4. NEVER JUDGE A PERSON BY THEIR LOOKS: I’ve always felt, from the first time I read White’s version of Arthurian legend, that his specifying that Launcelot was not, by any means, a comely lad, was a worthy and wonderful touch. It’s a great addition to the tale. Launcelot has many strengths. He is strong, brave, and humble, and none of that is, in any way, diminished by the fact that he has an unattractive face. His unfortunate appearance, among other things, gives a deep reason to respect Guinevere, as flawed a woman as she is, because she falls in love with him for the person that he is and aspires to be, not for what he looks like. This is a great reminder that while grooming matters, and it’s important to take enough pride in yourself to make a good impression, the shape of your nose, the size of your eyes, and the placement of your ears mean nothing at all. If you can’t afford to keep up with the latest fashions, it’s no real loss. Try not to waste time worrying about that stuff. What you look like isn’t important. The people you WANT to know and spend time with are the people who will love and appreciate you for who you are.
  5. BE GRATEFUL FOR THE ROLE MODELS AND THE TEACHERS IN YOUR LIFE, AND DON’T FORGET TO THANK THEM: White’s Merlyn is such a wonderful, kooky character. Where would Arthur be without him? He gives so much of himself to Arthur. Everything good, unselfish, and worthy about Arthur is due to Merlyn’s tutelage in his youth. That makes me think back on all the wonderful role models I have been blessed with in my life. (My high school Spanish teacher comes immediately to mind, as well as my mother. I lost her far too young to cancer, but she was the kind of person who was SO awesome she had friends just as wonderful as she was who still keep in touch with and reach out to me and my sisters.) I appreciate their guidance, and can only hope I can provide such an example to the children I know and love.
  6. “A FOOL LEARNS FROM HIS OWN MISTAKES. A WISE MAN LEARNS FROM THE MISTAKES OF OTHERS.” I’ve always loved this saying, because it’s so very true. Arthur is able to be successful as king mainly because he is able to learn from watching how the rulers of the animal kingdom function, thrive, and fail. A keen observer, he is able to avoid the mistakes of a tyrant like the perch because he saw firsthand how the other fish fear and hate him.
  7. BRUTE FORCE AND RAW COURAGE MATTER LESS THAN AN UPRIGHT HEART: Launcelot fails in the quest for the Holy Grail. His son Galahad succeeds because Galahad is purer of spirit and stouter of soul. There is nothing wrong with keeping your body strong and in shape, or with fostering courage in the face of opposition. Those are healthy and worthy things, for sure. But they’re not everything. How you treat others, and being true to yourself–not forgetting your true place in the world and not making your worth out to be more or less than it is, for we all share all the dignity of being human–is more important. You can’t beat respect into others, you must earn it by proving you deserve it, and you can’t live a lie expecting no repercussions.
  8. HOW TO WRITE A STORY THAT SPANS A GREAT LENGTH OF TIME: White’s tale spans the entire life of Arthur, from his childhood to his death. How he knows what moments in his characters’ lives to cut and which to specify on page, and how he develops their changing personalities and views as they age, is a great example for any writer attempting a project like mine. (The Herezoth trilogy spans over twenty-five years from the first book to the end of the last.) I very much appreciate having White’s example of how to mature and develop a character without changing the core of who that person is. Sir Gawain, in particular, is my favorite example. Gawain’s always been my favorite character in Arthurian legend because he’s just so human, and what White does with him is just breath-taking it’s so masterful.

7 responses to “Eight Things About Life and Literature I Learned from “The Once and Future King”

  1. I keep hoping someone will put this book on Kindle! Read it in high school, want to read it again!

  2. I, too, read this a long time ago. Reading your article makes me want to read it again! Wonderful insight, and excellent points for us to nurture today.

  3. Pingback: Lessons about Life and Literature (well, Writing) from “Les Misérables” | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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