It is not often that I make this claim, but this must be one of the best novels ever written. I don't ever recall this book being translated in Croatian when I was growing up and it has been a long time since it was originally published (starting in 1938) so it has been kind of forgotten now, except for cult fanatics who recommend it and swear on it - as it happened, I had this novel simultaneously recommended to me from different sides until I just couldn't ignore it anymore and decided to check what all the fuss was all about.
It is actually four books, published originally in 1938, 1939, 1940 and finally collected under the title "The Once and Future King" in 1958. It chronicles saga about rise and fall of King Arthur and his dream about different world where "right conquers the might". We are all familiar with Arthurian legend and Knights of the Round Table but this writer (Terence Hanbury White) gives the story such a beautiful, unexpected twist that I honestly think no one can ever forget it and once you read his version, everything else simply pales. This guy was a genius. Perhaps a mad genius, but genius nevertheless. He writes with a passionate imagination, than digresses to maddening degree and before you know it, goes on about medieval clothes, weapons, food, fashion and whatever pops in his head - than several pages later suddenly remembers where he started and goes back. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that wonderful, absent-minded character of wizard Merlyn was based on author himself. Another thing is, T.H.White goes decidedly against accepted versions and creates his own Arhurian saga, where characters are original and definitely his own (Sir Lancelot, for example is not a beautiful knight but actually ugly man) - try to forget them, once you have read this.
The most famous of four parts is of course, "The Sword in the Stone" (1938) and deservedly so. It is a spiritual ancestor of Harry Potter with a poor, unloved boy being cared for by kind and eccentric magician (again, wonderful Merlyn with his shy owl) and it was later made even more world famous in Disney version. What Disney could never repeat was T.H.White's way with the story and how everything works out so magically - just like with "Hobbit", I was instantly hypnotized on a first page and just couldn't let go, until the end when my eyes teared up because the novel ended, I seriously got a lump in my throat and was very emotional at this point (although everything ended on a happy note). Honestly, I loved this first part so much that I think that I continued with other three parts because of this one.
"The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1939) suddenly takes a far more serious turn. From now on is all about grown-up Arthur and what dilemmas, doubts and philosophies crossed his mind as he decided to change the world and to create Camelot, with his brave knights who would live by strict rules of honesty and truth. It is a natural sequel but at the same time feels like a completely different novel, because suddenly here we are faced with far more serious approach and some unexpectedly adult food for thoughts.
Just like in Arthurian legends, King Arthur slowly fades in the background and instead of being the main character, he now now gives spotlight to Sir Lancelot who is the main character in "The Ill-Made Knight"(1940) that is all about dangers rising from the Northern clan of Orkney aristocrats (kind of Scottish mafia, who constantly revenge each other and are determined to destroy peaceful Camelot. One of the ways to do so is to break Camelot in two by publicly shaming secret lovers (Lancelot and Guinevere) and demanding them to be punished. White very cleverly uses characters to address much bigger issues, story is so gripping and dark now that you can't believe this is the same book.
"The Candle in the Wind" (1958) is a culmination (or final destruction) of everything King Arthur and Camelot stands for. Since we all know the story, T.H.White re-tells it from different and unexpected perspectives, kind of second-hand witnesses or letters written about certain happenings. There is nothing lighthearted or funny here, this is all very serious and often philosophical. White might have been writing about King Arthur but he is actually writing about state of the world, human never ending attempts to rise above barbarity, serious issues. Revenge, peace, loyalty, kindness, truth and such. There is a very beautiful and unforgettable scene where elderly King Arthur know he and all the knights will be killed next day in a battle and he gently orders a young page boy to escape and remember Camelot so the idea of truth and honesty would not be forgotten. The whole book is so perfect that it just makes me weep.
I can hardly remember when was the last time a book moved me so much.
T.H.White writing style is maddening because he goes off in unexpected directions so often that I wanted to scream "not again!" but you kind of get used to it because he creates such a unforgettable, lovable characters like King Pellinore (and his beast). I absolutely love this book and can't believe that it took me 46 years to discover it. I guess it could be read from many different perspectives - it is so multi-layered that you will notice different things at various stages of your life.
“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”