The Once and Future and King is a sprawling medieval fantasy tale of magic, knights, romance, heroism and betrayal. The story follows Wart, the future King Arthur, beginning with his childhood and years of tutelage from the great wizard Merlyn all the way until his death.
It is split into five books: (The Sword in the Stone; The Witch in the Wood; The Ill-Made Knight; The Candle in the Wind; The Book of Merlyn) which are hit and miss, each one being quite different in tone and focus and are essentially different stories told within the greater framework of Arthur’s life. For example, The Sword in the Stone details Wart’s lessons with Merlyn in which he is transformed into numerous animals – including a hawk, an ant, and a badger - in order that he might learn lessons from these creatures to prepare him for the role of King, such as the senselessness of war from a wise and peaceful goose:
“But what creatures could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?”
This book is light-hearted and playful in tone and is the funniest section of this grand tale, demonstrating some witty humour; even so, Merlyn’s moral lessons do become a little tedious and being about 220 pages it does drag a little.
The second book, The Witch in the Wood, in which the knights which will cause Arthur’s eventual downfall are introduced –Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, bored me to tears and is rather uneventful. Following this, The Ill-Made Knight which chronicles the doomed love affair between Arthur’s wife, Queen Guenever, and his best knight – the virginal, loyal and hideously ugly Sir Lancelot, is brilliant and is my favourite book by far. The conflicted and self-loathing character of Lancelot is fascinating to read about: the book combines elements of forbidden love and heroic adventure, making for a compelling and tragic tale.
Like the individual books, the characters are hit and miss. There are a lot of them, and not all of them are well drawn; Guenever and several other characters lack personality. However others - such as Lancelot and Arthur - are troubled, very human and offer a depth of complexity in their characterisation, making their development throughout the story quite riveting. Merlyn is another fantastic character, who is actually living through time backwards, so he gets younger as the tale progresses. The main negative to this sweeping epic is that it is a little heavy-going; it’s long (approximately 800 pages) and although the language is lovely and often poetic, in places it is quite old-fashioned and verbose, making for a difficult read at times.
The Once and Future King is one of the iconic fantasy novels, and rightly so. The numerous stories contained within its pages are full of imagination, peril and enchantment with several very human characters and numerous tidbits of wisdom. Even though The Once and Future King is not an easy book to digest, finishing this essential fantasy epic is very rewarding and well worth the effort.